by Matt Rosenberg August 31st, 2010
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Nuclear power will remain an important source of electricity in the U.S. More than 100 reactors are operating in U.S. now, and applications are pending for 33 more. Outside the U.S. 337 reactors are in business, with another 150 expected by 2020. President Obama strongly supports nuclear power. There will be 153 million metric tons of high level nuclear waste in the U.S. by 2055, up from 70,000 metric tons in 2009. The Yucca Mountain deep geologic repository for high level nuclear waste is in limbo. A Blue Ribbon Advisory Commission to Energy Secretary Steven Chu will take a new look at policies for high level nuclear waste. The result might be a recommendation for continued dry cask storage now, and perhaps salt domes later.
But The Yucca Mountain tussle is not over yet. A panel of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission recently upheld a legal quest to keep the Department of Energy’s Yucca Mountain licensing application alive, although D.O.E. at the president’s direction seeks to withdraw it. The preliminary ruling is that only Congress has authority to rescind the application. Some experts posit that the Energy Department must rebuild public trust around high level nuclear waste disposal. This view is credible, given long-standing mismanagement of the clean-up at Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington state, and the decades-long Yucca Mountain imbroglio. In devising a new path forward, Secretary Chu’s Blue Ribbon Commission and Congressional decision-makers should ensure effectiveness, cost and risk assessments of various policy alternatives are coherently conveyed to the stakeholders, and that a public participation process is designed to draw on the aggregated perspectives of constituencies far broader than those most intimately and loudly engaged.
Nuclear power will remain an important source of electricity in the U.S. Approximately 20 percent of the nation’s electricity comes from nuclear power, including about 70 percent of our clean, non-carbon electricity (1). By 2035 in the U.S., nuclear power generation will grow 11 percent from 2008 and comprise 17 percent of the total electricity mix. Renewables such as wind, solar, hydro and geothermal will provide 17 percent of U.S. electricity in 2035 – vs. 9 percent in ‘08; natural gas 21 percent – the same as in ‘08; and coal 44 percent -vs. 48 percent in ‘08. The percentage of 2035 electricity provided by nuclear power could go higher than the projected 17 percent if economic growth or the price of oil are higher than baseline projections (2).
More than 100 reactors are operating in U.S. now, and applications are pending for 33 more. There are 104 nuclear power reactor sites in the United States (3). Higher natural gas prices now favor continued operation of U. S. nuclear plants, including those of older vintage (4). There are 22 new applications for 33 new U.S. nuclear reactors currently pending before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (5).
President Obama strongly supports nuclear power. President Obama has voiced strong support for increased nuclear power to help meet the nation’s growing electricity needs, and has said he aims by 2011 to secure $54.5 billion in loan guarantees for construction of new nuclear power plants (6).
337 more nuclear power reactors are now operating outside U.S., and that number could grow by 150 by 2020. Worldwide, more than 50 new reactors are under construction and 100 more expected to begin operations by 2020 (7). There are 441 nuclear reactors in operation globally, including 337 outside the U.S. (8). Total global use of nuclear power for electricity is projected to grow 380 million gigawatts in 2007 to 593 gigawatts in 2035, or 64 percent. The average annual growth rate for nuclear-powered electricity in developed nations is projected to be .6 percent versus 1.6 percent in developing nations (9).
There will be 153 million metric tons of high level nuclear waste in the U.S. by 2055. High-level nuclear waste has accumulated at government sites including the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington State, and the Savannah River facility in South Carolina, but the vast majority of it comes from spent nuclear fuel at commercial reactor sites which produce electricity (10). There is high level nuclear waste accumulating in 35 states at 80 sites. As of 2009, the U.S. has produced 70,000 metric tons of high level nuclear waste and is expected to generate 153 million metric tons of it by 2055 (11).
The Yucca Mountain deep geologic repository for high level nuclear waste is in limbo. Amendments approved by Congress to the 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act required a deep geologic repository to be built at Yucca Mountain, in Nevada for long term disposal of high level nuclear waste. The project was to have opened in 1998, but has not yet occured. Based on U.S. Department of Energy estimates, taxpayers will pay $12.3 billion through 2020 and up to $500 million per year thereafter for the federal government to settle lawsuits with utility companies stemming from the failure to open Yucca Mountain on time (12). Utility customers had paid special fees forwarded to the U.S. government meant to help cover costs of developing Yucca Mountain.
An advisory commission to the Energy Secretary will take a new look at policies for high level nuclear waste. The U.S. Department of Energy submitted an application for licensing the Yucca Mountain facility to the NRC in June of 2008 (13). But in 2009, President Obama directed Energy Sec. Steven Chu to withdraw the application. Chu complied, saying Yucca Mountain “was not a workable option,” and appointed the Blue Ribbon Commission On America’s Nuclear Future to take a new look at long term solutions to handling and reducing high level nuclear waste.
