The unprecedented wave of operating reactor shutdowns and new reactor cancellations have received most of the attention during 2013, but issues surrounding radioactive waste in the US have intensified and are poised for significant activity during the coming year.
Indeed, there is so much critical action over nuclear waste occurring simultaneously it can be difficult to keep track of what is happening where and when, and how the venues and issues overlap. So here's a handy guide to current events and what to expect when and where.
On November 18, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) directed its staff to resume work on the safety evaluation report for the proposed Yucca Mountain repository, 150 kms from Las Vegas on sacred Western Shoshone Indian Nation treaty lands. The NRC suspended work on reviewing the Department of Energy's (DoE) application to proceed with the Yucca repository following a 2009 decision by the Obama administration to abandon the project. The NRC order comes in response to a 2-1 decision at the DC Appeals Court in August ordering the NRC to resume the Yucca licensing process, so long as funds remain in its coffers to do so.
But with only US$11 million it has for that purpose − far short of what a full evaluation would require − the process can't go far without additional appropriations from Congress. And as long as dedicated Yucca opponent Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) remains Senate Majority Leader, no more funding from Congress is likely to materialise. Thus the practical effects of the NRC's order and court decision seem extremely limited.
But the dim prospects for resuming work at Yucca haven't deterred some in the nuclear industry, and more importantly some powerful House Republicans, who are still determined to see the site opened over the objections of Reid and the Administration. Their only hope, however, is that they can somehow put together pro-Yucca legislation that can pass both houses of Congress − somehow getting through Reid − with a veto-proof margin. As unlikely as that scenario is, we can expect to see movement on a pro-Yucca bill beginning in the House Energy and Commerce Committee during 2014, if for no other reason than to encourage nuclear industry campaign contributions to Republican House candidates.
Nuclear Waste Fund
Under 1982 legislation, the DoE was legally obliged to begin taking irradiated nuclear fuel from utilities for disposal in a permanent repository beginning in 1998. With no permanent repository available nor even on the horizon, the US government has been unable to meet its obligations despite collecting a levy from utilities to pay for spent fuel management.
On November 19, a DC Appeals Court ruling directed the DoE to stop collecting these Nuclear Waste Fund fees. Since the enactment of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act 30 years ago, DoE has collected some US$30 billion, of which about US$8 billion was spent studying the Yucca site and building initial infrastructure.
In a related matter, on November 14, a court awarded over US$235 million in damages to three utilities known as the Yankee Companies affected by federal failure to fulfill the high-level radioactive waste disposal commitments mandated by Congress. All three of the utilities' reactors have been decommissioned, but the failure of the federal government to remove spent fuel has forced the utilities to continue to store the materials on site.
But despite being upset by the DoE being forced to dispense millions − and potentially many billions − of federal dollars to nuclear utilities by its failure to establish a permanent disposal site (the "damages" which, of course, were caused by Congress' unrealistic 1998 mandate in the first place), many in Congress have been eyeing the Nuclear Waste Fund as a source of money for their own pet waste projects, such as establishing "consolidated interim storage" waste sites and a new separate agency to handle the radioactive waste issue.
US Senate action on radioactive waste
The Senate Energy Committee, chaired by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) has scheduled a mark-up session and potential vote on S. 1240, a bill to incorporate some of the recommendations of the DoE's 'Blue Ribbon Commission' (brc.gov), which issued its final report on the waste issue in January 2012.
The most controversial part of the legislation is its de-emphasis of establishing a permanent radioactive waste disposal site − putting off that task until later − and instead supporting establishment of one or more "interim" storage sites. That approach would require the near-term initiation of widespread transportation of high-level radioactive waste not just once − to a permanent site − but at least twice, and perhaps even more. Critics like the Nuclear Information and Resource Service (NIRS) dubbed a similar legislative effort in the 1990s a 'Mobile Chernobyl' and successfully blocked it with the help of a veto from President Clinton.
This time around − before even one word has been written in the mainstream media about the waste transport − in November NIRS presented the Senate Energy Committee with a petition signed by more than 42,000 people opposing the bill and 'interim' storage generally.
Besides the transportation issue − and about 100 million Americans live within a mile or so of the only available transport routes no matter where an interim site(s) might be located − there is legitimate concern that an "interim" site would become a de facto permanent facility with none of the regulatory safeguards that would be required of a permanent site.
The bill also attempts to address the issue of 'consent' by establishing a new framework for a local or regional jurisdiction that 'volunteers' to host such a facility to demonstrate public support for that position.
Environmentalists have been pushing Committee members not only to drop the interim storage concept, but also to require that utilities move existing radioactive waste from fuel pools to hardened on-site dry cask storage facilities as quickly as possible.
According to Senate sources, significant portions of S.1240 were being rewritten from the bill introduced during the Spring prior to the markup. Should the bill pass the Committee, which is by no means certain since it is as yet unclear whether the re-write is intended to improve the bill itself or improve its chances of passage (and the two are vastly different goals), its future remains cloudy.
Since as currently written, it does not include any Yucca-related language, it seems possible that Sen. Reid would allow it to come for a floor vote in 2014. But that prospect becomes unlikelier if Reid perceives that it might spur the House to act on pro-Yucca legislation that could allow the two competing bills to come together for a conference committee.
Nuclear Regulatory Commission
Meanwhile, yet another federal court decision, this one from the summer of 2012, has brought the NRC headlong into another aspect of the radioactive waste issue. That decision threw out the agency's "waste confidence" determination: a rule that provided the underpinning for the NRC's ability to license nuclear reactors.
That rule basically said the NRC had confidence that a waste repository would be built and that the interim storage measures used today (fuel pools and dry casks) would be safe until the repository was open. But the court ruled that with the abandonment of the Yucca Mountain project and no new proposal in site, the agency could no longer assume a permanent site will ever be built. Moreover, the court said that the NRC had no technical basis for its assertion that fuel pools and dry casks are acceptably safe for an indefinite, and potentially very long-term, future. The court's ruling forced the NRC to institute a moratorium on issuing licenses for new reactor construction as well as license renewals for existing reactors. The moratorium cannot be lifted until the issue is resolved.
The NRC responded with a quickly-done, several hundred page Generic Draft Environmental Impact Statement that boils down to a simple assertion: the likelihood of a fuel pool or dry cask accident is so low the agency doesn't have to worry about it.
The NRC this Fall then held a 12-city road show to try to sell the public on this document; many of the meetings were packed with anti-nuclear activists who appeared distinctly unsold on the concept. Interest has been high: the NRC is accepting written public comment on the document through December 20; nearly 9,500 comments to the NRC have gone through a NIRS action page on the issue (http://tinyurl.com/nirs-action), by far the most public comments to an agency that ever have gone through a NIRS page.
The NRC hopes to issue a final document this Spring and resume licensing by the Fall of 2014 but, given the flawed nature of its approach, new lawsuits against it are inevitable.
In a related issue, on November 18 the NRC staff issued a separate document that concluded that expedited transfer to dry cask storage would provide only a minor or limited safety benefit − in direct contradiction to environmentalists' position on S. 1240 − as well as an attempt to bolster support for its waste confidence position. Senator Edward Markey (D-Mass.) called the NRC memo "biased, inaccurate and at odds with the conclusions of other scientific experts − including those expressed in a peer-reviewed article that was co-authored" by current NRC Chair Allison Macfarlane in 2003 and a separate study completed by the National Academy of Sciences in 2004.