What can be done with nuclear waste?

An average 1,000-megawatt commercial nuclear reactor produces more than 20 tons of spent fuel per year. This used fuel still contains quite a bit of energy, but its fission process has slowed too much to be useful in making electricity. Because it is warm and emitting radiation, it must immediately be placed in cooling pools adjacent to the reactor. Regardless of a country’s chosen waste disposal method, all reactors’ spent fuel starts in these pools and stays there, covered in water, for up to five years. Once the waste has decayed and cooled enough to be moved, there are four options:

Bonnie Berkowitz and Todd Lindeman | The Washington Post
SOURCES: Revis James, director of the Energy Technology Assessment Center at the Electric Power Research Institute; William R. Martin, professor of nuclear engineering at the University of Michigan; Nuclear Regulatory Commission; Posiva; World Nuclear Association; Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

Nuked and duped: Maine may store nuclear waste for decades

This April 14, 1998 file photo shows the defunct Maine Yankee nuclear power plant in Wiscasset.
Robert F. Bukaty | AP
This April 14, 1998 file photo shows the defunct Maine Yankee nuclear power plant in Wiscasset.
Posted May 25, 2012, at 11:40 a.m.
Last modified May 25, 2012, at 12:24 p.m.

As politicians dither over a permanent repository for America’s radioactive waste, costs are mounting at closed nuclear power plants such as Maine Yankee, where approximately $8 million is spent each year safeguarding the spent nuclear fuel stored onsite.

New security measures under review by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission could force decommissioned plants to make big changes at their spent-fuel storage facilities, further driving up the cost of keeping watch over waste that was never meant to stay for decades in places such as Wiscasset.

“Historically the NRC viewed the potential for releases from dry spent fuel storage casks due to either safety or security events as very low, due to the massive and robust nature of these casks,” the NRC replied in writing to questions posed by the Bangor Daily News. “However, in assessing the post-9/11 threat environment, the NRC considers the potential and capability for security events to potentially release radioactive material following malevolent attacks has increased.”

The rules, reflecting a heightened concern about terrorism, have been in development for several years. Last summer the NRC conducted a classified briefing on the “threat and vulnerability basis for the rulemaking.” Much of the rationale is labeled “classified” information and therefore hidden from public view — keeping even employees at spent fuel storage facilities in the dark about changes they might be asked to implement, and the reasons why.

Wayne Norton, Maine Yankee’s chief nuclear officer, pointedly complained in an Oct. 13, 2011, letter to the agency that it had not adequately discussed its concerns with the nuclear facilities or state and local governments.

Since then, the NRC has been working with decommissioned plant owners to provide the necessary security clearances. It plans a second classified meeting on the proposed security rules later this year to brief representatives from Maine Yankee and other stakeholders who lacked the necessary security clearances to attend the 2011 briefing.

But documents available through the NRC’s website, with the classified information redacted, reveal that owners of spent-fuel dry storage facilities could be required to:

• Create additional barriers to deter terrorist attacks from both land and water.

• Increase onsite security.

• Extend the boundary around an open-air dry storage facility to create more of a buffer zone, making it more difficult for potential attackers to get close to them. It also would limit the general public’s risk of exposure to the most intense radioactive plume if a dry cask container is breached.

“We’re not aware of any changes in the security environment,” said Eric Howes, director of public and government affairs at Maine Yankee. “So, step 1 is that we need to understand the basis for this proposed change. If they do change the regulations, we will abide by them and will work with the NRC to implement them.”

Maine Yankee’s dry storage

Maine Yankee’s 1,434 spent nuclear fuel rods — which powered its reactor from 1972 until the power plant’s closure in 1996 — are stored in 60 airtight steel canisters encased in concrete. Another four dry cask containers encase irradiated steel removed from Maine Yankee’s reactor vessel. Each cask weighs about 100 tons. They stand vertically atop a concrete pad on 12 acres protected by a security fence and 24-hour surveillance.

All of that waste, which will pose a threat to humans and the environment for at least 10,000 years, was supposed to have been removed by 1998 by the United States Department of Energy for permanent storage in Nevada. After years of controversy and delays, President Barack Obama pulled the plug on the Yucca Mountain repository in 2010 — effectively putting Maine Yankee and other decommissioned plants in the position of holding onto their nuclear waste for decades or longer.

