The nuclear waste divide

Will the U.S. give another look to reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel?

Nuclear waste disposal is a contentious subject. Nuclear proponents believe the engineering issues are, for the most part, solved, while critics believe major technical questions are unanswered. This divide is as great today as any time in the past.

In 1982, Congress passed the Nuclear Waste Policy Act. The act was clear; the U.S. Government would take possession of used fuel at nuclear power plants beginning in 1998. Electric utilities paid approximately $750 million annually to fund this project. The government did not take the spent fuel, however. Instead, it was penalized for breach of the law.

In 2002, Congress designated Yucca Mountain in Nevada as the site for a deep-geologic repository to hold spent fuel. But President Barack Obama, in a move aimed to please Nevada Sen. Harry Reid, killed the project in 2010, claiming it was "unworkable" — even though more than $10 billion spent on scientific studies and construction of an underground tunnel had determined the site was suitable. The U. S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission had also found that the Department of Energy application to license the Yucca Mountain site met most of the requirements to dispose of spent fuel; the remaining requirements are still achievable now.

This spring, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved, by a wide margin, a bipartisan bill to let private companies establish interim facilities for storing spent fuel until reprocessing is revived in this country or a permanent repository becomes available. These interim storage facilities would consolidate the fuel and hold it until a more permanent solution is approved. One virtue of reprocessing is that it would reduce the amount of nuclear waste requiring permanent disposal by more than one-half.

Currently, companies are gearing up to develop and operate interim underground storage facilities for used fuel in West Texas and Eastern New Mexico, predicated on getting local and state approval. Holtec International, a major waste management company that's working with public officials in four counties in Eastern New Mexico, says it could have an interim storage facility operating by 2021. Holtec also plans to turn the facility into a national training center for other interim sites.

The bill passed by the Appropriations Committee calls for "multiple" storage facilities. If and when facilities for used fuel open in Texas and New Mexico, it's possible that communities in other parts of the country will invest in similar initiatives.

A deep-geologic repository for defense nuclear waste is already operating near Carlsbad, N.M., holding drums of clothing and tools shipped by truck and rail from government installations around the country. Savannah River Site in South Carolina and the Hanford Reservation in Washington State have shipped drums to these facilities.

Operation of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, or WIPP, has been a good deal for New Mexico. Carlsbad and localities in Eastern New Mexico receive millions of dollars in tax benefits, priority in funding for state highway construction and hundreds of well-paying jobs. Consolidated storage facilities for used fuel could produce substantially more benefits since they would hold spent fuel from the commercial production of nuclear-generated electricity.

Currently there are 75,000 metric tons of used fuel stored at nuclear power plants around the country, and the amount is increasing by about 2,000 tons annually. The Calvert Cliffs nuclear plant alone holds 1,340 tons of used fuel.

Used fuel, of course, is not nuclear waste. It contains valuable nuclear materials that could be reprocessed for further use in generating electricity, if not for a ban on reprocessing that President Jimmy Carter imposed in the mid-1970s. In addition, there are economic challenges; however, a renewed research program will address these issues.

Congress, in a bipartisan way, is asserting its right to remedy this problem. With leadership from Department of Energy, the used fuel can become a valuable asset. Let's hope Congress succeeds.

Dan Ervin is a professor of finance at the Perdue School of Business within Salisbury University. His email is DMERVIN@salisbury.edu.

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