Spent Nuclear Fuel: Is Off-Site Storage Now Off the Agenda?

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s recent “waste confidence” ruling, which declares storage of spent fuel at reactor sites safe indefinitely, could fundamentally undercut the decades-long U.S. policy of seeking an off-site, permanent burial site for high-level nuclear waste.

A five-decades-old goal of the U.S. nuclear power industry, its regulators, and the Department of Energy (DOE)—permanent, off-site disposal of spent reactor fuel—has been on life support for about the past 20 years. Today, it appears to be even nearer death.

The formal order recognizing the likely end game for off-site storage may have come from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) in an Aug. 26 proceeding the NRC has called, without any acknowledgement of terminological irony, the “waste confidence” proceeding. The NRC describes this as a “generic determination regarding the environmental impacts of storing spent nuclear fuel (SNF) beyond the licensed life for operation of a nuclear power plant.” In late August, the NRC said it is confident that spent fuel can be stored in reactor fuel pools for 60 years and in licensed above-ground, dry casks for 100 more years and beyond.

The NRC decision is both good news and bad news for nuclear power plant operators and the nuclear industry. It clears the way for the commission to issue licenses for new plant construction, which have been on hold for two years as the NRC reviewed the spent fuel issue. That’s the good news, although few analysts expect a rush of license applications to result.

The waste confidence finding does allow the NRC to extend the operating licenses for the two-unit Limerick station outside Philadelphia and give the two-unit Calvert Cliffs plant in Maryland an extension on its license for dry cask storage (see sidebar “From Wet to Dry Storage”).

From Wet to Dry StorageAbout a third of the nuclear fuel in a civilian power reactor gets replaced at each refueling, and is placed in deep pools at the facility, where it can shed both thermal heat and radiation. Originally, the idea in the industry was that when the spent fuel was cool enough to handle, it would be shipped to commercial sites for reprocessing. Commercial reprocessing failed in the U.S., and the government abandoned recycling technology.

In the early 1980s, utilities began to fear that their fuel pools were filling up and could not be easily enlarged, although they can be “re-racked” to accommodate more fuel assemblies in the pools. That’s a temporary fix, and utilities soon began looking at ways to safely store used fuel outside of the pool but still on the reactor site, freeing up pool space for recently replaced fuel rods.

Dry casks, according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), “typically have a sealed metal cylinder to contain the spent fuel enclosed within a metal or concrete outer shell to provide radiation shielding. In some designs, casks are set vertically on a concrete pad; in others, they are placed horizontally.” The NRC licenses dry cask storage, giving utilities a pair of options. They can choose either a site-specific storage cask design, with an opportunity for a public hearing, or they can choose a “general license,” allowing use of any cask the agency has certified. The certification process is also open to public comment. To date, according to the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), there are nearly 2,000 canisters in use in the U.S. (Figure 1).

1. Casket for spent nuclear fuel. This schematic shows a vertical storage canister (blue) inside a concrete cask (gray) with inlet and outlet access vents. Courtesy: EPRI

Some anti-nuclear groups have claimed that the casks are, in the words of Arnie Gundersen of Vermont’s Fairewinds Energy Education, “sitting ducks for terrorist targets, easily penetrated by armor-piercing equipment terrorists have.” The NRC responds, in typically low-key fashion, that such a scenario has a “very low probability of a successful attack.” According to the NRC, “Since the first casks were loaded in 1986, dry storage has released no radiation that affected the public or contaminated the environment. There have been no known or suspected attempts to sabotage cask storage facilities.”

As the use of the on-site dry storage technology spreads, as appears certain, there will also be research and development efforts to improve the technology. EPRI is looking at technical issues associated with dry cask storage. One problem that has cropped up is that some canisters may develop stress-corrosion cracking (tiny cracks in the metal) as a result of chlorine. This appears to be more common in marine environments.

EPRI says it is “identifying promising nondestructive evaluation technologies, investigating robotic delivery systems, and building representative mockups of canister designs for testing and demonstration.”