Maine Yankee’s owners — and ultimately electric-utility ratepayers — spent $75 million to build the spent fuel dry storage facility in Wiscasset and approximately $8 million per year on armed security guards and maintenance workers who do everything from snow removal to making sure the dry cask containers are properly maintained and vented.

Maine Yankee’s spent-fuel dry storage facility is licensed until November 2020. The dry storage system in place has a 60-year design life, but initially was certified by the NRC to be used for 20 years. NRC expects NAC International Inc., which designed Maine Yankee’s dry storage system, will request a 40-year renewal period in 2020, which will take the system to its 60-year design limit.

The risk

An NRC primer on the issue notes that its post-9/11 security reviews of spent fuel dry cask storage facilities — which included simulated attacks involving large aircraft and ground assaults — “challenged previous NRC conclusions about the ability of a malevolent act to breach shielding or confinement barriers and thus cause a release of radiation or radioactive material.”

The primer continued: “The assessments also indicated that increased security requirements may be warranted over the longer term. These assessments are not publicly available because they discuss security-related information and could be used as a potential targeting tool.”

A separate document, a December 2010 report published by the United States Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board, is a bit more explicit about why security requirements might be increased for owners of spent fuel dry storage facilities: “Formerly it was assumed that dry casks were sufficiently robust to resist terrorist attacks, but employing new post-9/11 threats resulted in a risk of breach and possible radioactive releases. A second reason is the likelihood that commercial spent nuclear fuel and high-level waste will remain in dry storage longer than originally anticipated.”

An intense debate within the nuclear industry is ratcheting up over whether security rules need to be buttressed for spent-fuel dry storage facilities as much as the NRC is proposing.

“The capital costs and additional annual operating costs to stand-alone sites are expected to be in the millions of dollars if the proposed rules go into effect as based on the draft guide,” Norton wrote in the October 2011 letter he sent to the NRC. “While it is too early in the process for us to develop specific estimates, we note that implementation of your security requirements over the past decade at operating plants averaged $16 million per site, according to industry figures.”

Besides Maine Yankee, the coalition includes Connecticut Yankee, LaCrosse in Wisconsin, Rancho Seco in California, Yankee Rowe in Massachusetts and Big Rock in Michigan.

Norton informed the NRC that its proposed security rules also could force “potential re-acquisition of large parcels of real estate that was disposed of when the remainder of the site was released by the NRC.” He also said the increased security and management costs would force the owners of the spent fuel dry storage sites “to reopen agreements with our state and local communities and bring new rate cases before the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (as ratepayers will be forced to accept this burden).

“These costs will ultimately be passed along to the taxpayer as these expenses will be subject to additional litigation with the Department of Energy, as it will continue to fail to fulfill its contractual obligations to remove the material from our [spent fuel dry storage facilities] for the foreseeable future,” Norton said.

Credence is given to Norton’s cost concerns by a May 18 unanimous ruling of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, which awarded $81.69 million in damages owed to Maine Yankee by the federal government for failing to remove radioactive waste from the decommissioned reactor site in Wiscasset.

Last Friday’s court ruling also underscores one of the key findings issued by the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future in its final report issued on Jan. 26 — namely the federal government’s skyrocketing liability due to its failure to meet its obligations for storing high-level nuclear waste.

The appeals court also awarded $39.66 million to Connecticut Yankee Atomic Power Co. and $38.27 million to Yankee Atomic Electric Co. of Massachusetts, which had joined Maine Yankee in the lawsuit against the federal government.

The three companies have another lawsuit pending against the federal government for a total of $264 million for costs incurred from Jan. 1, 2003, to Dec. 31, 2008.

Earlier this spring, a House Appropriations Committee report on management of spent nuclear fuel pegged the government’s collective liability for all of the high-level nuclear waste stored at active and decommissioned nuclear power plants at “more than $19 billion, nearly $4 billion more than a year ago.”

Lack of nuclear storage is costly failure

The high-stakes security discussion between the NRC and owners of the spent-fuel dry storage facility at Maine Yankee and other decommissioned nuclear power plants is playing out against the backdrop of the central recommendation made by the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future, which is to create “one or more consolidated storage facilities as part of an integrated, comprehensive plan for safely managing the back end of the nuclear fuel cycle.”

