Nuclear Waste and the States

The electric ratepayers in dozens of states have been charged billions to build a site to store nuclear waste. As waste continues to be generated and stored on-site at power plants,   the President's Blue Ribbon Panel on America's Nuclear Future has suggested new strategies to manage spent fuel and create sites for interim storage for waste.
 

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In 1982 Congress passed the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, which directed the Department of Energy to initiate development and construction of a permanent repository to store the nation’s nuclear waste. The legislation established a one-tenth of one-cent per kilowatt hour fee on electricity produced from nuclear power that would be deposited into a Nuclear Waste Fund to help pay for the construction of a repository.1 Congress amended the Nuclear Waste Policy Act again in 1987 and selected Yucca Mountain, Nev., as the permanent storage site. It established a timetable for shipments of nuclear waste to begin arriving in 1998—a timetable that has clearly lapsed, generating lawsuits from states and utilities because of the delay.
 
The politically charged debate surrounding Yucca Mountain, intense opposition from the state of Nevada, and the complex issues surrounding the transportation, storage and disposal of nuclear waste at the site culminated in the Obama administration’s decision to formally withdraw the license application for the repository in 2009.
 
The Nuclear Waste Fund and Implications for States
  • The cancelation of Yucca Mountain has left states with two conundrums: They are still storing nearly 70,000 tons of nuclear waste in cooling pools or dry cask storage—essentially huge, steel reinforced concrete tubes—on site at power plants, and their residents are still being charged for a repository that likely will not be built.
  • Since 1983, ratepayers in 36 states with nuclear power plants have contributed more than $17 billion to the Nuclear Waste Fund for the construction of a permanent national repository.
  • To date, approximately $24 billion remains from the more than $35 billion that has been collected in fees and interest over the life of the fund.
  • In 2010, South Carolina and Washington, which have large amounts of both civilian and high-level Department of Defense waste and have collectively contributed more than $1.4 billion to the Nuclear Waste Fund, sued the Department of Energy in federal court arguing that the decision to remove the license application for Yucca Mountain was improper without a formal safety decision from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The litigation is ongoing as a federal appeals court heard arguments by the states in May 2012 after the initial suit was rejected by the District of Columbia Circuit Court.2
Blue Ribbon Commission and its Recommendations
  • President Obama in 2011 created the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future, comprised of a bipartisan group of public servants, policy experts and academics, to chart a new strategy for managing the nation’s nuclear waste.
  • The commission devised eight general strategies for policymakers, but states should pay particular interest to the following recommendations that will require action by the federal government:

    • Develop a new, consent-based approach to siting future nuclear waste management facilities;
    • Create a new organization outside the scope of the Department of Energy dedicated solely to implementing the nuclear waste management program and empower it with the authority and resources to succeed;
    • Give the newly created organization access to the funds that nuclear utility ratepayers are providing for the purpose of waste management;
    • Begin efforts to develop one or more underground disposal facilities for nuclear waste, as well as one or more consolidated surface storage facilities that would move waste away from reactors; and
    • Prepare for the eventual large-scale transport of spent nuclear fuel and high-level waste to consolidated storage and disposal facilities when such facilities become available.3

Interim and Consolidated Storage

  • Total volumes of civilian and defense nuclear waste already exceed the statutory cap of 70,000 tons that could have been sent to Yucca Mountain under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act. Further complicating matters for states, the Department of Energy expects that a future disposal facility may need a capacity of up to 130,000 tons just to store commercial spent fuel.4
  • Prior to the Obama administration’s 2009 decision to cancel Yucca Mountain, the Department of Energy determined that there would be a need for interim storage capability through 2056 due to limits on transportation and continued generation of spent fuel.5
  • Fifty-three facilities are licensed for dry storage of spent fuel, and in 2010 the Nuclear Regulatory Commission found that waste could be safely stored onsite 60 years after a reactor was decommissioned. Assuming that a reactor received a 60-year operating license, the waste could be stored on site for up to 120 years.6 A June 2012 decision by the District of Columbia Court of Appeals struck down this decision and found that the commission did an inadequate environmental review.
  • Federal law governing nuclear waste allows for the construction of one consolidated storage facility, but only after a permanent repository has been licensed. Thus, Congress must pass legislation authorizing changes to the statute.
  • The Senate’s Fiscal Year 2013 Energy and Water Appropriations bill includes language that has bipartisan support for the Department of Energy to conduct a pilot program to license, construct and operate one or more consolidated storage facilities for spent nuclear fuel and high-level waste. 

References:

1“Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 (PL 97-425), Section 302.” 

2 Steve Tetreault. “Judges Troubled by Yucca Shutdown, Uncertain on Recourse.” Las Vegas Review-Journal. May 2, 2012. 

3 The Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future. “Report to the Secretary
of Energy.” January 2012, p.vii.
 
4 U.S. Department of Energy. “Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement
for Yucca Mountain.” DOE/EIS-0250F-S1D. October 2007. p. S-47.
 
5 Christopher Kouts, Principal Deputy Director, Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste
Management. “Status Update on Yucca Mountain.” Presentation Before the National
Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners. July 22, 2008. 
 
6 Mark Holt.“Civilian Nuclear Waste Disposal.” Congressional Research Service.
August 30, 2011, p. 12. 

 

 

Nuclear Waste and the States

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