By Leonard Hyman & William Tilles
Nuclear power experts have proposed taking the disposal and storage of nuclear wastes out of the hands of the Federal government and placing it with a new corporate entity.
The federal government has for decades received in essence nuclear “tipping fees” amounting billions of dollars from nuclear power generators but still has no waste storage facility in place.
Technically the government has several high level nuclear waste disposal sites: Hanford (WA) with its recently well publicized difficulties; the relatively new salt cavern facility in Carlsbad, New Mexico which in 2014 experienced a fire caused in part by kitty litter (yes, that kitty litter); and the planned but dormant site for commercial nuclear spent fuel at Yucca Mountain (NV).
In recent weeks, Energy Secretary Perry and other administration officials have discussed the need to push on with the development of the Yucca Mountain site as the nation’s principal repository for commercial nuclear waste.
As an aside we should point out that in its initial assessment of the Yucca Mountain site, the Depart-ment of Energy (DOE) determined a 70,000-metric ton capacity for the proposed site. There already exists about 70-80,000 tons of spent fuel on sites around the U.S.–not counting wastes accruing due to federal enrichment efforts related to defense–a modest portion of which were designated for burial at Yucca Mountain.
If actually completed, Yucca Mountain could be filled to capacity with accumulated nuclear waste with no room for nuclear waste currently being generated. The DOE published a completion cost estimate for this project of $97 billion.
The present administration in Washington has fairly consistently expressed a preference for public-private partnerships. Perhaps this is an idea whose time has come.
How did the U.S. manage to promote nuclear power, put 99 nuclear power stations (at present) into service yet have no place to permanently store the nuclear waste?
The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 put the Federal government in charge of nuclear waste storage. U.S. utilities, the owners of these nuclear generating stations agreed to pay a per kilowatt-hour fee to the federal government in return for which the government would take responsibility for and dispose of nuclear waste, particularly high level nuclear waste generated in the reactor’s core such as the fuel rods.
The funds presently in federal coffers exceed $25 billion. Spent nuclear fuel remains at nuclear gener-ating sites across the nation (largely above ground in so called dry cask storage and in storage pools inside the reactor buildings.)
For a while after 9/11, there was some fear of a terrorist hijacking a plane and aiming it at a nuclear site with all that above ground waste, but anti-terror concerns seem to have subsided, or been redirected.
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The federal government’s unsuccessful nuclear waste disposal efforts reflect the political problem of NIMBYism writ large. As a result, our present policy by default is for spent fuel to remain indefinitely on multiple, separate sites around country.
The Yucca Flats site at present is dormant. One exploratory tunnel has been dug, presumably the ver-tical mine shaft and perhaps part of a lateral. Nuclear waste repositories have the same basic under-ground structure as a mine: vertical shaft with various laterals plus an elaborate ventilation system to ensure irradiated air and other gases remain safely contained. In addition, the project would require construction of a new rail line to bring spent fuel to the site. Our best guess is this project is at least ten years from accepting its first load of nuclear waste–assuming near immediate restart.
Now, even if the budget- conscious Trump administration wanted to act, it cannot spend the monies already collected without running afoul of the Budget Control Act of 2011 which would count the ex-penditure as an addition to the deficit
The Obama administration organized a Blue Ribbon commission to study the nuclear waste storage impasse. The panel concluded that the government should charter a corporation for the sole purpose of taking responsibility for nuclear waste disposal and storage. Presumably a new entity could cut through so called “red tape”, operate with a budget beyond Congressional oversight which might re-strict spending and simply get the job done with private sector efficiency. Thus far nothing has hap-pened.
Late in June, geologists Allison Macfarlane (formerly head of the NRC) and Rod Ewing (chair of the Nu-clear Waste Technical Review Board) published a proposal to revisit the Blue Ribbon panel’s findings. They proposed a utility-owned, non-profit corporation to take on the nuclear waste project, citing similar ventures in Canada, Finland, Switzerland and Sweden.
They argue that a new corporate entity would not have to deal with the issues that have dogged the federal government’s effort. That key decisions would be made on the basis of technical, not political, requirements. This new entity would supposedly operate under federal regulatory supervision and would function somewhat like a regulated public utility. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), the DOE and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) would share regulatory oversight.
Perhaps this proposal, designed to limit nuclear waste NIMBYism, can launch a much-needed infra-structure project. It might also provide modest encouragement for the nuclear power industry — both supposed goals of the Trump administration.
But this will not eliminate the federal government’s role with respect to nuclear waste. No privately chartered agency can be expected have the wherewithal to take on liabilities of this magnitude–or guarantee safety in increments of geologic time. The EPA’s regulations in this regard speak in terms of 10,000 years. Some of the waste, however, will remain radioactive for 100,000 years and not even governments last that long. The Macfarlane-Ewing proposals, if enacted, might go a long way in deal-ing with the current state of nuclear storage but do they go far enough to diffuse the energies of anti-nuclear activists? Probably not.
by Leonard Hyman and Bill Tilles for Oilprice.com