The license renewal proceeding for the nuclear power plant in Limerick was suspended this week over concerns about the growing amount of spent nuclear fuel accumulating at the site.
The Atomic Safety and Licensing Board of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission decided on Aug. 8 to suspend the license renewal process for the Exelon-owned plant, formally known as the Limerick Generating Station, as well as for a number of other nuclear plants across the country.
Exelon was in the process of requesting a 20-year license extension that would extend the current license for Unit 1 to Oct. 26, 2044 and Unit 2 to June 22, 2049.
Following by the Natural Resource Defense Council and other environmental groups, the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board took the matter under consideration.
In its filing, the NRDC said that the NRC should not grant license renewals until a storage solution is in place.
The Atomic Safety and Licensing Board agreed and held that Limerick's final license approval will not proceed until legal proceedings are settled.
The issue at stake is the storage of spent fuel rods, which can remain dangerously radioactive for hundreds of thousands of years after they are no longer useful for power generation. Currently, spent fuel rods are stored onsite at nuclear plants in either large pools of water, called spent fuel pools, or dry cask storage.
Spent fuel pools, which contain radiation by keeping the fuel rods under at least 20 feet of water, must constantly circulate water through the spent fuel to carry heat away from it. If that circulation stops, the spent fuel will eventually heat and boil away the water, allowing the radiation to be released into the surrounding environment.
Dry cask storage seals older, cooler spent fuel in multilayered containers made of concrete, steel, and other materials. These "casks" are typically stored above ground.
The NRC has updated its guidelines for the storage of nuclear waste several times since plans for a national nuclear waste storage facility beneath Yucca Mountain in the remote Nevada desert were cancelled in 2009. The New York Times reported that a panel of judges in the District of Columbia Circuit of the United States Court of Appeals was considering whether to order the Yucca Mountain project to resume.
In June, the District of Columbia Circuit of the United States Court of Appeals vacated and remanded a decision by the NRC to once again update its Waste Confidence Decision. The updated description stated that it was safe to store spent fuel rods for 60 years after the shutdown of a nuclear facility.
Originally, the NRC said spent fuel could be stored for thirty years past the life of the plant.
The Limerick plant began using dry cask storage in 2008. Exelon says the plant has the capacity to store its spent fuel beyond the duration of its current operating licenses and that its storage capacity can be expanded if the licenses are extended.
Illinois Congressman John Shimkus said on the House floor last month that there are more than 1,100 metric tons of spent fuel at Limerick.