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The Nuclear Hot Potato

As radioactive waste mounts and Yucca Mountain stalls, pressure grows for an interim storage site

June 6, 2005 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 83, Issue 23

Encased in steel and concrete, a dry cask holds 10 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel. With shielding, a storage cask weighs some 120 metric tons, is about 8 to 12 feet in diameter, and stands some 20 feet tall. Spent-fuel rods must remain in reactor-side pools of water for at least five years to lower their thermal heat and radioactivity before they can be loaded into casks for storage.
Encased in steel and concrete, a dry cask holds 10 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel. With shielding, a storage cask weighs some 120 metric tons, is about 8 to 12 feet in diameter, and stands some 20 feet tall. Spent-fuel rods must remain in reactor-side pools of water for at least five years to lower their thermal heat and radioactivity before they can be loaded into casks for storage.

Over the past few weeks, energy companies and Congress have advanced plans to build a centralized interim storage facility for spent fuel from commercial nuclear power plants. Such projects are gaining new urgency as radioactive waste grows--because of industry and government support for life extensions for existing reactors and plans for new ones--while work on a permanent repository remains stuck.

On May 24, a facility to be built in Utah by a private consortium of energy companies inched closer to reality with approval by an independent panel of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The facility would be located on an Indian reservation and is being fought by the state. A final decision must go to NRC, which is expected to back the facility. In the end, a court is likely to decide its fate.

So far, the company, Private Fuel Storage LLC, has won every battle in its eight-year quest for construction. Sue Martin, a PFS spokeswoman, says the company hopes to have the site operating by 2007 or 2008. The facility will be mostly a controlled-access slab of concrete, designed to be operated for 40 years and house 40,000 metric tons of waste, more than half the capacity of the long-delayed Yucca Mountain, Nevada, federal underground nuclear waste repository.

Also on May 24, the House passed legislation that would fund a government-run interim spent-fuel storage facility as part of an appropriations bill for the Department of Energy for next year.

In legislative language accompanying the bill, Rep. David L. Hobson (R-Ohio), chair of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy & Water Development and the bill's author, laid out his frustrations with delays at Yucca Mountain and called for DOE to investigate the legality of a federal interim storage facility. Hobson and other House members want DOE to begin receiving waste at a federal site in 2006. The House members also included provisions to encourage reprocessing of spent fuel to reduce the volume of high-level radioactive waste eventually headed for permanent disposal.

DOE is taking a hard look at Hobson's proposal, Deputy Secretary of Energy Clay Sell says. "We remain committed to Yucca Mountain. We know we have challenges there, but we are still confident that we can get a license from NRC."

But, he adds, even if Yucca Mountain opened in 2010--the putative goal--by that time, enough commercial spent fuel would have been generated at existing reactor sites to exceed the repository's 70,000-metric-ton capacity. "Other things have to be considered," Sell says.

YUCCA MOUNTAIN is in trouble. Early this year, it was learned that science data pertaining to the movement of water through the mountain might have been falsified. The FBI and the Offices of Inspector General for the Energy and Interior Departments are conducting criminal investigations. The incursion of water through the tunnels that would hold the spent fuel has been much debated and is key to whether the waste can be isolated for the hundreds of thousands of years that it will be lethal.

And last year, a federal court ruled that the radiation standard set by the Environmental Protection Agency to protect the public at Yucca Mountain is inadequate and illegal. The standard is fundamental to the repository's design, and the court said EPA erred in basing the standard on a 10,000-year compliance period rather than the time of potential peak exposure, which is likely to occur in 300,000 to 480,000 years.

EPA is expected to repropose the standard late this summer or fall. It is sure to be challenged by Nevada attorneys, who brought the successful litigation that negated the past standard.

In addition, NRC has said that DOE has failed to adequately provide information to the public. That failing, too, could delay the commission's receipt of DOE's license application.

Although the repository has been held up for years, DOE officials remain committed to preparing a construction application by year-end. Considering what they face, meeting that target is doubtful.

NRC officials tell C&EN they are reluctant to estimate how quickly they could process an application to license the facility once they receive it, noting only that "the ball is in DOE's court."

Speaking at a Senate hearing on May 26, NRC Commissioner Edward McGaffigan Jr. called the NRC license review process for Yucca Mountain "the largest administrative proceeding in mankind," and he predicted the application would be in the neighborhood of 4 million pages.

Meanwhile, utilities and nuclear power advocates are pressing hard for nuclear power and claim a "new renaissance" for this source of electricity, mostly because of its ability to generate electricity without CO2 emissions. The Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), a nuclear industry and utility trade association, points to a flood of favorable news articles promoting nuclear power as a solution to global warming and quoting advocates from Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) to Greenpeace founder Patrick Moore to President George W. Bush.

The Administration upped its R&D budget for nuclear energy and is providing funds to kick-start the next generation of nuclear power by paying half the cost of processing applications for new plants.

Eventually, each cask will be placed in a transportation package and loaded onto a single railcar for shipment to a permanent repository or an interim storage site. The site pictured was not identified.
Eventually, each cask will be placed in a transportation package and loaded onto a single railcar for shipment to a permanent repository or an interim storage site. The site pictured was not identified.

ALSO, SEVERAL NRC reforms in the 1990s will speed the regulatory approval process. Utilities can now apply for an early site permit at a specific location and separately seek NRC certification of a new design. Once both these approvals are gained, a company can marry the two and apply for a combined construction and operating license, a simpler application with limited opportunity for public comment.

Utilities have begun the process by applying for three early site permits and gaining design certification for two new reactor designs. More are in the works.

