March 6, 2003
The NRC Must Strengthen Its Testing Program for
Nuclear Waste Transportation Casks
Statement of Joan Claybrook, Public Citizen President,
on Proposed Plan to Test Nuclear Waste Transport Containers
As currently proposed, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s (NRC) plan for testing nuclear waste transportation containers is too little, too late. Limited, one-time tests are planned to study how some – but not all – casks respond to accident conditions (the “Package Performance Study”). These casks may eventually be used to ship nuclear waste to Yucca Mountain in Nevada and a Utah facility owned by the Private Fuel Storage consortium.
Currently, the agency does not conduct physical tests of the casks it licenses. The new proposal makes some progress but is not enough. The agency suggests subjecting just two cask designs to full-scale physical tests, rather than making this a requirement for every cask design. Also, the proposed study ignores important vulnerabilities. For example, puncture, crushing force, submersion and explosive tests are not planned.
Moreover, this study is not scheduled to be completed until 2005. But the NRC is expected to rule this spring on a license application for the Private Fuel Storage facility at Skull Valley, Utah, which would initiate thousands of cross-country nuclear shipments. Is the NRC serious? The agency really wants to start shipments before testing to ensure the casks are safe?
The proposed Yucca Mountain repository as well as the Private Fuel Storage facility would involve unprecedented high-level radioactive waste shipments crisscrossing the country by train, truck and barge. Public Citizen has grave concerns about the safety of shipping high-level nuclear waste and about inadequate government oversight of the shipping. We applaud the NRC’s recognition of the need for full-scale, physical cask testing. However, as currently proposed, the testing plan falls far short of addressing public safety concerns. NRC licensing regulations should be strengthened to require full-scale physical testing of every cask design. The NRC also should close the loopholes in the test protocol and withhold license approval of nuclear waste transportation projects until the study is complete.