WASHINGTON – U.S. lawmakers have debated for decades where to put all the spent fuel generated by the nation’s nuclear power plants. The dithering means that an unintended site has emerged: Illinois.
About 13 percent of the country’s 70,000 tons of radioactive waste is stashed in pools of water or in special casks at the atomic plants in Illinois that produced it, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), a Washington-based industry group.
That is the most held in any state.
Across the country, atomic power plants “have become de facto major radioactive waste management operations,” Robert Alvarez, a former adviser to Energy Department secretaries during the Clinton administration, said in an interview.
With no place to send their waste, nuclear plants — which are located in 30 states and generate around 20 percent of the nation’s electricity — are doubling as dumps for spent fuel that remains dangerous for thousands of years. Another four states without operating reactors store spent fuel at closed plants. It is an expensive and, according to some critics, unsafe practice for which the plants were not designed and which may end up costing taxpayers billions of dollars.
“That’s not a long-term solution,” said Everett Redmond, senior director of nonproliferation and fuel cycle policy at NEI, whose members include reactor owners Exelon Corp. and Atlanta-based Southern Co. He said there is a “general obligation to society to dispose of the material.”
After Illinois — which also has more atomic reactors than any other state — Pennsylvania, South Carolina and New York have the most waste temporarily stored at nuclear power plants.
Since 1998, the U.S. government has been required by law to remove nuclear waste from plants and haul it to a secure disposal site — though it hasn’t because none have been built. Congress in 1987 designated one for Nevada’s Yucca Mountain, a project that President Barack Obama’s administration cut funding for in 2010 at the urging of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat.
In the meantime, utilities and other power providers have sued the U.S. government almost 80 times to recover storage costs, winning $2 billion in judgments and settlements. Taxpayers may be forced to pay as much as $20.8 billion by 2020 as the liability grows, according to a report last year by a commission that Obama created to study nuclear waste storage options.
With as many as 70 operating reactors scheduled to close by 2050, maintenance and security costs may reach a combined $550 million annually, the commission forecast. Its 15 members included Allison Macfarlane, now head of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), and Ernest Moniz, now serving as energy secretary.
Since 1983, the federal government has collected money from utility customers for the Nuclear Waste Fund to help pay for the removal of waste. The fund now has more than $29 billion, though a repository has never been cleared for construction.
The NEI and the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners have sued the Energy Department to stop collecting the fee, a case that is pending in federal court. A court in August ordered the NRC to resume its study of Yucca Mountain, which the agency has begun but says it does not have enough money to complete.
The federal government “cut a deal, and they haven’t honored that,” leaving taxpayers and utility customers exposed to higher costs, said David Wright a consultant and former president of the commissioners’ association.
Once used, radioactive fuel rods are removed from reactors and stored in cooling pools at the plants. The nuclear reactor’s owner can then transfer the waste to steel-and-concrete casks once the fuel has cooled for about five years.
A dry-cask storage facility at a plant can cost as much as $20 million to build and $7 million per year to maintain, according to the industry group. Around 71 percent of U.S. spent fuel currently remains in the pools.
Some environmental groups say that percentage is too high and that more of the waste should be moved to casks, which are made by companies including France’s Areva SA, as soon as possible.
“If the cooling water in the spent fuel pool was drained by an accident or terrorist attack, there would be a much greater chance of a dangerous fire that could spread radiation,” said Giselle Barry, a spokeswoman for a Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Edward Markey. Markey has been critical of safety measures at Entergy Corp.’s Pilgrim reactor, about 60 km southeast of Boston.
When the 3/11 quake and tsunami triggered a triple-meltdown at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power station in 2011, the nuclear waste that was stored in dry casks was protected, according to David Lochbaum, director of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ nuclear safety project.
Still, “dry casks aren’t absolutely safe,” he said.
While the risk of sabotage is minimal during their storage at nuclear plants, it is nonetheless possible, Lochbaum said, so “it would be preferable if they were in Yucca Mountain or some repository.”
Alvarez, the former Clinton Energy Department official who is now a senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, said “dry storage is the best of the solutions we have.”
It is not perfect: Utilities cannot be expected to maintain dry-cask storage for thousands of years while the radioactive material inside them decays, said Thomas Cochran, a senior scientist in the nuclear program at the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington.
“You’ve got to re-package them every 100 years,” he said in an interview. “Saying you’re going to do that for the next half a million years is a little over the top.”
Obama’s blue-ribbon commission recommended in its report last year that the U.S. begin work on a temporary storage site.
“Regardless of what happens with Yucca Mountain, the U.S. inventory of spent nuclear fuel will soon exceed the amount” that the facility could have legally held, it said. “Moreover, these communities were never asked about, and never contemplated or consented to, the conversion of these reactor sites into indefinite long-term storage facilities.”
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