NRC Chairman Nils J. Diaz says he expects five applications for combined construction/operating licenses by 2007 or 2008. Two of them will come from NuStart Energy Development, a coalition of nine energy companies and two reactor manufacturers, which announced its intention to file two construction/operating license applications with NRC by 2008. NuStart has identified six sites, all of which already have operating reactors, and will include reactor designs by Westinghouse and General Electric, two members of the consortium.

Marilyn C. Kray, NuStart president and vice president of Exelon Generation, says NuStart hopes for NRC approval in 2010 and intends to complete construction of a new reactor four years later. She estimates that the costs to prepare the application will run to $520 million--with half to be paid by U.S. taxpayers.

Energy Secretary Samuel W. Bodman goes further. He promised energy executives at NEI's recent meeting that DOE will provide $500 million each in "risk insurance" for construction of the first four nuclear power plants that use new designs at new sites. The $2 billion would help companies recover costs due to legal or regulatory delays.

All this aid is intended to shore up investors and give them the confidence to lay down the billions of dollars needed for this long-term and historically risky investment.

Meanwhile, radioactive waste continues to pile up at the existing 104 reactor sites, and more waste will come. Diaz says NRC has given 20-year extensions to owners of 32 reactors and has 16 extensions pending. He estimates that virtually all operating U.S. reactors will apply to renew their licenses. These power plants are operating at peak efficiency, and currently about 54,000 metric tons of waste is piling up at operating sites, according to NEI figures. Something has to give.

"We are not going to build new plants to create additional waste when it hasn't been determined what is going to happen to the waste generated by current plants," Kray says. "But we see aggressive action going on in waste disposal, and we are not waiting for waste issues to be resolved before addressing other issues." Her views are buttressed by NEI officials who predict that, by 2008 or 2010, the nation will have made significant progress on waste issues.

But Steve Kraft, NEI director of used-fuel management, adds that for new plants to move ahead, the industry has to show that progress is being made. "We don't need an operating waste facility, but we need to be able to look people in the eye--your next-door neighbor, your mother, and everybody else--and explain to them in a believable way that we may not be moving waste yet, but we are going to get there, and here is the progress we are making."

Kraft stresses that Yucca Mountain is the best solution, but adds: "Interim shortage gives us a step. It allows us to move fuel earlier, and we've got to start moving material. We should have started seven years ago."

Hobson's approach in the DOE bill would require DOE to begin receiving commercial spent fuel at one of its facilities next year. In legislative report language, he lays out a scheme in which the federal government would establish one or more interim sites at DOE facilities in Hanford, Wash.; Savannah River, S.C.; or Idaho Falls, or find another federal non-DOE site. The report says locating an interim storage site at Yucca Mountain "made the most sense," but the Nuclear Waste Policy Act prohibits siting it there until the facility receives an operating license.

Hobson makes clear in report language and on the House floor that his first choice is to complete the repository, but he notes that DOE is not likely to open the facility until at least 2012 and says that "actual operations might be delayed until the latter half of the next decade."

He also notes the Yucca Mountain capacity problem. Although this could be fixed by changing the law that set the repository size, Hobson seeks to encourage DOE to develop fuel reprocessing and reuse the spent fuel, thereby reducing the waste headed to the repository.

The bill appropriates $20 million to purchase transportation casks for the spent fuel and to begin what the bill calls "early acceptance" of commercial waste by 2006.

The bill easily cleared the House floor on a 416 to 13 vote. But the debate illuminated several problems with gaining acceptance of interim storage and reprocessing.

HOUSE MEMBERS from Washington, Idaho, and South Carolina strongly opposed provisions that would bring commercial waste into their states. They cited other laws prohibiting such actions. They stressed repeatedly that the provisions were part of report language without the force of law.

Several members warned that interim storage is likely to become permanent storage as Yucca Mountain "recedes into the future." Rep. John M. Spratt Jr. (D-S.C.) added, "We have served notice that we are ready to do battle if someone wants to set up interim storage in South Carolina."

Spratt and others also warned that fuel reprocessing generates plutonium and voiced fears that it would encourage proliferation of nuclear materials. Others noted the high costs of reprocessing, and although usable fuel can be recovered through reprocessing, the waste generated will still require disposal in a permanent high-level waste repository.

The day after the bill passed the House, Diaz and McGaffigan told senators at a hearing that it was simply uneconomical to reprocess spent fuel in light of the cheap price of U.S. uranium and the high costs and complications in reprocessing, as well as the proliferation and security concerns.

The Senate will take up its appropriation soon, and although the comparable appropriation committee is chaired by nuclear advocate Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.), his staff says the senator has not made clear his views on Hobson's approach.

But is government support worth a half-dozen new nuclear plants with the potential to reduce global warming? DOE's Sell says yes.

"We are interested in getting new designs certified, and we are really interested in proving out the new regulatory process." Sell blames much of the past cost overruns for the industry on regulatory failures, which DOE hopes to amend. Industry hopes the activities of the next decade will usher in an explosion of new power plants to replace older reactors and expand U.S. reliance on nuclear energy.

Others disagree. Worldwide energy needs and global warming cry out for fast action, say environmental groups, but nuclear power is not the solution they promote.


Radioactive waste disposal is just one of many fundamental problems facing nuclear power, says James MacKenzie, a physicist and senior fellow with the World Resources Institute. He points to the uncertainty of economics and risks and complications inherent in using such a complex and expensive technology. Instead, he urges quick action through greater energy efficiency and much more use of renewable and noncarbon energy sources.

MacKenzie worries that nuclear power requires continuous government subsidies, including liability insurance. Even then he doubts that Wall Street will risk the large sums needed for nuclear power plants.

He warns that, historically, new energy technologies have taken 60 years to evolve. "This has been the record for wood to coal, coal to oil, and oil to gas. For nuclear energy, the transition was interrupted by a series of safety problems and a rush to build ever-larger but untested reactors. Today, the world doesn't have this kind of time."


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