A publication of the American Nuclear Society
In the face of a mounting physical need for civilian nuclear waste solutions, The US Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future on July 29, 2011 issued its draft report to the Secretary of Energy.
The BRC was formed in January 2010 under the auspices of the Department of Energy with the task of reviewing the civilian nuclear fuel cycle, primarily with respect to waste storage and disposal. Its 15 members represent a broad sampling from the worlds of politics (most notably, its co-chairs are former Congressman Lee Hamilton and former National Security Adviser Brent Snowcroft, and among the members are former Senators Pete Domenici and Chuck Hagel), industry and academia. The commission was formed following the withdrawal of funding in 2009 from the proposed long-term civil nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain, Nevada.
Currently, US civilian nuclear waste is stored in water-filled pools at reactor sites (50,000 metric tons of spent fuel currently is stored in this way) or, increasingly, in steel and concrete casks co-located at reactor sites (so-called dry cask storage; 15,000 metric tons of spent fuel is currently stored this way). Of the total, 3,000 metric tons of waste is stranded at nine decommissioned reactor sites, where waste has remained indefinitely with no near-term prospect of relocation. These economically unproductive facilities bring with them considerable security and engineering costs.
The US summarily rejected nuclear waste recycling in the 1970s. That decision stemmed from fears of proliferation risk: Recycling includes the production of plutonium, which could be repurposed to make weapons. The amount of spent nuclear fuel and transuranic waste that has built up since the 1970s is significant.
There are now 104 operating reactors in the US, producing about 20 percent of the nation’s electricity. Thus, adding we are always adding to the volume of spent fuel and waste, which increases every year by as much as 2,400 metric tons annually. Absent allowing civilian nuclear waste recycling to proceed (as has happened for defense-related nuclear materials from decommissioned nuclear warheads), the industry now has only three options for handling its waste:
(1) storage at reactor sites distributed throughout the country, necessitating increased dry cask storage as cooling ponds reach capacity
(2) moving waste into a consolidated interim-term storage facility (or two) for perhaps 100 years, an approach which may be politically elegant but needlessly introduces an expensive middle-layer storage facility between the reactor site and a long-term disposal site, and
(3) putting waste products directly into a long-term waste depository, along the model of Yucca Mountain.
In the face of a mounting physical need for civilian nuclear waste solutions, the BRC has issued seven primary recommendations and numerous secondary observations. The seven recommendations are:
- A new, consent-based approach to siting future nuclear waste management facilities
- A new organization dedicated solely to implementing the waste management program and empowered with the authority and resources to succeed
- Access to the funds nuclear utility ratepayers are providing for the purpose of nuclear waste management
- Prompt efforts to develop one or more geologic disposal facilities
- Prompt efforts to develop one or more consolidated interim storage facilities
- Support for continued US innovation in nuclear energy technology and for workforce development
- Active US leadership in international efforts to address safety, waste management, nonproliferation and security concerns
The various recommendations are discussed below. However, in arriving at these recommendations, the BRC ultimately was hobbled by self-imposed constraints. It did not allow itself to evaluate the merits of specific potential sites (such as Yucca Mountain), nor did it elect to opine on the wisdom of nuclear recycling. While its 192-page report is an informative and detailed examination of the current status of civilian nuclear waste, ultimately its recommendations are a tangled web of the glaringly obvious (calling for sorting out of funding and legislative snafus) and the much less understandable (proposing the creation of costly, risky interim storage solutions and of a completely new oversight body and failing to provide clear guidance on spent fuel recycling).
1. A new, consent-based approach to siting future nuclear waste management facilities
The Nuclear Waste Policy Act as amended in 1987 (NWPA) contemplates the licensing solely and exclusively of Yucca Mountain as a civilian repository. For better or worse, this policy led to the abandonment of other potential sites as well as contemplation of two (rather than one) civilian waste repositories.
The BRC’s primary recommendation in its draft report is that the NWPA be loosened to allow for “consent-based” siting in alternate locations. This recommendation is unsurprising, given the political reality of strong opposition from Senator Harry Reid (D-NV), which many believe prompted the current administration to acquiesce and order the abrupt shutdown of Yucca Mountain – a site which has already cost the US government an estimated $15 billion in investment. Left unsaid, however, is that unless both political parties display the political will power to either prevent the loss of billions of dollars in sunken costs at Yucca Mountain or to promptly and earnestly pursue an alternate long-term location, the issue of consent-based siting remains moot.
Also urgent to note is that delay itself is not without extraordinary cost. In its report, the BRC noted that the failure to have a long-term repository to accept civilian waste is a breach of US government contractual obligations to utilities. Such breaches have prompted approximately 75 lawsuits by utilities against the government, resulting in almost $1 billion in settlements being paid out to date by the US Treasury – a blank check from the taxpayer to utilities. Such settlements are projected to reach an aggregate of over $16 billion by 2020 (subjectively used as the earliest feasible date by which a long-term disposal program might begin accepting waste) and, failing a functioning disposal program, would increase by $500 million annually thereafter – a state of affairs hardly conducive to federal deficit reduction.
2. A new organization dedicated solely to implementing the waste management program and empowered with the authority and resources to succeed
The BRC has recommended the establishment of a new, independent government-chartered corporation whose sole purpose would be nuclear waste handling and disposal. The BRC argues that the inherent complexity and competing agendas of the various parts of the Department of Energy have clouded its efficacy and that a single-purpose entity devoted entirely to nuclear waste handling and disposal would yield efficiencies across the board, from management focus to funding clarity.
