What to do about Nuclear Waste?

A new report on the topic doesn’t break much new ground

Nuclear power has many friends and many foes but there’s one thing that everyone can agree on. The United States has to find a permanent place to store spent fuel and radioactive waste.

This is certainly not a new problem. The Nuclear Waste Policy Act was passed in 1982 with the goal of finding a solution. President Barack Obama’s decision to put the kibosh on plans to construct a permanent radioactive waste storage facility in Yucca Mountain, Nev., however, means that the U.S. Department of Energy isn’t much closer to finding a permanent home for the nation’s nuclear waste that it was decades ago. 

That seemed to be the gist of Cort Richardson’s presentation to Connecticut's Nuclear Energy Advisory Council at Wednesday night’s meeting in Waterford. As director of the Northeastern High Level Radioactive Waste Transportation Project, which is sponsored by the Council of State Governments and funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, Richardson has been following the issue closely.

Wednesday night, Richardson presented the Council with an overview of a recently completed draft report released by the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future. The 15-member Commission is a virtual who’s who of scientists and politicians who were appointed by President Barack Obama in February 2010 to study the issue.

Even so, Richardson wasn’t kidding when he said that most of the people at the Waterford meeting could probably have come up with the same recommendations, and in less time. “Nothing new was brought up,” said Richardson. “We know all this.”

The report, however, did highlight a number of reasons that explain the lack of progress on the issue so far and offered a few solutions. For instance, the commission proposes to create a new agency with its own funding to oversee radioactive waste. Currently the issue is handled by the Department of Energy but that makes it subject to the whims of Congress, which has a history of defunding the project.

Although $14 billion was spent developing the Yucca Mountain site, the good news is there’s still $24 billion in the fund for nuclear waste management program. The Department of Energy predicts that, as this money comes from Nuclear power plant ratepayers funding levels should be adequate going forward, but only if Congress can keep its hands off the money.

As it stands now, the money that funds the nuclear waste program is rolled into the general fund and Congress doles it out to the Department of Energy “in dribs and drabs,” said Richardson. Creating a separate, quasi-public agency to handle nuclear waste, the commission says, would ensure the funds are being used for their intended purpose.

The commission also recommends adopting a new consent-based approach to siting future nuclear waste sites, with a view to creating more temporary storage sites to allow nuclear plants to relocate their spent fuel off-site. The report notes that the current law would have to be changed to allow fuel to be stored for longer. Even so, that’s still only an interim solution. “Any state is going to want assurances it’s not permanent,” said Richardson.  

As it stands now, however spent fuel is already being stored in many states for longer than originally intended at the nuclear power plants that generated it. At the Millstone power plant in Waterford, for instance, spent fuel is stored on site in steel-lined, water-filled spent fuel pools located in contained buildings at each of the three units including Unit 1, which is being decommissioned. 

In 1986, Unit 2’s spent fuel pool capacity was increased from 667 spent fuel assemblies to 1,346 spent fuel assemblies. Currently, the spent fuel pool at Unit 2 contains just over 900 assemblies, which amounts to about 300 metric tons of radioactive material.

When Unit 3 started operating in 1986, it was originally licensed to store 756 spent fuel assemblies in the spent fuel pool, which is the largest on the site. In 2000, its capacity was increased to allow the plant to store 1,779 spent fuel assemblies.

Currently, it holds about 1,040 spent fuel assemblies, which amount to about 449 metric tons of waste. Dominion estimates there is enough room in the pool to hold all the spent fuel produced by Unit 3 until about 2025.

The fuel cools in the pools over time until it can be safely transferred into lead-lined concrete storage casks on site but obviously, there’s a need to find a permanent place to store radioactive waste.

The Connecticut Yankee nuclear power plant at Haddam Neck was finally decommissioned in 2007. Today, spent fuel is stored in 40 steel-lined concrete casks on a 100 by 200-foot, three-foot-thick concrete pad less than a mile from the site of the former plant, but it can’t stay there forever.

As the report notes, Japan’s Fukushima Daichii nuclear power plant disaster has brought a new sense of urgency to the issue of safe storage of radioactive waste. But though there’s been a lot more talk about the topic, it remains to be seen whether anything in this latest report will translate into action.

“I think we’re lost for a year or two because of the [presidential] election,” said Richardson. As council member John Markowicz remarked, this latest report is likely “to land on somebody’s desk and stay there.”

cliff August 25, 2011 at 06:22 PM
The- so called- blue ribbon commission aka Obama care had its martching orders before they even conviened. I, or very few other people really expected this- group grope to come up with anything. they had two mandated agenda items. 1. Do nothing about Yucca mtn and 2) incur more delay. That is the current name of the game for politicians, especially those who have but 8 years. May all presidents-past and future, live within 50 miles of a nuclear power plantwhy not? they fear no danger or problems with all the tonnes of highly toxic spent fuel rods that they are allowing to just keep piling up at 104 sites while they encourage and provide funding and insurance guarantees. The entire matter of effective waste handling by the federal government is simply-repulsive..
BMused September 06, 2011 at 07:25 PM
Just a clarification on the assumption stating that there is $24 billion to use if and when a disposal plan is agreed to and licensed by the NRC. Yes, there are reports from the Department of Energy that there is a balance in the Nuclear Waste Fund of around that amount-- which should grow about another $2 billion this year as the government collects $770 million in fees while Congress appropriates zero for disposal. The problem is that Congress is "borrowing" that revenue and the $24 billion amounts to an "obligation" to return the money when the disposal program can actually use it, Some skeptics are uneasy about whether that day will come. Just an FYI for cliff on his comment and for everyone else: there are 104 active reactors but 72 sites where the waste from those reactors and a dozen more that have been decommissioned are stored. Plus 5 DOE sites = 77 sites total.


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