The nuclear industry says it is pleased with the NRC regulation. Ellen Ginsberg, general counsel at the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), the industry’s Washington lobbying group, told POWER in mid-September that the industry is “very supportive of the NRC issuance of a rule that involves a full analysis of on-site and off-site storage.” She praised the NRC for a two-year process that “engaged the public very extensively,” with public meetings throughout the country. The work was thorough, Ginsberg said, noting that the completeness of the Generic Environmental Impact Statement is demonstrated by its bulk, some four inches thick.

The bad news is that the NRC ruling undercuts any urgency for development of a permanent resting place for spent nuclear fuel, probably dashing moves by the industry and its supporters in Congress to try to resurrect the DOE’s Yucca Mountain underground burial project in Nevada. Begun in the 1980s, by 2009, Yucca Mountain was a dead project walking. The new Obama administration, paying off a political debt to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), authorized euthanasia for the troubled repository.

Backers of Yucca Mountain insist that the project should go forward, as spent fuel is piling up at U.S. reactors, with pool storage slots filling up and dry cask storage presumably a short-term answer. The NEI says, “Underground disposal in a specially designed facility is an essential element of a sustainable, integrated used nuclear fuel management program. The industry supports the completion of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s review of the DOE license application to build a repository at Yucca Mountain, Nevada.”

The NRC’s late August decision undermines that industry position. The NRC said, “Although future repository availability remains an important consideration because it provides an eventual disposition path for spent fuel, it is no longer needed to provide a time limit for the environmental impacts analysis because the [generic environmental impact statement] evaluates the environmental impacts of indefinite storage.”

NEI’s Ginsberg said she doesn’t see the NRC ruling as having any implications for permanent off-site waste disposal. “This regulation is a component of licensing of nuclear power plants,” she said. “It does not change the government’s obligation. The NRC has no responsibility for the [waste disposal] program. It doesn’t sanction long-term onsite or offsite storage.” That responsibility belongs to the DOE, the administration in power in the White House, and Congress.

In June 2012, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit rejected the NRC’s 2010 waste confidence—that on-site storage in spent fuel pools was safe for up to 60 years—finding that it violated the National Environmental Policy Act. The court grounded its decision in part on the failure of the regulators to consider the possibility that no permanent, central repository would be available in 60 years and the waste would have to be stored outside of the reactor and on site.

The New York Times commented in August, “The decision, in a unanimous vote of the commission on Tuesday, means that new nuclear plants can be built and old ones can expand their operations despite the lack of a long-term plan for disposing of the waste.”

Although she voted for the policy, NRC Chairman Allison Macfarlane told the Times, “If you make the assumption that there will be some kind of institution that will exist, like the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, that will assure material stays safe for hundreds or thousands of years, there’s not much impetus for Congress to want to deal with this issue.” She added, “Personally, I think that we can’t say with any certainty what the future will look like. We’re pretty damned poor at predicting the future.”

A History of Wasted Opportunities

The story of past U.S. efforts to deal with radioactive wastes from its atomic endeavor is a tale of sometimes willful ignorance, misdirected science, poisonous politics, and feckless policy. During the Army’s Manhattan Project in World War II, the scientists and engineers involved in building the first atomic bombs paid scant attention to what was left behind after stripping U-235 from U-238 or creating plutonium. Their issue was urgency, to create an atomic bomb before our adversaries could. That left behind a nasty chemical and radioactive brew, which ended up being stored in tank farms and largely forgotten. Much of this dangerous liquid waste remains in place today at DOE weapons sites, defying decades of failed promises of cleanup.