One questions, however, why an additional government bureaucracy, no matter how cleverly cloaked in the trappings of a quasi-private sector entity, would be more cost effective than simply rectifying the shortcomings of the Department of Energy. The BRC’s recommendation calls to mind the creation of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which added another layer of oversight to the already-jumbled organizational chart of the intelligence community. Any new nuclear waste organization would require not only significant political momentum for its creation, but, more importantly, the establishment of institutional mechanisms from scratch (from office buildings to security clearance regimes) in an area of regulation that is inherently intricate and expensive. It also is unclear how such an entity would necessarily be wholly different than many related, already extant programs at the Department of Energy. Perhaps more logical would be an effort to revamp the Department of Energy and enhance its accountability mechanisms, rather than embark on a new, costly, risk-enhanced endeavor to create a wholly separate new entity.
3. Access to the funds nuclear utility ratepayers are providing for the purpose of nuclear wastemanagement
Under the NWPA, utility ratepayers (through a de facto indirect tax) have collectively paid $25 billion to the federal government to fund civilian waste disposal. However, these funds have not been sequestered and applied directly to civilian nuclear waste management. Thanks to Washington political machinations, the monies are instead essentially applied toward the federal budget.
The BRC has recommended that this mechanism by fixed so that the money collected by ratepayers is actually available as a dedicated resource for nuclear waste disposal. Such a proposal, while politically unpalatable in Washington in a cost-constrained fiscal era, would seem both equitable and intuitive.
4. Prompt efforts to develop one or more geologic disposal facilities
The BRC merely noted the need to identify a long-term repository. This point obstinately ignores the massive elephant in the room: Yucca Mountain. When the BRC embarked on its work, it chose to bar itself from evaluating the merits of Yucca Mountain, ignoring a site that had been the central tenet of long-term civilian waste disposal in US nuclear policy for decades. The current Administration’s request to withdraw the licensing application for Yucca Mountain was rejected by the Atomic Safety Licensing Board in 2010, but well over a year later remains pending before the full NRC. The withdrawal request has yet to be conclusively adjudicated by the NRC, amidst heated political rhetoric from both pro- and anti-Yucca Mountain political camps.
Sadly, this point also shows that the BRC, in and of itself, is another symptom of the breakdown that has paralyzed so many US government institutions, as most pointedly displayed in the recent debt crisis. When a “blue ribbon commission” panel is appointed in any context, it more than likely represents merely an opportunity for policy makers to avoid direct and immediate action. No matter what the political perspective, given the basic fact that our nuclear waste is growing every day, there is a crying need for concerted, timely action from Washington. Yet, US lawmakers fundamentally have not agreed on a unified approach, abdicating instead to a non-elected panel with no political power.
5. Prompt efforts to develop one or more consolidated interim storage facilities
In the absence of identifying a long-term repository, the BRC recommended the establishment of one or more “consolidated storage facilities.” These are essentially interim sites which would accept waste from multiple reactors, but would not have the requisite siting or engineering to serve as a long-term repository. US legislation currently prevents this option prior to the introduction of a long-term repository, precisely to avoid creating a “middle” storage site which over time could take on “permanent” aspects.
Any site, irrespective of its title as long- or medium-term, requires extensive engineering and security oversight. As a result, introducing even one putatively interim facility would merely add significant additional costs and dangers – for instance, the time and expense of interim dry cask storage or the consolidation of such casks in interim facilities. Transporting spent fuel directly from a reactor cooling pond to a long-term repository would be a more efficient approach.
6. Support for continued US innovation in nuclear energy technology and for workforcedevelopment
This point encompasses two issues. First, the BRC identified a serious concern: a critical shortfall in a skilled nuclear workforce. However, while identifying that genuine issue, the BRC sidestepped the larger, and more controversial, issue: nuclear fuel recycling. It stated, “The Commission believes it is premature to try to reach consensus on the question of whether the United States should commit, as a matter of policy, to “closing” the nuclear fuel cycle (i.e., commit to recovering and reusing some components of spent fuel) given the large uncertainties that exist about the merits and commercial viability of different fuel cycles and technology options.” With this statement, the BRC avoided commenting on the validity of current reactor technology (which the BRC itself noted was at least 30 years old for current operating reactors) versus many new technologies (both existing and under development) that would allow for spent fuel reprocessing (recycling) and significantly reduce the amount of waste requiring long-term disposal while concurrently providing new fuel for power generation. On the other hand, recycling would increase the amount of plutonium and, commensurately, would increase the need for greater security and the risk of nuclear proliferation and raise fears of nuclear terrorism. However, by choosing to be dogmatically agnostic as to recycling, the BRC essentially ignores a promising area that has been successfully employed in other countries with robust nuclear power sectors, such as France, the U.K., India and Japan.
7. Active US leadership in international efforts to address safety, waste management, nonproliferation and security concerns
Finally, in an area only tangentially related to the critical question of domestic civilian spent fuel disposal, the BRC noted the need for the US to continue participating in international efforts for the safe and efficient disposal of civilian nuclear waste. The BRC noted the potential for exploring “take away arrangements” whereby nations would be able to have waste transported to and disposed of by another nation (such as the US) as a counter-proliferation strategy. However, ironically, any US participation in these arrangements seems short sighted, given that the US has not yet sorted out its own strategy has and still lacks the capacity to house such waste for the long term.
While the BRC’s report accurately depicts the status of civilian nuclear waste storage in the US today, it falls short of offering a cohesive, actionable blueprint that takes advantage of technology advances in a cost efficient manner.