New NRC Report on Nuclear Waste Shipments Fails to Address Public Concerns

September 14, 2000

New NRC Report on Nuclear Waste Shipments Fails to Address Public Concerns

Statement of Lisa Gue, Policy Analyst with Public Citizen’s Critical Mass Energy and Environment Program

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission must withdraw its report, “Re-examination of Spent Fuel Shipments Risk Estimates” (NUREG/CR-6672), or reissue it as a draft for public comment, said Public Citizen at an NRC workshop today in Rockville, MD. This report was finalized without prior public input and does not adequately address the public s legitimate safety concerns about the transportation of nuclear waste.

The draft summary, “A Summary Paper for Public Meeting,” could be used to rationalize the large-scale transport of high-level radioactive waste from commercial nuclear reactors and DOE weapons facilities to a proposed storage site in Yucca Mountain, Nev.

The draft summary glosses over the public s safety concerns. The NRC must acknowledge that transporting high-level nuclear waste to the Yucca Mountain, Nev. is inherently dangerous because of the risk of accidents along transportation routes. Understating this danger might result in less careful treatment of nuclear waste shipments, which in turn could actually increase the risk.

Yucca Mountain is the only site currently under consideration to serve as a permanent geologic repository for high-level radioactive waste. The DOE is studying the mountain to determine whether it is suitable for permanent storage for 77,000 metric tons of high-level nuclear waste. If the Yucca Mountain site is approved, radioactive waste could be shipped through 43 states during a period of at least 24 years. This transportation scheme is scheduled to begin as early as 2010.

Meanwhile, a proposal by Private Fuel Storage(PFS) , a consortium of private utilities, would initiate high-level waste shipments to an interim storage facility in Utah beginning in 2003.

The NRC report does not accurately characterize risk probability or consequences for shipments of high-level waste to Yucca Mountain or the PFS facility, because it does not consider specific transport routes, but only generic samples of potential routes and route conditions.

The NRC report concludes that the risk involved in transporting high-level nuclear waste is lower than estimated in previous reports. The NRC claims this as an indication that radioactive waste shipments are becoming safer. However, it is unclear whether this represents an actual reduction in risk or whether the changing numbers simply reflect the different methodologies used in previous studies. Furthermore, risk estimates based on past shipping records could be subject to a high level of uncertainty due to extrapolating the experience of a small number of previous shipments to a future scenario where shipments to Yucca Mountain would be routine and frequent.

Today’s meeting also considered a paper detailing Sandia National Laboratories recommendations for a “Spent Nuclear Fuel Transportation Package Performance Study.” This study would update the 1987 report known as the Modal Study. It is unacceptable that Sandia’s scoping paper fails to recommend full-scale physical testing of nuclear waste transportation casks. Public Citizen continues to insist on comprehensive physical testing of the casks used for proposed transportation schemes as the only way to confirm the validity of computer models.

The public cannot have confidence in a package performance study that does not consider specific transportation routes and conditions in its analysis of probabilities and consequences. The NRC must acknowledge the prescriptive role that this study would play in licensing nuclear waste transportation and must demand tests that reflect the precise scope and conditions of the proposals under consideration.