WASHINGTON — As more nuclear reactors across the country are closed, the problem of what to do with their waste is becoming more urgent, government officials and private experts said at a conference here this week.
To address the problem, a bipartisan group of four senators introduced a bill on Thursday that would provide for temporary, centralized storage, even as House leaders remained focused on trying to revive plans for the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository that the Obama administration has declared dead.
Nuclear waste is accumulating in steel and concrete storage casks at reactor sites around the country. But the casks — sealed boxes of many tons — cannot be sent to any repository because they are not compatible, said Jeff Williams, director of the Energy Department’s Nuclear Fuel Storage and Transportation Planning Project.
In addition, a growing number of the sites no longer have an operating reactor or the associated fuel-handling equipment, so they have no way to move the highly radioactive fuel to another storage package.
Experts say the amount of orphaned nuclear waste is mounting. Nuclear utilities have announced the retirement of an additional four reactors so far this year, which leaves three more sites without an operating reactor. Before that development, the Energy Department counted nine such sites, with about 2,800 tons of fuel in 248 casks and was hoping to establish a pilot-scale interim storage plant for that fuel.
A commission investigating storage alternatives recommended last year that the government find a willing host, which it called a “consent-based process.” The recommendation is in contrast to Congress’s choice of Yucca in 1987, over the objections of the host state, Nevada.
But what exactly consent-based means is not clear. Mark Lombard, the director of spent fuel storage and transportation at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which would have to license a permanent repository or an interim storage site, said, “We’re pretty good at solving technical issues. It’s the consent-based process that’s a little bit squishy.”
Some of the younger fuel shows signs of degrading with age. The reason is that in the 1990s, many of the reactors made a transition to fuel assemblies with a rich enough mix of uranium to run for up to six years, instead of the three years that had been standard. The new fuel, called “high burn-up fuel,” spent longer in the harsh environment of a reactor, and now shows signs of corrosion and cracking.
Read more at Quarrels Continue Over Repository for Nuclear Waste