By David Klaus
I was surprised this summer to see a letter to the editor about nuclear waste in The Vermont Standard, a small weekly paper whose most interesting regular features are the police report and calendar of local events. The letter encouraged readers to contact Vermont’s Congressman and urge him to oppose any bill that would authorize the centralized interim storage of high-level nuclear waste, referring to the spent fuel from the Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Plant that was shut down in 2014. The writers argued that instead of allowing the spent fuel to be shipped to a site in Texas, “it is safer to keep our waste within our state in monitored, hardened, on-site storage in stainless steel and concrete dry casks while a scientifically-based permanent storage site is located.”
It’s a surprising response to a central policy question: How should the United States manage more than 80,000 metric tons of highly radioactive spent fuel currently sitting in storage at 72 commercial nuclear plants across the country? Simply put, should spent fuel be left in place at reactor sites or transported to one or more central, interim storage sites until the United States can site, license, and build a permanent geologic repository for nuclear waste? The likely NRC approval in 2021 of one or more licenses for private storage sites will reshape the debate on that question and put the country on a path to consolidated interim storage. Ideally, Congress and the incoming administration will intervene to address the significant policy issues related to consolidated storage, rather than see them resolved in the private market or remain unaddressed.
An altered landscape. The United States last addressed the interim-storage question almost 40 years ago. At the time it probably made sense to assign utilities the primary responsibility for interim storage of spent nuclear fuel on their sites and to, with limited exceptions, prohibit the government from building and operating a consolidated interim storage facility until the NRC licensed a long-term repository. The latter provision was intended to assure communities willing to host “interim” sites that they would not become permanent.
In 1987 the Amendment to the Nuclear Waste Policy Act established Yucca Mountain, Nevada, as the only site to be investigated as a nuclear waste repository. The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 had already committed the US government to begin removing spent fuel from reactor sites by January 31, 1998. Almost 23 years later, the Yucca Mountain repository project is dead and the United States is at square one of what will be a decades-long process to site and build a repository. Over this period, the United States has essentially stopped constructing large nuclear power plants and is instead in the process of decommissioning commercial reactors and closing sites. At last count, 23 commercial reactors were undergoing decommissioning, and the list is only expected to grow over the next decade. Like Vermont Yankee, many of these sites are on accelerated cleanup schedules that will leave behind nothing but spent-fuel storage facilities within a matter of years.
The arguments in favor of allowing consolidated interim storage are simple and straightforward. Moving the spent fuel to centralized storage is more efficient than having it sit for years at numerous sites, and it allows utilities to complete the decommissioning process and redevelop or turn sites back over to the communities for reuse. Concerns about the safety and security of consolidated storage facilities are not at issue from a regulatory perspective, because the dry cask storage systems proposed for consolidated interim storage facilities are identical to those the NRC has approved to store spent fuel at reactor sites. That is why the opponents of consolidated interim storage generally do not raise these concerns and the NRC has dismissed the few that have been raised.
The transport argument.
The one severe accident in the United States happened in 1971, when a truck overturned and a transport cask loaded with spent fuel broke free. The cask suffered only minor damage, no radiation was released, and the spent fuel in the cask was undamaged, essentially validating the safety of the cask design. According to the NRC, which regulates the transport casks, “[i]f there were an accident during a spent fuel shipment, there is only about a one-in-a-billion chance that the accident would result in a release of radioactive material.”
Ideally, Congress and the next administration will find a way to update the 40-year-old policy to address the broader range of issues related to consolidated interim storage, rather than remain silent as the NRC completes action on the two pending license applications. There are significant capacity and logistic issues to be addressed, related to the transport of spent fuel in the quantities that would occur with the opening of one or more consolidated interim facilities.
There are also policy questions to be answered: Should there be compensation for states and local communities where consolidated interim storage facilities are located, and is there a way to provide them assurances that “interim” storage facilities will not become de facto permanent sites? Given that the spent fuel may change as a result of the thermally hot and high-radiation-field conditions within a storage cask, should federal policy require interim storage sites to be capable of examining and repackaging the fuel prior to transport to permanent storage—particularly if “interim” storage may stretch to 100 years or more? Which reactor sites should have priority for shipping to an interim storage site—closed reactors first, based on the date of closure, or a risk-based approach that prioritizes sites such as the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, where current storage is located near the ocean? Should the federal government contract directly with private interim storage sites and take ownership of the spent fuel when shipped to the site? Would this reduce the overall storage cost to taxpayers?