Nuclear Regulatory Commission:

NRC Needs to Do More to Ensure that Power Plants Are Effectively Controlling Spent Nuclear Fuel

GAO-05-339: Published: Apr 8, 2005. Publicly Released: Apr 12, 2005.

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Spent nuclear fuel--the used fuel periodically removed from reactors in nuclear power plants--is too inefficient to power a nuclear reaction, but is intensely radioactive and continues to generate heat for thousands of years. Potential health and safety implications make the control of spent nuclear fuel of great importance. The discovery, in 2004, that spent fuel rods were missing at the Vermont Yankee plant in Vermont generated public concern and questions about the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's (NRC) regulation and oversight of this material. GAO reviewed (1) plants' performance in controlling and accounting for their spent nuclear fuel, (2) the effectiveness of NRC's regulations and oversight of the plants' performance, and (3) NRC's actions to respond to plants' problems controlling their spent fuel.

Nuclear power plants' performance in controlling and accounting for their spent fuel has been uneven. Most recently, three plants--Vermont Yankee and Humboldt Bay (California) in 2004 and Millstone (Connecticut) in 2000--have reported missing spent fuel. Earlier, several other plants also had missing or unaccounted for spent fuel rods or rod fragments. NRC regulations require plants to maintain accurate records of their spent nuclear fuel and to conduct a physical inventory of the material at least once a year. The regulations, however, do not specify how physical inventories are to be done. As a result, plants differ in the regulations' implementation. For example, physical inventories at plants varied from a comprehensive verification of the spent fuel to an office review of the records and paperwork for consistency. Additionally, NRC regulations do not specify how individual fuel rods or segments are to be tracked. As a result, plants employ various methods for storing and accounting for this material. Further, NRC stopped inspecting plants' material control and accounting programs in 1988. According to NRC officials, there was no indication that inspections of these programs were needed until the event at Millstone. NRC is collecting information on plants' spent fuel programs to decide if it needs to revise its regulations and/or oversight. In addition to reviewing specific instances of missing fuel, NRC has had its inspectors collect basic information on all facilities' programs. It has also contracted with the Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee to review NRC's material control and accounting programs for nuclear material, including spent fuel. It further plans to request information from plant sites and visit over a dozen of them for more detailed inspection. These more detailed inspections may not be completed until late 2005, over 5 years after the instance at Millstone that initiated NRC's efforts. However, we believe NRC has already collected considerable information indicating problems or weaknesses in plants' material control and accounting programs for spent fuel.

Status Legend:

More Info
  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To improve the effectiveness of nuclear reactor licensees' material control and accounting programs for spent nuclear fuel, the NRC Commissioners should take action, in a timely manner, on establishing specific requirements for the control and accounting of loose spent fuel rods and rod segments and nuclear reactor licensees' conduct of their physical inventories.

    Agency Affected: Nuclear Regulatory Commission

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: On December 10, 2008, NRC issued new inspection procedure 71130.11, "Material Control and Accounting." NRC has incorporated this procedure and its companion Significant Determination Process into the security reactor oversight process and includes information (1) inspectors collect at all sites under TI 2515/154 and (2) licensees report in response to NRC Bulletin 2005-01.

    Recommendation: To improve the effectiveness of nuclear reactor licensees' material control and accounting programs for spent nuclear fuel, the NRC Commissioners should take action, in a timely manner, on developing and implementing appropriate inspection procedures to verify compliance and assess the effectiveness of licensees' material control and accounting programs for spent fuel.

    Agency Affected: Nuclear Regulatory Commission

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In November 2003, NRC issued Temporary Instruction 2515/154, "Spent Fuel Material Control and Accounting at Nuclear Power Plants." Subsequently, NRC conducted detailed inspections of its material control and accounting programs at 73 nuclear facilities that found violations at 58 of the facilities ranging from Severity Level II to Severity Level IV. In April 2007, NRC incorporated material control and accounting into the security and safeguards baseline inspection program of its Reactor Oversight Process (ROP) for ensuring the safety of nuclear power facilities. NRC staff led an American National Standards Institute (ANSI) committee to revise standard N15.8, "Nuclear Material Control Systems for Nuclear Power Plants." The scope of the standard is to establish guidelines for the control and accounting of special nuclear material at nuclear power plants. ANSI approved the new standard in February 2009. NRC is reviewing the standard for endorsement through revision of Regulatory Guide 5.29, "Nuclear Material Control Systems for Nuclear Power Plants," and Regulatory Guide 5.49, "Internal Transfers of Special Nuclear Material."

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