Dry casks now, perhaps salt domes later. Chu believes there may be potential to reduce future high-level nuclear waste during the nuclear energy production cycle, by developing technologies that allow reactors that burn down plutonium. He also argues that current high level nuclear waste can continue to be stored safely on site at power plants in above-ground dry casks, and that the ultimate solution for long term disposal of high level waste that cannot be disposed of during the production cycle may prove to be to bury them in salt domes (14). Even if an on site dry cask broke open due to human error or natural disaster, the risk of a resulting cancer death within 10 miles over the long term would be infinitesimal (15). Currently, there are are 55 U.S. sites where dry cask storage is used, and the process is considered by the NRC to be safe and environmentally sound, free of radiation releases which have affected the public and free of known sabotage attempts (16). The NRC also reports that dry casks are highly unlikely to yield any significant release of nuclear radiation if attacked, but that plant operators have plans in place for that eventuality (17).
The Yucca Mountain tussle is not over yet. However, Yucca Mountain’s political obituary may be somewhat premature. The states of Washington and South Carolina – which each have high level nuclear waste and hazardous chemical wastes resulting from weapons production for the U.S. government – were joined by a national utility commissioners association in filing suit with a panel of the NRC called the U.S. Atomic Licensing Safety Board, to block the Energy Department’s withdrawal of the Yucca Mountain application. In late June of 2010, the ALSB issued a ruling, now being contested, which stated the Energy Department could not withdraw the application; only Congress has that authority. The panel noted that In 2008, Energy submitted a 17-volume, 8,600-page licensing application, based on several decades of work estimated to have cost $10 billion, and that in its request to withdraw the application, the department conceded the application was not flawed and the Yucca Mountain site was not unsafe (18). Additionally, the NRC is continuing to process Energy’s 2008 Yucca Mountain licensing application and last week issued approval of the first part, which provided general information for a safety evaluation report (19).
Concerns remain high in Washington state about lack of a long term U.S. strategy for high level nuclear waste disposal. Despite the White House’s intention to drop Yucca Mountain licensing, and despite assurances about the safety of dry cask storage, concerns remain pronounced in some quarters, including Washington state, about the federal government’s inability after several decades of study and formal process to settle on a strategy for long term disposal of high level nuclear wastes.
The disturbing legacy of Hanford persists. In recent testimony delivered at a Richland, Washington hearing of the Blue Ribbon Commission On America’s Nuclear Future, Washington Attorney General Rob McKenna noted that reprocessing of spent fuel used to manufacture plutonium for U.S. nuclear weapons between 1944 and 1989 at the Department of Energy’s Hanford Nuclear Reservation on 586 square miles in south central Washington state has resulted in 53 million gallons of radioactive and chemically hazardous waste in 177 underground storage tanks there, 149 of which are outdated “single shell” models an average 42 years past their 25-year life cycle, and “unfit for use” under state and federal standards.
Hanford groundwater contamination poses risks to Columbia River and Pacific Northwest. Sixty-seven of the 149 “unfit for use” tanks at Hanford are “known or suspected leakers,” from which have flowed one million gallons of waste into the area’s soils, some of it now reaching the groundwater of the Hanford site, which eventually travels to the Columbia River and poses “a serious threat of irreversible environmental harm in Washington and beyond” (20). The degree of environmental risk was not quantified in his testimony.
An independent federal analysis says Hanford region health risks have been poorly assessed. In a September, 2009 report on Hanford, the Government Accountability Office stated that the tanks do contain large amounts of hazardous chemical waste, but that 98 percent of the tank wastes’ radioactivity comes from two elements, Strontium-90 and Cesium-137, which lose their effect within 29 and 30 years, respectively. Energy has failed to provide an adequate overall analysis of the risk to public health from Hanford nuclear waste despite production of various project-related environmental impact statements. Additionally, close examination shows it is very unclear if Energy can collect and accurately categorize Hanford wastes on schedule; properly execute pre-treatment; and over the long term, process more than half of anticipated low level nuclear waste (21).
The planned $12.3 billion Hanford waste treatment plant now under construction could be undermined by abandonment of Yucca Mountain facility. A planned waste treatment plan for Hanford would process into glass logs for long term disposal the site’s nuclear waste, 90 percent of which is low-level and would remain on-site, and the 10 percent which is high-level and was to be sent to Yucca Mountain, pending approval of the license application. The decision to possibly abandon the Yucca Mountain licensing process has major implications for construction of a $12.3 billion Waste Treatment Plant at Hanford. McKenna noted it is being designed specifically to meet Yucca Mountain plant design specifications. The Hanford Waste Treatment Plant complex is 52 percent built, and design and engineering – including elements specific to conformance with the Yucca Mountain facility – is 78 percent completed. If the Yucca Mountain licensing application is not allowed to proceed, the new Hanford treatment plant might have to be torn down and rebuilt to meet new design and engineering specifications of a replacement facility (22).
Secretary Chu, in contrast, has stressed that the commission’s main responsibility is not to make a siting decision, to but to focus on the best scientific solutions for future and current high level nuclear waste (23).
