Federal Control of Nuclear Waste Hamstrings Industry

Published October 12, 2015

The nuclear power industry in the United States has been held back by a dysfunctional, federally controlled, centrally planned system of nuclear waste management, say the authors of a new study by The Heritage Foundation.

The report says the bipartisan Senate bill aimed at reforming nuclear waste management, The Nuclear Waste Administration Act, fails to address core issues plaguing the treatment of spent nuclear fuel.

The Heritage Foundation study, titled “Fooled Again: The Nuclear Waste Administration Act Preserves Futile Status Quo,” notes commercial nuclear plants provide 19 percent of the nation’s electrical power without emitting any carbon dioxide. The study was coauthored by Jack Spencer, a vice president at the Institute for Economic Freedom and Opportunity, and Katie Tubb, a research associate at The Heritage Foundation.

“Given developments in the past several years to get nuclear waste management on track, Congress must seize the opportunity to put forth an approach that takes advantage of market forces and that properly aligns incentives and responsibility for lasting reform,” Spencer and Tubb wrote.

The report argues the pending bill would make implementing reforms for necessary “rational,” long-term management almost impossible. 

Calls for a New Direction

Sam Brinton, a member of the American Nuclear Society and senior policy analyst for the Bipartisan Policy Center, says nuclear waste currently is stored near roughly 100 nuclear power plants across the country and at sites controlled by the Department of Energy (DOE).

“Although nuclear waste can be safely stored in these locations, challenges on consolidating the waste to regional or national locations and the consent-based process which can lead to such consolidation are still being studied,” Brinton said. “We are excited to note that legislation on the topic of nuclear waste management continues to be proposed.”

The proposed legislation sets two objectives. It aims to “establish a new consensual process for the siting of nuclear waste management facilities; and to provide for centralized storage of nuclear waste, pending completion of a repository.”

“These will be essential steps in the successful management of nuclear waste.” Brinton said.

Federal Control Seen as Problem

The authors of The Heritage Foundation study disagree, arguing the fundamental stumbling block to long-term nuclear spent fuel management has been federal control of the process.

“The Nuclear Waste Administration Act does not solve fundamental problems in the current approach; it continues, if not expands, the dysfunction of waste management during the past 30 years,” Spencer and Tubb wrote. “Simply re-assigning responsibility to another federal bureaucracy does nothing to fix the root problem—namely that the federal government is responsible for commercial nuclear waste management and disposal rather than the industry itself.”

The study notes the 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act as amended in 1987 identified Yucca Mountain in Nevada as the site for a national repository. After 20 years of studies and wrangling, in 2008 the Department of Energy applied for a license with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to build a facility at the Yucca Mountain site, only to have the Obama administration unilaterally direct DOE to withdraw its license application. The NRC technical staff finished its safety evaluation report of the Yucca Mountain site in 2015 and found the site would be technologically feasible and safe.

“Meanwhile, nuclear waste continues to pile up and taxpayer liability continues to grow,” Spencer and Tubb wrote. “Today, the federal government remains liable for over 71,000 tons of commercial spent nuclear fuel, which it has yet to collect and for which electricity users have been paying into the Nuclear Waste Fund through a fee assessed by the utilities.

“This liability grows as America’s nuclear power reactors continue to produce roughly 2,000 tons of waste every year,” the study reports. “The federal government has already paid out $4.5 billion in taxpayers’ money in settlements to nuclear power plants that store nuclear waste on site. The DOE estimates the remaining liability at $22.6 billion, assuming a pilot storage facility by 2021. Industry, however, assumes at least $50 billion in liabilities.”

Alyssa Carducci ([email protected]) writes from Tampa, Florida.

Internet Info

Jack Spencer, Katie Tubb, “Fooled Again: The Nuclear Waste Administration Act Preserves Futile Status Quo,” The Heritage Foundation, August 5, 2015: https://heartland.org/policy-documents/fooled-again-nuclear-waste-administration-act-preserves-futile-status-quo