America’s Brewing Nuclear Waste Crisis
The United States currently has nearly 70,000 metric tons of used nuclear fuel within its borders, with the nuclear industry generating between 2,000 and 2,300 metric tons of additional used fuel every year. If the used fuel assemblies were to be stacked up end-to-end and side-to-side, the stack would cover a football field and would be 21-feet tall.
Since the early 1980s, the Department of Energy has assumed the responsibility of finding a permanent repository for the nation’s spent nuclear fuel, which is deadly to animals, plant life and humans and can be used in “dirty” bombs and in any number of high-mortality devices. Congress selected Yucca Mountain, a site about 100 miles from Las Vegas that has a deep-cavern subterraneous tunnel and cave system, to be the site of the nation’s permanent nuclear waste repository. A fee to build and help maintain this site was collected from the nation’s nuclear plants, which was passed on to the consumers at a cost of tenth-of-a-cent per kilowatt-hour, or about one percent of the retail cost of electricity.
On Nov. 19, a federal appeals court ruled that the Energy Department must stop collecting this fee, which amounts to about $750 million per year. The decision, written by Judge Laurence Silberman, states that “until the department comes to some conclusion as to how nuclear wastes are to be deposited permanently, it seems quite unfair to force petitioners to pay fees for a hypothetical option.”
A controversial plan
The actual construction of the Yucca Mountain facility, which was approved in 2002 by George W. Bush, constituted a logistical nightmare. Environmentalists and Las Vegas residents protested the burying of high-level nuclear waste at Yucca and questioned the safety of transporting nuclear waste across the country. Repeatedly, the construction project was stalled, particularly after Sen. Harry Reid, the Democrat from Nevada, became majority leader. Finally, under the Obama administration, funding for Yucca Mountain ceased completely in 2010.
“Any workable solution for the final disposition of used fuel and nuclear waste must be based not only on sound science but also on achieving public acceptance at the local and state/tribal levels,” said Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz before the House’s Subcommittee on Environment and the Economy.
This leaves large collections of nuclear waste scattered across the country, without a plan to dispose of them. The components of nuclear waste can have a half-life — the time it would take for a substance to lose half of its radioactivity — of millions of years, meaning that the material can theoretically outlast the nuclear plant responsible for storing it, the nation itself and even the human race. As a matter of fact, large amounts of nuclear waste still sit in nuclear plants that have been decommissioned for many years.
The decision to close Yucca is costing the federal government $38 billion, with the price tag being argued to be as high as $65 billion. Excluding the $15 billion the Department of Energy has already paid into the Yucca project, the remainder is the Energy Department’s estimate of the damages the government will have to pay to the nuclear power utilities in refunds for the fees the DOE collected from the plants and in compensation for the broken promise of collecting the waste by 1998.
“I’m trying to think of some fancy words, but at the end of the day it’s just a massive consumer rip-off,” said Greg White, a regulator on the Michigan Public Service Commission who also heads the nuclear waste panel for the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners.
The DOE is currently calling for a permanent repository to open in 2048, although a temporary repository may be available by 2021. According to projections by the Government Accountability Office, Yucca would not have been finished, assuming that the government resumed construction immediately, until 2027.
A compounded problem
This is worrisome as it reflects a lack of control by the administration on the issue of nuclear waste disposal. In Richland, Wash., the federal government’s plan to dispose of 56 million gallons of highly radioactive sludge, the waste material remains of the former Hanford nuclear weapons complex, is increasingly coming under doubt. Despite repeated assurances that the technology to dispose of the chemicals, effectively, turning it into glass, is available and in-hand, and with $13 billion spent, the DOE suspended construction of the core of the waste treatment plant. With plutonium crystallizing on the mixing tanks and with hydrogen gas potentially building up, many experts feel that the situation could rapidly fall out of control.
“They are missing one important target after another,” said Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. “It feels like we are going around in circles.”
The DOE has admitted that 14 of its 19 key milestones are in jeopardy with the Hanford project. A third of the underground tanks holding the sludge are also leaking, with the sludge reaching the Columbia River, the largest river west of the Rockies and feeder of the region’s aquifers, potentially in as little as 50 years.
As of Sept. 2009, government payments to the nuclear energy utilities have totaled $567 million. By 2012, the total reached more than $2.6 billion. With at least 61 lawsuits filed against the federal government within the last 15 years and with many more expected, the government may be facing as much as $23 billion in damages over the next 50 years, assuming that a permanent or temporary site for waste collection is available by 2020. After 2020, the toll from nuclear industry lawsuits can be as much as $500 million per year.
Typically, the Justice Department pushes back hard in such cases. However, with the courts agreeing with many of the utilities’ claims, including the Nov. 14 decision for the federal government to pay the owner of three decommissioned plants $235 million in addition to a previously-awarded $160 million, the DOJ faces limited options in halting the nuclear industry’s claims. The DOE has since amended its waste contract for new reactors so that the amount of damages that can be claimed is limited, the waste pickup schedule is more flexible, and limiting what the DOE can and will compensate for.
This all may ultimately be the least of the DOE’s problems. Recent studies have shown that coal waste, the ash and coal precipitant that results from industrial coal burning, may be hundreds of times more radioactive than nuclear waste, due to the concentration of uranium and thorium in fly ash. Currently, regulations on coal ash disposal is minimal, creating heightened radiation poisoning risk to those within a mile of a coal stack or a landfill that receives coal ash.
In all, this suggests that the nation’s headache about nuclear waste may have just began.
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