Since Congress passed the Nuclear Waste Policy Act in 1982, the U.S. has held seven presidential elections, launched about 130 space shuttle missions, and successfully landed robotic rovers on Mars. But Washington still lacks a viable long-term plan for the radioactive waste produced by its commercial nuclear reactors. That inaction is costing taxpayers billions of dollars.
The federal government’s paralysis on nuclear waste is particularly disturbing given the March 11 disaster at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant in Japan, which has been made far more complicated by the large amount of spent fuel stored inside the reactor buildings.
Last month, a presidential panel, the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future, concluded that existing policy toward nuclear waste is “all but completely broken down.”
Fortunately, the U.S. has an easy – and obvious – option for interim waste storage: Put it on land already owned by the federal government.
The Energy Department has several nuclear-focused locations that are excellent candidates – including Savannah River Site in South Carolina , Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, and Hanford Site in Washington state. Another site, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico, is already being used by the federal government for disposal of radioactive waste generated by the Defense Department.
Using those sites for interim storage of nuclear waste will give Congress plenty of time to either open Yucca Mountain or find another disposal site. Indeed, one of the seven recommendations made by the Blue Ribbon Commission was the prompt development of “one or more consolidated interim storage facilities.”
The DOE-owned locations already have security and safety systems. The workers at these sites have years, even decades, of experience with nuclear materials. The communities near the labs are nuclear-savvy, and want to keep the jobs that the sites provide.
In addition, the sites are plenty big. For instance, WIPP covers 16 square miles.
Once at the federal sites, the waste could be stored indefinitely above ground in steel casks. When – or rather, if – the president or Congress finally muster the political will to do something with the waste, it could be moved to Yucca Mountain or another location.
If the politicos dawdle for decades, and uranium gets sufficiently expensive, the fuel rods could be reprocessed just as France and several other countries manage their spent fuel.
Today, the U.S. has about 70,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel spread among 80 locations in 35 states. That sounds like a lot. It’s not. If collected in one location, it could be stacked on a single football field to a height of about 15 feet.
Nonetheless, consolidating that waste on federal property would improve security and allow the federal government to finally fulfill its obligations under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act. Doing so will save taxpayers billions of dollars in legal costs.
Over the past few years, a number of nuclear utilities successfully sued the federal government for not taking their radioactive waste as required under the act. The latest successful litigant: Xcel Energy, which, in July, announced a $100-million settlement with the Energy Department.
More litigation is certain. Last month, two states – South Carolina and Washington – along with a coalition of utility regulators, sued the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in an effort to compel the agency to restart its review of the Yucca Mountain waste project.
The federal government has already paid out $956 million to the utilities, according to the Government Accountability Office. “Future liabilities,” the GAO reported in June, “are estimated to be at least $15.4 billion through 2020.”
Just two years ago, the GAO estimated that the legal liabilities due to federal inaction on nuclear waste would be “about $12.3 billion in damages through 2020.” So, over the last two years, the GAO’s estimated legal hit to taxpayers has jumped by more than $3 billion.
Whatever the actual legal burden, it’s readily apparent that the longer Washington postpones substantive action on nuclear waste, the worse things will be in terms of cost, plant safety and security.
In its report, the GAO discussed the possibility of storing the waste on federal land, but said that DOE “has no authority to implement this option.”
There’s an easy fix for that: Congress should immediately pass a bill giving DOE the authority to store commercial nuclear waste at sites like Hanford, Savannah River and Oak Ridge.
Nuclear energy provides 20 percent of U.S. electricity needs. It is likely to continue as an important part of our energy mix for decades to come. In the wake of Fukushima, it’s high time for Congress and the Obama administration to get serious about dealing with nuclear waste.
Original file here: