Abandoning Nevada's Yucca Mountain as a potential long-term repository for nuclear waste was an Obama campaign promise, and it garnered public support in the state and from opponents of nuclear power everywhere.
Now that the Department of Energy has officially begun the process to withdraw its application, though, it is clear that not everyone shares the same desire to shutter the decades-old project.
The National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, or NARUC, filed a brief with the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board earlier this week arguing that proper processes were not followed to withdraw the application. They also argue that billions of dollars of the public's money has been spent on the project at Yucca Mountain, and abandoning it now is a step in the wrong direction.
"If we don't go to Yucca Mountain, what do we do?" asked Brian O'Connell, the director of the nuclear waste program office at NARUC. "The answer is, we have the status quo for an indefinite period until something else comes along."
The decision to shutter the nation's only suggested long-term geologic repository for nuclear waste comes at an interesting time. The first government loan guarantees are out the door to help build the first new nuclear reactors in more than a decade, and general talk of a nuclear revival has forced the oft-maligned power source back into the energy conversation. O'Connell's question, then, is all the more relevant—if we aim to produce more nuclear waste, where are we going to put it?
There are no other geologic repositories up for discussion, but the DOE has recently formed a commission that will study the question for two years.
"President Obama is fully committed to ensuring that the Nation meets our long-term storage obligations for nuclear waste," the DOE's general counsel, Scott Blake Harris, said in a statement.
For the moment, there aren't a lot of ideas for meeting those obligations. According to the DOE's Energy Information Administration's most recent data set (2002), there are more than 47,000 metric tons of spent uranium in the country, with about another 2,000 metric tons produced each year. That means there are more than 100 million pounds of nuclear waste needing a permanent storage solution.
Currently, nuclear waste is first stored in cooling pools and then in metal and concrete casks at the nuclear power plants themselves; these casks have a good safety history, and will apparently suffice for at least a few more decades. And given the pace of long-term storage research and development to-date, they are much needed decades.
There have been discussions, meanwhile, of temporary regional storage options for radioactive waste. According to Dave Kraft, director of the Illinois-based nuclear watchdog group Nuclear Energy Information Service, dealings in the Illinois state legislature could position the state as a "de facto radioactive waste dump."
The state senate voted this week to overturn a 23-year-old moratorium on the construction of new nuclear reactors in Illinois. Interestingly, the moratorium was put in place with the expressed purpose of waiting for a suitable permanent waste repository; Yucca Mountain was already under investigation at the time. Now that Yucca is off the table, that ban seems to make even more sense.
"If you use any kind of logic to the issue of regional temporary storage, you would want to minimize the amount of waste you move," Kraft said. "Because we have the most they're not likely to move ours out, they're more likely to move other states' in. So we see this as a backdoor threat to make Illinois some sort of a regional high level radioactive waste holding state."
Illinois and Reprocessing
Illinois is the darling state of the nuclear industry, ranking first in both nuclear capacity and generation and getting 48 percent of its electricity from nuclear power; the national share is 20 percent. It also ranks first in, as Kraft mentioned, the amount of waste it produces. The moratorium, Kraft said, made sense at the time and makes even more sense with Yucca Mountain's dismissal from consideration.
"The legislature wouldn't allow skyscrapers to be built in Chicago if they didn't have bathrooms," he said. "Well why should the industry be allowed to continue to operate if it doesn't have a place to dispose of some of the most hazardous substances humanity has ever created?"
Another option with spent fuel is reprocessing, where the fuel's components are separated and can be reused, or, as is the major point of contention with this technology, used in nuclear weapons. Several attempts have been made with reprocessing technologies in the US in the past without success. In Europe, several sites are operating, but sites in France and the United Kingdom have been plagued by problems including radioactive discharges that carried as far away as Norway.
"Reprocessing is a filthy technology, despite what anybody says," Kraft said. He also hypothesized that the Illinois Senate vote could be a "backdoor attempt" to let General Electric build an experimental type of reprocessing reactor called a pyroprocessing plant. Under the 1987 moratorium, construction of such a plant would not be allowed.
"Illinois has got enough nuclear plants and enough nuclear waste, and we don't need any more," Kraft said.
If the Yucca Mountain shutdown goes as planned, nuclear waste will stay on-site for the foreseeable future. And at least for the moment, Kraft doesn't think any push to use Illinois as a dumping ground will gain traction. He said the bill that passed 40-1 in the state Senate will likely stall in the House, or at worst with the Governor.
O'Connell stressed that there was no good reason given to shutter Yucca Mountain. "In the request to withdraw there was very skimpy reference to why," he said. "It was only that the Secretary of Energy has decided that a geologic repository at Yucca Mountain is not a workable option." Instead of closing it for good, he said, continuing to evaluate the 8,000-plus-page application submitted regarding Yucca Mountain in 2008 provides the best road forward.
"We want that process to continue, we think it is worth doing," he said. Kraft, along with nuclear opponents around the country, thinks otherwise: the best solution to dealing with nuclear waste is to not produce any.