When the U.S. created a quasi-civilian agency after the war—the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC)—to take over management of the atom from the Army, the AEC’s first head, David Lilienthal, named a Johns Hopkins University sanitary engineering professor, Abel Wolman, to an AEC advisory committee on safety and industrial health. After visiting AEC’s labs and facilities in 1947, Wolman and a colleague, Arthur Gorman, produced a damning 1948 report on the state of nuclear waste management. A 1997 DOE history of nuclear waste management described the Wolman report as finding that the government waste program was “negligent.” Shortly after that report, the AEC began taking on waste management as an important task and appointed Gorman to run the agency’s waste program.

But Wolman and Gorman got pushback from AEC scientists and encountered the often byzantine politics of the AEC. At the AEC meeting where Wolman’s report was unveiled, noted and controversial physicist Robert Oppenheimer dismissed waste disposal as “unimportant.” NRC official historian Samuel Walker said Oppenheimer’s view was “a prevalent judgment among physicists and other scientists who held influential posts with the AEC.” The next 15 years saw little progress in cleaning up the waste tanks the bomb makers left in their wake.

The arrival of civilian nuclear power plants in the 1960s and 1970s complicated the AEC’s waste management responsibilities by adding SNF to the equation. The civilian plants became an AEC priority after President Dwight D. Eisenhower gave his famous “Atoms for Peace” speech at the United Nations in 1954 and Congress responded with the 1954 Atomic Energy Act. By 1955, the AEC’s Glenn Seaborg warned that radioactive waste “may well be a limiting factor” in the development of civilian nuclear power plants. The next year, a National Academy of Sciences panel that Wolman chaired called radioactive waste “an unparalleled problem.”

Plan A: Custom Burial

The AEC’s response was a 1970 program to develop waste storage in deep salt beds located in Kansas. The national academy had highlighted salt beds as favorable for underground storage, because they tend to be dry. Cracks and fissures are self-sealing because salt has plasticity. Kansas looked good because it was located in the central U.S., largely equidistant from possible reactor sites.

There was a problem. It turned out the AEC did a poor job of reconnoitering the site it chose near Lyons, Kansas. After investing much money and scientific credibility in the site, it became clear that the government had failed to account for many oil and gas wells that had been drilled into the Kansas salt deposit, leaving multiple pathways for corrosive water to attack the metal canisters that the agency planned to use to store the waste. That project collapsed and the AEC was back to the beginning on how to store nuclear waste.

Up until the mid-1970s, the industry expected that it would recycle reactor fuel, chopping it up, dissolving it in chemicals and extracting plutonium for new reactor fuel. That had two drawbacks: It was a nasty process, leaving behind the same kind of liquid wastes stored at weapons sites such as Hanford, Wash., and it was a path to proliferation of atomic bombs. President Gerald Ford temporarily halted reprocessing and President Jimmy Carter made that step permanent. That meant the focus now had to be on what to do with used fuel rods themselves.

As part of the Carter administration’s waste policy, growing from the decision to ban reprocessing, Carter, then Ronald Reagan, and Congress worked together to pass the 1982 nuclear waste law. Its premise was to spread the political pain of housing a nuclear waste site, promising to develop more than one SNF cemetery. The premise proved faulty when the Reagan administration, facing political heat in some of the potential repository states, dropped the second round of site selection under the waste law. Seeking to resolve the siting issue entirely, Congress in 1987 designated Nevada’s Yucca Mountain site, located on federal land, as the repository, prompting a political rear-guard action from the Nevada congressional delegation, led by a little-known Democratic senator named Harry Reid.

Plan B: WIPP

Well before work was finished at Yucca Mountain, Reid had risen to the post of the leader of the U.S. Senate. To shorten a long, convoluted story, he and new President Barack Obama effectively killed the project by choking off the money and stopping work at the DOE. However, the DOE continued to operate a salt-bed repository in New Mexico for military transuranic waste (Figure 2). On Feb. 5, that facility, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) experienced an underground salt haul truck fire that was followed nine days later by the underground breach of a storage container and consequent radiation leak.

