By Kimberly Jin
WASHINGTON – Thirty-seven years ago, Congress decided the federal government should be responsible for disposing of the waste from the nation’s nuclear power plants. But the waste still is being stored at the plants today.
Several leading senators want the federal government to step up to its commitment by switching from the permanent repository site that had been proposed – Yucca Mountain in Nevada – and put the nation’s 80,000 metric tons of spent fuel into several centralized interim storages. Experts say the proposal would save millions of dollars without compromising safety. But the local opposition that eventually doomed the Yucca Mountain site is likely to occur at any interim sites.
Economics of nuclear waste
A small parking lot sits by the shore of the Back River in Bailey Point Peninsula, Maine. Sixty-four white concrete casks, each one 26 feet high, stand in lines on the lot. They are the storage system for the spent nuclear fuel – the only reminder of the Maine Yankee nuclear power plant, which completed its decommissioning in 2005 and demolished.
The lot is approximately 11 acres, a minuscule share of the former 800-acre plant site, but the federal government has spent $176.5 million since 1998 to maintain the storage system, and the cost is growing by $10 million every year, according to Eric Howes, spokesman for the Yankee Companies, which include Maine Yankee and another two decommissioned Yankee nuclear power plants in Massachusetts and Connecticut.
“The only reason we’re still in business is because the federal government has yet to remove the spent fuel,” Howes said.
Maine Yankee is one of the 80 plants across the country that store spent nuclear fuel onsite. Seventeen are shuttered plants like Maine Yankee, while others are still in operation. Onsite storage of spent fuel is an expensive process. It requires 24/7 security and periodical monitoring to make sure the chemicals inside the casks are in good condition; the companies have successfully sued the federal government to cover the storage costs.
A 1982 law decided it’s the federal government, not private companies, that is responsible for disposing the nuclear waste, and Congress in 1987 designated Yucca Mountain as the single central point for storage. It was to be operational by 1998. Two decades have passed, and paying for the waste storage to 80 sites has cost the federal government $7 billion.
“The real crime here is what is happening to the taxpayers,” said Rodney McCullum, senior director of fuel and decommissioning at the Nuclear Energy Institute, a nuclear power advocacy organization funded by the nuclear industry. “A tremendous amount of infrastructure goes into keeping these casks safe and the taxpayers are paying for every penny of it.”
For communities where the closed plants are located, the economic damage has included the lost tax revenue from the plant and the difficulty in repurposing the land.
Wiscasset, the town hosting Maine Yankee, collected $700,000 in taxes from the plant last year, a drop from $12 million when it was operating. Although many of those plants –like Maine Yankee –have hundreds of acres of vacant land, it is very difficult to get new businesses to locate on the land.
“The land is basically useless as long as the spent fuel is sitting there,” McCullum said. “Technically, I can tell you I could build a luxury condominium right next to those used fuel and it would be perfectly safe. But that’s not how real estate works.”
The new plan
To remove the spent fuel, the original plan was to build a permanent repository in Yucca Mountain, Nevada. But although the site was designated by Congress in 1987 and around $15 billion was spent on evaluating and developing the site, the plan stalled in 2009 after strong opposition from Nevada politicians.
In April, Republican Sens. Murkowski of Alaska and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California introduced a bill that proposes to build a few centralized interim storage sites of spent nuclear fuel. The bill also would establish an independent federal agency to manage nuclear waste and design a consent-based approach to determine the sites of nuclear waste storage facilities.
“Storing fuel in one or two locations will be less expensive than storing it at the 17 locations where the reactors are currently shut down,” McCullum said. The idea is to gather concrete casks from “small parking lots” across the country to a few larger parking lots and centralize the management.
“These are passive systems with no moving parts, the number of people and amount of equipment you have to have, train and maintain doesn’t grow as much as you add casks,” McCullum said, “I think it’s safe to say the savings would be in the millions.”
And centralized storage won’t increase the safety risk, McCullum said, because “the [casks] don’t interact with each other and they are built to the same rigorous safety standards.”
Before the bill was introduced, two companies – Holtec International in New Mexico and Interim Storage Partners in Texas – had filed applications for consolidated interim storage site to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
NRC spokesman David McIntyre said both applications are still in early stages of technical, safety and environmental reviews with an expectation to finish in spring or early summer 2021. McIntyre said it is “uncertain if [the bill] will have a direct impact on either application review.”
Like Yucca Mountain, sites in New Mexico and Texas face opposition from local politicians. New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham wrote, in a letter to the Department of Energy and NRC, that the project poses an “unacceptable risk” to oil, gas and agriculture industries surrounding the site. And Texas Gov. Greg Abbott vetoed a popular domestic violence bill because of an unrelated provision about radioactive waste fees.
“Unfortunately, the bill author’s good idea about domestic violence has been dragged down by a bad idea about radioactive waste,” Abbott wrote in his veto statement.
The Senate bill makes it clear that choosing a site for nuclear waste storage facilities would need local consent, which includes approval of local government and the governor. But social scientists argue consent should be more than that.
“Lasting consent is essential, and it has to come from more than just the elected officials,” said Seth Tuler, an associate professor at Worcester Polytechnic Institute who is an expert in risk governance and policies in nuclear waste management. Elected officials come and go, Tuler said, "and they were not elected to make this decision.”
The bill would give discretion to the proposed new agency for deciding whether communities contiguous to the storage facilities would be included in the consent-seeking process. Tuler said neighboring communities and communities through which nuclear waste is transported should have a say in the decision-making process.
“Imposing a decision on local community in the states hasn't worked very well. In fact, it hasn't worked at all,” Tuler said. “Yucca Mountain is a perfect example.”
Editor's note: A quote attributed to Seth Tuler has been clarified, and a new version of this story published July 25, 2019.