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.

Maine Yankee spends nearly $10 million a year to maintain spent fuel rods stored in Wiscasset

Posted April 10, 2012, at 7:49 p.m.
Last modified May 25, 2012, at 11:12 a.m.

Documents filed with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission in advance of Tuesday’s $5 billion merger between Northeast Utilities of Hartford, Conn., and the Boston-based NStar reveal a hefty liability comes with the deal — namely, a 24 percent share of the $94.9 million Maine Yankee Atomic Power Co. expects to pay in spent-nuclear-fuel-management costs through 2023.

That estimate is provided by Maine Yankee spokesman Eric Howes and updates figures cited within an attachment accompanying a Dec. 6, 2010 letter from Wayne A. Norton, chief nuclear officer of Maine Yankee and CEO and president of Yankee Atomic and Connecticut Yankee, to the NRC, which licenses the facility storing Maine Yankee’s spent nuclear fuel and other radioactive waste in 64 dry-cask storage containers on a 12-acre site in Wiscasset.

“No changes in the licensed activities or management of any of the Yankee Companies’ facilities will result from the proposed merger,” Norton wrote in his letter. “The shareholders of each Yankee Company are obligated to pay facility operating expenses in direct proportion to their ownership interests in accordance with rate schedules on file with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.”

Howes said as of Dec. 31, 2011, the cost of managing the high-level radioactive spent fuel stored at the Maine Yankee site has been pegged at $94.9 million through 2023, with an additional $10.8 million budgeted for the eventual dismantlement and decommissioning of the Independent Spent Fuel Storage Installation once a permanent home is found for the radioactive waste. At present, there is no agreed-upon permanent site for storing Maine Yankee’s spent nuclear fuel, which contains isotopes the NRC says “can take hundreds of thousands of years” to “become harmless” through decay.

In January, the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future released its final report, which recommends creating one or more consolidated storage facilities as an interim step toward a permanent disposal facility. Top priority, if the commission’s recommendation is followed, would be given to transferring spent fuel being stored at Maine Yankee and other nuclear power plants that already are decommissioned.

Under the $5 billion merger between Northeast Utilities of Hartford, Conn., and the Boston-based NStar, Maine Yankee Atomic Power Co. will come under indirect minority ownership of Northeast Utilities.

Before the merger, Northeast Utilities had a 20 percent share of Maine Yankee through its subsidiaries, The Connecticut Light and Power Co., Public Service Company of New Hampshire and Western Massachusetts Electric Company. NStar owned 4 percent of Maine Yankee through its subsidiary, NStar Electric Company.

Northeast Utilities, which assumes 24 percent ownership of Maine Yankee under its merger with NStar, will be the name of the new company. NStar will be a Northeast Utilities subsidiary.

The other major shareholders of Maine Yankee not affiliated with Northeast Utilities, as identified by Norton in a March 16, 2011, letter to the NRC are: Central Maine Power Co., 38 percent; New England Power Co., 24 percent; Bangor Hydro-Electric, 7 percent; Central Vermont Public Service Corp., 2 percent; Maine Public Service Co., 5 percent.

The newly combined company operates six electric and natural gas utilities serving 3.5 million customers in Connecticut, Massachusetts and New Hampshire. It will operate out of dual headquarters in Hartford and Boston and, with 9,000 workers, becomes the largest utility in New England.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.