Very Long Term Concerns

What I'm wondering is, how good will the industry's safety record be in 2300?

Congress' passage of the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 made U.S. commercial nuclear power possible. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission was created in 1975, six years after the oldest nuclear power plant still operating in this country, Oyster Creek, received its operating license, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute (www.nei.org).

NEI shared 2010 safety data from our nuclear energy industry on April 21. For the 12th consecutive year, more than 90 percent of three important backup safety systems at every reactor met their "near-100 percent availability goals." NEI said U.S. nuclear plants' accident rate in 2010 was 0.09 per 200,000 man-hours, the lowest level in a decade and below the 2010 goal of 0.2.

What I'm wondering is, how good will the industry's safety record be in 2300? The question arose not because of the Fukushima Daiichi crisis, but because of an International Atomic Energy Agency technical meeting April 28-29 about very long term storage (VLTS) of spent nuclear fuel. IAEA says lack of resolution about the final management of used nuclear fuel means VLTS is likely to be needed in most IAEA member states for as long as 300 years, so states need to gain a better understanding of the issues associated with it. It asked representatives attending the meeting to complete a questionnaire that asked, among other things:

  • What materials degradation issues are of greatest concern for VLTS and what are the associated R&D needs?
  • In what ways might a facility planned for 300 years storage be designed and/or operated differently than existing facilities?
  • Could ageing management plans be relied upon to ensure retrievability and compliance with transportation requirements following VLTS (100 to 300 years)? If not, please explain the issues and propose solutions.
  • Most countries license casks for storage and transportation. What issues may arise if the cask is not used for transportation until after 100 years or more of storage? If requalification is required, will qualification requirements change and how will compliance be demonstrated?

The questionnaire asked whether the attendees believe IAEA should provide VLTS regulatory guidance similar to its TS-R-1, Requirements for the Safe Transport of Radioactive Material. It did not ask whether attendees expect highways or rail transport to still be in use 300 years from now.

Fortunately, IAEA is writing a technical document to help member states decide on the need for VLTS. Stay tuned.

This article originally appeared in the August 2011 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

About the Author

Jerry Laws is Editor of Occupational Health & Safety magazine, which is owned by 1105 Media Inc.

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