Washington State University sociologist says Energy Department must rebuild public trust around high level waste disposal. A recent paper published in the journal Science by a team of 16 national scholars on the societal challenges attached to high level nuclear waste disposal policy (24), and led by Washington State University sociologist Eugene Rosa, asserts that the Blue Ribbon Commission and the Department of Energy must act to repair the badly-damaged public trust created by “mishandling of wastes from military weapons facilities” such as Hanford. Recent research into nuclear facility siting shows the importance of engaging impacted publics early, eliciting the questions most important to community stake-holders, ensuring that expectations for a fair and inclusive process are met, and focusing on the societal challenge as much as the technical challenge. To begin to model new best practices, the authors write, the Blue Ribbon Commission could create a special subcommittee to develop procedures for more meaningful public involvement in nuclear waste management policy and siting decisions. (25)
The Blue Ribbon Commission’s mandate does not emphasize the actual modeling of best practices around transparency and meaningful public engagement. At present, the Blue Ribbon Commission On America’s Nuclear Future has appointed subcommittees to examine only nuclear waste disposal, reactor fuel cycle technology, and transportation storage (26). Moreover, the Commission’s charter does not itself embrace transparency or community engagement. On that point, it merely says that among its duties are to recommend options “to ensure that decisions on management of used nuclear fuel and nuclear weapons are open and transparent, with broad participation.” (27). However, the commission is not a decision-making body. It is advisory only. Its final report to Sec. Chu is due in March 2012. He in turn reports to President Obama, while it is Congress which must ultimately approve any new amendments to the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982.
CONCLUSION: The deep geologic repository strategy for handling high level nuclear waste took 26 years to move from creation of a legislative platform for policy development to submission by the Department of Energy to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission of the now-muddled licensing proposal for the Yucca Mountain facility. It would serve the nation well if the replacement strategy – whatever it is now to be – took considerably less time to resolve and begin to enact, in no small part because the U.S. government must demonstrate to diverse stakeholder groups that it once and for all can summon the wisdom and leadership to act in society’s best interests in determining long term policy for disposal of high level nuclear waste. Barring some unforseen technological breakthrough and implementation at costs unknown, high level nuclear waste in the U.S. is projected to grow exponentially between 2009 and 2055. Getting to a consensus solution for its long term disposal will remain exceedingly difficult – more so because of the seemingly abrupt and poorly supported about-face by the U.S. Department of Energy on Yucca Mountain. This in turn heightens the need to build transparency and earn trust for the next “preferred option.” Effectiveness, cost and risk assessments of various policy alternatives should be coherently conveyed to stakeholders, and a public participation process designed to draw on the aggregated perspectives of constituencies far broader than those most intimately and loudly engaged.
1 – U.S. Department of Energy, Statement of U.S. Department of Energy Sec. Steven Chu to U.S. House Committee on Science and Technology, 3/3/10
2 – U.S. Energy Information Administration, Annual Energy Outlook 2010, Electricity Projections
3 – Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Map of reactor sites
4 – U.S. Energy Information Administration, “U.S. Nuclear Power Plants: Continued Life, Or Replacement After 60?”
5- Eugene Rosa, Washington State University, et al, “Nuclear Waste: Knowledge Waste?” Science, 8/13/10
6 – Rosa, et al, Ibid
7 – Rosa, et al, Ibid
8 – International Atomic Energy Agency, “Nuclear Reactors In Operation Worldwide”
9 – U.S. Energy Information Administration International Energy Outlook 2010, Reference Case Projections For Electricity Capacity And Generation By Fuel, 7/10
10 – Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Radioactive Waste Backgrounder
11 – U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), “Nuclear Waste Management: Key Attributes, Challenges And Costs For The Yucca Mountain Repository,” 11/4/09
12 – GAO, 11/4/09, Ibid
13 – U.S. Department of Energy, Application to Nuclear Regulatory Commission for licensing of Yucca Mountainhigh level long term nuclear waste facility, 6/3/08.
14 – MIT Technology Review, Q & A with Steven Chu,” 5/14/10
15 – Nuclear Regulatory Commission, A Pilot Probabilistic Risk Assessment Of A Dry Cask Storage System At A Nuclear Power Plant,” 3/07
16 – Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Fact Sheet On Dry Cask Storage Of Spent Nuclear Fuel
17 – Nuclear Regulatory Commission, FAQ’s On NRC’s Response To 9/11/01 Events
18 – U.S. Atomic Safety Licensing Board, Ruling of June 29, 2010
19 – U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Safety Evaluation Report Related to Disposal of High Level Radioactive Wastes In a Geologic Repository at Yucca Mountain, Nevada: Vol. 1, General Information, 8/23/10
20 – Washington State Attorney General Rob McKenna, Testimony to Blue Ribbon Commission On America’s Nuclear Future, 7/13/10
21 – Government Accountability Office, Uncertainties And Questions About Costs And Risks Persist With Department Of Energy’s Tank Waste Cleanup Strategy At Hanford,” 9/09
22- McKenna, Ibid
23 – Steven Chu, in meeting minutes of Blue Ribbon Commission On America’s Nuclear Future, 3/25-26/10
24, 25 – Rosa et al, Ibid.