“What we have found is that our nation’s failure to come to grips with the nuclear waste issue has already proved damaging and costly. It will be even more damaging and more costly the longer it continues,” Lt. Gen. Brent Scowcroft, co-chairman of the Blue Ribbon Commission, and Dr. Richard Merserve, a member, wrote in a joint presentation in Washington to the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology on Feb. 8.

“This failure is also costly to utility ratepayers who continue to pay for a nuclear waste management solution that has yet to be delivered, to communities that have become unwilling hosts of long-term waste storage facilities, and to U.S. taxpayers who face billions in liabilities as a result of the failure to meet federal waste management commitments. The national interest demands that our nuclear waste program be fixed,” they said.

The commission said creating one or more interim storage sites “could help reduce the cost and security burdens associated with storing spent nuclear fuel and high-level wastes at numerous dispersed sites.” It envisions the interim facility would store the high-level radioactive waste for “multiple decades up to a century or more,” at which point it could be transferred to a permanent repository.

The commission recommends that Maine Yankee and other shutdown reactors be first in line for transferring their spent-fuel dry cask containers to an interim site.

It calls for transferring the responsibility of managing the nation’s nuclear waste from the Department of Energy to a new independent organization “empowered with the authority and resources to succeed.” It also urges “a new, consent-based approach to siting future nuclear waste management facilities” and that “prompt efforts” be initiated to develop both the interim and permanent facilities.

Will Congress deliver?

The obvious question is whether expedited removal of spent fuel from Maine Yankee and other decommissioned nuclear power plants to an interim facility will happen soon enough to avoid extra costs that might be dictated by the NRC’s pending security rules.

Obama’s draft fiscal year 2013 budget for the U.S. Department of Energy includes $60 million to implement some of the Blue Ribbon Commission’s recommendations, with special attention given to “evaluating consolidated interim storage and transportation issues (focused initially on decommissioned sites)” and “conducting material testing to support extended storage of used fuel.”

The fate of those initiatives is uncertain, since funding to make them happen will depend on a House-Senate conference later this year to resolve sharp differences between Democrats and Republicans over Obama’s decision in 2010 to pull the plug on the long-term storage facility planned for Yucca Mountain.

Yucca Mountain, located on federal land in Nevada, was singled out in 1987 as a suitable repository for the nation’s nuclear power plant waste. After many years of study, the Department of Energy recommended in February 2002 that it be developed as a long-term geologic repository for high-level waste. More than $12 billion had been spent on the project prior to 2010.

In the House, where Republicans hold a decisive majority, the Appropriations Committee cut Obama’s $60 million request to evaluate consolidating the nation’s spent nuclear fuel at one or more interim sites. Instead, the committee’s bill endorses spending “$25 million to support Yucca Mountain activities to continue the viability of the program for the future.”

In the Senate, where Democrats hold a slim majority, the Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee on April 24 supported giving Energy Secretary Steven Chu authority to begin the process of building an interim nuclear waste site in a willing host community. No money was appropriated for Yucca Mountain, while just under $20 million was authorized for a consolidated interim storage facility.

In a May 18 letter, Maine Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins — joined by fellow Republican Sen. Scott Brown of Massachusetts and Democratic Sen. Herb Kohl of Wisconsin — call on Energy Secretary Steven Chu to “move forward expeditiously to address nuclear fuel at decommissioned reactors.”

Besides getting the ball rolling on developing an interim storage site, the senators applaud Chu’s plans to “restore funding to regional transportation stakeholder groups” to help them assess how the spent nuclear fuel can be safely transported from decommissioned reactor sites.

In a statement responding to questions from the BDN, Collins indicates she supports both Yucca Mountain, as a permanent repository, and a fast-track implementation of “the interim storage solution.”

“Since 1982, residents of Maine have paid more than $160 million into the Nuclear Waste Fund with the assurance that nuclear waste from Maine Yankee would be moved from Wiscasset to a permanent repository,” she said.

As long as high-level nuclear waste continues to be stored in Wiscasset, she said, “the storage fees, insurance, security and taxes come at the expense of Maine utility customers … the cost savings from removing fuel from [Maine Yankee and eight other] shutdown sites could be in the billions of dollars.”

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