2. Waste transfer. A shipment of transuranic waste rolls down the highway en route to burial at the Carlsbad, N.M., Waste Isolation Pilot Project. Source: POWER

On Valentine’s Day, Feb. 14, 2014, the most successful U.S. nuclear waste disposal project in the sad history of nuclear waste management turned from a shining example into an embarrassing question mark. WIPP, authorized by Congress in 1979 and begun by the Carter administration in deep salt beds near Carlsbad, N.M., was successfully storing low-level military wastes contaminated by transuranic isotopes.

On the lovers’ holiday, a 55-gallon drum of waste buried some 2,100 feet under the desert exploded and spread radiation not only underground but into a ventilation duct and to the surface, where 21 workers got low doses. Seven months after the event, the DOE was still scratching its bureaucratic head about the event. The Los Angeles Times commented that the explosion at WIPP “gave the nation’s elite ranks of nuclear chemists a mystery they still cannot unravel.”

It took over 20 years and more than a billion dollars to get WIPP opened in 1992, and only minutes to shut it down in 2014. During its operation, according to an investigation in May by DOE officials, management at WIPP got lax, and the technology used to monitor, track, and map the waste canisters became outmoded.

The WIPP accident has also caused sparring between DOE and state officials. The Santa Fe New Mexican reported that Ryan Flynn, head of the New Mexico Environment Department, warned that DOE and its Los Alamos National Lab, which sends waste to WIPP, could face sanctions for foot-dragging on his inquiries. (WIPP is managed by a URS-led partnership, Nuclear Waste Partnership LLC.) Flynn told the newspaper, “The problem is that Department of Energy headquarters back in Washington, D.C., is looking at this situation through a political or [public relations] lens, so they’ve put a noose around the scientific personnel who can answer our questions and move this process along.”

When will WIPP reopen? No one knows for sure, although a multistep DOE recovery plan released Sept. 30 aims to resume using the facility in the first quarter of 2016. How much will it cost to get WIPP working again? Another completely open question, although the Los Angeles Times quoted an expert who estimated the price tag for fixing WIPP could run to a billion dollars—or as much as it cost to build it. The September DOE plan estimates that costs up to reopening will total $242 million, not including capital costs for a new ventilation system and exhaust shaft.

Prior to the recent trouble at WIPP, there had been discussion of expanding the facility or building a similar one to permanently store SNF—an idea that was even supported by Macfarlane. Despite the recent events at WIPP, residents of southeastern New Mexico continue to support the project.

Plan C: Stay Put

So what’s left? The NRC’s waste confidence proceeding provides what likely will be the answer for many years to come: storage of spent fuel first in reactor pools and then, when the fuel has cooled sufficiently, in large, dry concrete and steel casks, also located on the reactor site, with the companies that own and operate the plants having the responsibility of managing the waste.

While the de facto waste confidence decision wins support from the industry as a temporary measure, it pleases neither the nuclear industry nor anti-nuclear groups as a long-term solution. Both back long-term, geological storage away from the reactor site. Geoffrey Fettus of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) said in a statement: “The Nuclear Regulatory Commission failed to analyze the long-term environmental consequences of indefinite storage of highly toxic and radioactive nuclear waste; the risks of which are apparent to any observer of history over the past 50 years.”

The industry wants the waste off site and out of mind, or, at least, their minds. “Industry has not given up on pressing government to meet its current obligations” under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, NEI’s Ginsberg said. She added that the politics could change, with a mid-term election this year and a presidential election in 2016. “The industry is eager to see movement toward resurrecting Yucca Mountain or a new approach that is efficient and cost-effective.”

The waste confidence ruling and the NRC’s generic environmental impact statement may land in court again, as the NRDC is suggesting it may seek judicial review. The NRDC brought the 2012 case that forced the NRC to rewrite its policy and the large, well-funded environmental group is hinting that it may take the agency to court one more time. Fettus, the lead attorney for the NRDC, said of the latest NRC action, “The commission failed to follow the express directions of the Court.” ■

Kennedy Maize is a POWER contributing editor.