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Storage and Disposal of Nuclear Waste Must Be Separated from the Economic and Political Debates

Thursday, October 2, 2014

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Since the beginning of the civilian nuclear power program in the 1950s, the federal government has undertaken to dispose of all of the used nuclear fuel rods, the most radioactive waste from the nation’s commercial nuclear power plants. One can debate the wisdom of this unique commitment, which was formalized in a 1982 law and in subsequent contracts between the government and nuclear power plant owner. However, there can be no debate about its binding nature, at least as to reactors now in existence or under construction. The United States has 100 operating reactors and 5 more under construction in Georgia, South Carolina and Tennessee. Electric customers have paid some $30 billion into the nuclear waste fund. Taxpayers across the United States continue to pay billions of dollars per year because the government has not performed as contractually promised, and the waste continues to accumulate at more than 70 power plant sites across the nation. Some of these plants are closed and torn down. Only the waste remains at these sites.

As former state utility regulators with different views on nuclear power, we nevertheless agree that the waste situation is unacceptable and in urgent need of a resolution that will require new institutions and revised goals.

A national Blue Ribbon Commission concluded in early 2012 that U.S. nuclear waste policy “has been troubled for decades and has now all but completely broken down.” The BRC report recommended a number of positive, interrelated steps that have the potential to put the spent nuclear fuel program back on a track toward a solution.

These steps include:

  • a new, consent-based approach to siting future nuclear waste management facilities;
  • a new organization dedicated solely to implementing the waste management program;
  • prompt efforts to develop one or more geologic disposal facilities and
  • prompt efforts to develop one or more consolidated storage facilities.

There is wide agreement on the desirability of moving the older fuel rods to one or more centralized storage sites where they can be kept for many years while permanent disposal is sited, licensed and constructed. Developing such interim storage will require firm assurance that a permanent disposal site will ultimately take the fuel rods because above-ground canisters, while durable, will not last as long as the radioactivity. Such assurance should be provided.

Unfortunately, over thirty-two months have passed since the report’s call for “prompt efforts.” A sparsely populated county or two in Texas and New Mexico has shown some interest in hosting an interim storage facility, but none of the necessary federal follow-up has occurred. For thirty years, policymakers have talked as if the problem were urgent while behaving as if it were not.

Creating an organization whose only mission is to resolve the spent fuel problem in a consent-based and technically sound fashion should not be as difficult as it seems to be, even in today’s Washington. Those who believe that the solution lies at Yucca Mountain in Nevada (ruled out by the Obama Administration) or in committing to reprocessing the spent fuel (which the Blue Ribbon Commission termed “premature at this point”) can hope that such an organization will come to view matters their way. Those who oppose these solutions can hope that sound science and wise public policy will lead in other directions.

Neither side can hope to see its preferred outcome mandated in legislation that can possibly pass in today’s Washington.

The most important step is to break the current stalemate, a stalemate which does not make sense in terms of economics or safety. Whether one favors nuclear power or is skeptical of its future role, the centralized storage and ultimate disposal of the used fuel are issues that can and should be separated from the economic and political debates surrounding the reactors. Until this step is taken, the nation will have highly-radioactive spent fuel in long-term storage at many sites that never expected to serve that function.

Peter Bradford is an adjunct professor at Vermont Law School and former member of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. David Wright is an energy consultant, former president of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners and former chairman of the South Carolina Public Service Commission. Both are advisory council members of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s nuclear waste initiative.