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A Semi-new Plan To Store Nuclear Waste
Welcome news arrived last summer for 25 electric distribution co-ops comprising the core membership of Dairyland Power Cooperative. Over the years they had incurred major expenses because of a breach of contract by the federal government, and now they would share in court-ordered damages of more than $37 million.
The breach stems from the government’s ongoing failure to provide a permanent repository for spent nuclear fuel stored at power plants nationwide. Gradually abandoned in recent years, development of such a facility is required by the Nuclear Waste Policy Act (NWPA) of 1982. Under that law, the facility was to be operational in January 1998.
But the massive tunnels bored into Yucca Mountain for that purpose hold nothing hotter than the natural background radiation emitted by some of the rocks inside and the sun beating down on the surrounding Nevada desert. As things now stand, that’s all they’ll ever hold.
Renaissance on the Back Burner
It’s been 35 years since anyone brought a new nuclear power plant on line in the United States and roughly a decade since early talk, mainly within the power-generation industry, about a coming “nuclear renaissance.” By 2007, the utility-sponsored Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) opined that the nation’s 100,000 megawatts of nuclear generation capacity would expand nearly one-fourth by 2020 and reach 164,000 megawatts 10 years later.
One big reason EPRI’s growth projections haven’t materialized is that 31 years after Congress supposedly mandated a solution, the United States has not credibly confronted the problem of permanently storing spent nuclear fuel.
In retrospect, failure to open a repository on Congress’ 16-year timeline—or in the 15 years since the deadline—perhaps shouldn’t surprise anyone. Yucca Mountain is in the home state of the Senate majority leader, who vowed to kill the project. Long before that it was entangled in litigation and remains so today, even after being cut back year by year and defunded in 2010.
Now, federal planners propose to walk away from their partially completed facility and try again somewhere else.
Plan B: Multiple Sites
It’s the Department of Energy’s (DOE) responsibility to develop a storage facility, and in January departing Secretary Steven Chu endorsed a plan incorporating recommendations from a blue ribbon panel he convened in 2010. It differs from the Yucca Mountain project in requiring two additional sites for temporary waste storage during the time needed to identify and build a permanent geologic repository. If the last part sounds familiar, it’s because that is what Yucca Mountain was supposed to be.
Another part may also sound familiar. On-site storage at power plants has always been problematic because a plant that exhausts its available space can’t go on producing spent fuel. It would have to shut down. Foreseeing trouble by the early 1990s—Yucca Mountain wasn’t designated as the repository site until 2002—several nuclear utilities formed a consortium to find places where the local populace would willingly host temporary storage while everyone waited for the government to meet its obligations. One member of the consortium was Dairyland Power, which ceased nuclear operations in 1987 but had, and still has, spent fuel in storage.
In 1996 the Skull Valley Band of Goshute Indians offered the PFS (Private Fuel Storage) consortium the use of some of its land in Utah. Federal regulatory review began the following year. State officials litigated against PFS and lost repeatedly. In 2005, U.S. Senator Orrin Hatch (R–UT) intervened and within six months claimed to have persuaded most PFS partners to withdraw. Nevertheless, on February 21, 2006, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission granted PFS a license to develop and operate its facility.
Things went no further because later in 2006 the Bureau of Land Management, an agency of the Department of the Interior, denied PFS a right-of-way permit needed to transport fuel canisters from a main rail line to the storage site.
Old Trick, New Dog
In January, the DOE said it “currently plans to implement a program over the next 10 years” that would have a “pilot interim storage facility” operating by 2021, would site and license a larger interim facility by 2025, and make a geologic repository available by 2048.
There are many similarities to what’s been tried before, but also a potentially crucial difference. The new DOE plan cites a “fundamental flaw” in that the Yucca Mountain site was mandated by Congress, whereas the new plan relies on “encouraging communities to volunteer to be considered to host a nuclear waste management facility.”
If that sounds like a tough sell, Dairyland’s experience with PFS demonstrated that attracting volunteers is not—at least was not—an impossible dream. John Parkyn, now retired, was Dairyland’s manager for nuclear and special projects and CEO of Private Fuel Storage. Six years ago Parkyn told Wisconsin Energy Cooperative News PFS considered more than 30 sites and “We didn’t even look at any sites that weren’t voluntarily offered.”
Another difference from the Yucca project is that the DOE proposes creating an entirely new entity to oversee the program. The new waste management and disposal organization—MDO in DOE parlance—is not described in detail but it’s suggested that a congressionally chartered federal corporation or new independent government agency be created.
Yet another difference is the proposed treatment of program funds. Under the 1982 law, utility ratepayers are billed an extra one-tenth of 1 cent per kilowatt-hour for energy from nuclear plants. This goes to a Nuclear Waste Fund (NWF) currently holding about $28 billion. The trouble is, like many government accounts, NWF money winds up being diverted to uses other than the advertised purpose or, as in the recent defunding of Yucca Mountain, withheld from the designated use.
The DOE’s January report calls for multiple reforms in handling NWF funds, including the most obvious one: “limiting its use to specific capital expenditures.”
This Time for Sure?
Stakeholder groups greeted the DOE plan positively but with a certain reserve. The National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NARUC), Nuclear Energy Institute, and Nuclear Waste Strategy Coalition (formed mainly to protect money paid into the NWF) jointly announced they “look forward to fully analyzing DOE’s proposed strategy,” and noted, “Many of these concepts have long been supported by our members and other experts.”
Meanwhile, DOE withdrew its license application for Yucca Mountain three years ago, but a lawsuit by the states of Washington and South Carolina, NARUC, and Nye County, Nevada—where Yucca Mountain is located— seeks to force completion of the regulatory review.
The plaintiffs argue that the DOE’s withdrawal represents yet another violation of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act.—Dave Hoopman, director of regulatory affairs, Electric Division, Cooperative Network