Better Nuclear Waste Management Needed

Published November 1, 2008

Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) says he wants the United States to build 45 more nuclear power plants as a means of reducing our dependence on foreign oil.

This would certainly alleviate that problem, but if we are to accomplish that goal, we will need a better nuclear waste management system.

Fuel Imports

According to the Energy Information Administration (EIA), in 2007 the United States imported 63 percent of its crude oil. I can understand why candidates for elected office are telling the public we need to reduce our dependence on foreign oil.

However, in 2007 more than 92 percent of the uranium used in our commercial nuclear reactors was likewise purchased from foreign sources, according to EIA. Are there any candidates telling the public we need to reduce our dependence on foreign uranium?

In addition to the greenhouse gases emitted by coal-fired power plants, those plants release more radioactive materials (mainly uranium and thorium) into the environment than regulated nuclear power plants do. Also, their atmospheric emissions of radioactive materials are not restricted.

On the other hand, although nuclear power plants don’t emit greenhouse gases, they do produce nuclear waste in the forms of spent nuclear fuel and low-level radioactive waste (LLRW).

Recently there has been increased interest in spent nuclear fuel reprocessing and recycling because of ongoing resistance to the Yucca Mountain Geologic Repository. Instead of storing spent fuel, other industrialized nations, including the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and Japan, reprocess it.

If the United States were to do likewise, spent nuclear fuel reprocessing could help reduce our dependence on foreign uranium and reduce inventories of weapons-grade plutonium.

DOE Shortcomings

Unfortunately, many in the public and private sectors alike doubt the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) ability to manage civilian nuclear waste programs efficiently.

Several DOE nuclear projects have experienced significant cost overruns and dramatically extended project completion dates because of the lack of management possessing the necessary skills to manage such projects, and the apparent lack of accountability on the part of DOE project managers.

Due to extensive delays in the Yucca Mountain project, for example, several lawsuits have been filed against DOE by some nuclear utilities, seeking reimbursement for the costs incurred to build onsite dry cask storage facilities to accommodate spent nuclear fuel that exceeds the capacity of their fuel pools. A total of $60 billion or more will likely be awarded to the utilities.

However, DOE’s Nuclear Waste Fund has accumulated only $30 billion, including interest. Therefore, all U.S. Court of Claims awards will be paid out of the Judgment Fund, which is financed by ongoing tax revenue.

Waste Management Obstacles

While Congress is now addressing the commercial spent nuclear fuel issue, the nation also needs to address LLRW disposal.

The recent closure of the Atlantic Interstate LLRW Compact’s Barnwell, South Carolina disposal facility to non-compact LLRW generators has now denied 34 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico access to a disposal facility capable of accepting Classes B and C LLRW. In addition, the Barnwell facility is now 90 percent full.

The Low-Level Radioactive Waste Act of 1980, as amended, was supposed to resolve the disposal problems by establishing LLRW compacts among the various states. Approximately $600 million in federal funding was provided to the compacts to enable them to find and develop sites for disposing of commercially generated LLRW.

To date, however, only one new compact LLRW disposal facility site has been selected for development. The site, located in Texas, will accommodate Classes A, B, and C LLRW. Only Texas and Vermont are parties to this compact.

Fourteen other states have LLRW disposal support through their respective compacts.

The only other LLRW disposal facility to open recently is in Clive, Utah, and it is not part of any compact. The Clive facility can accept only Class A LLRW from all compacts except the Northwest Interstate Compact.

The lack of Class B and C LLRW disposal facilities has caused many commercial nuclear power plants, medical facilities, universities, and other LLRW generators to store their waste on site.

Legal Options Remain

One solution is for the generators of LLRW, and commissions in compacts that don’t have LLRW facilities, to file suit against the host states of their respective compacts.

After Nebraska refused to host an LLRW disposal facility, the Central Interstate LLRW Compact Commission and five utilities in the compact filed suit against the state. In February 2004 the U.S. Court of Appeals upheld a previous federal court judgment on the suit, awarding more than $151 million in total damages to the plaintiffs.

Similarly, North Carolina, the former host state for the Southeast LLRW Compact, withdrew from the compact and was sued by four compact member states and the compact’s commission to enforce $90 million in sanctions against North Carolina.

Structural Improvements

Perhaps the best solution to both the spent nuclear fuel and LLRW dilemmas is to create an autonomous federal agency specializing in civilian nuclear waste management.

I can appreciate attempts to form a public/private partnership to resolve our nation’s nuclear waste issues. Unfortunately, since the implementation of utility deregulation, utilities have been much less attentive to seniority and experience in retaining managers and key employees. Hence, a public-private partnership in nuclear waste management would mean matching a public bureaucracy of managers lacking the necessary skills and sense of accountability with an industry inclined to fire its senior, most experienced employees because they cost too much.

Our federal civilian nuclear waste program must be better managed. That is why I wrote the proposed Nuclear Waste Management Agency Act of 2008. The purpose of the legislation is to create a United States Nuclear Waste Management Agency. I believe this will create a better system for managing nuclear waste.

The purpose of the proposed agency is to promote and oversee the efficient management of all forms of nuclear waste. The proposed makeup of the board of governors for the agency will afford federal agencies, tribes, states, nuclear utilities, and other nuclear and environmental entities the opportunity to direct how the agency is managed so it won’t become another inept bureaucracy.

Clinton E. Crackel ([email protected]) is co-chairman of the Nuclear Fuels Reprocessing Coalition.

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