Implementation of a new federal nuclear spent fuel–handling program starting in 2020 to remove 6,000 metric tons of uranium (MTU) per year for 10 years and 3,000 MTU per year thereafter could allow for full decommissioning of U.S. sites awaiting fuel removal. It would also enable retirement of all private Independent Spent Fuel Storage Installations by 2030, and achieve approximately a 10% reduction in average wet pool density, a new study from consulting firm The Brattle Group suggests.

Delaying such a program by 10 years could cost the industry $1.6 billion in increased at-reactor storage costs and would represent a “failure to respond in a timely fashion” to lessons from the March 2011 Fukushima crisis, the report says.

The report comes on the heels of an Aug. 7 decision by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to suspend the approval process for nuclear license extensions until it has taken a closer look at the safety of on-site spent nuclear fuel. Titled "Centralized Dry Storage of Nuclear Fuel: Lessons for U.S. Policy from Industry Experience and Fukushima," the report notes that though it is "unlikely" that any U.S. reactors face an environmental threat comparable to the nuclear disaster at Fukushima, where the housings of four spent fuel pools were badly damaged by an earthquake and tsunami, the U.S. has yet to implement a timely spent fuel disposal program.

With plans for a permanent waste repository at Yucca Mountain, Nev., paralyzed, all 104 commercial nuclear plants in the U.S. have spent fuel pools that are filled with "roughly five reactor cores of spent fuel, and most have also had to build on-site dry storage facilities (ISFSIs) for handling fuel discharges in excess of pool capacities," it notes.

The January 2012 report by the Obama administration’s appointed Blue Ribbon Commission recommended that the federal government restart a spent fuel–handling program at one or a few centralized, interim dry storage facilities, yet "no studies to date have assesses what size and pace of program might address today’s needs," the consulting firm says in its report.

The report’s authors propose that a program beginning in 2020 and capable of handling 6,000 MTU per year could be the best solution. Within a decade, it could effectively end unnecessary at-reactor storage costs, clear out fuel from all decommissioned sites, and reduce the density of fuel in wet pools, they claim. “Given the extensive experience with ISFSI operations over the past decade, this size program should be achievable, and it may even pay for itself from savings in reactor-site O&M costs,” they say.

The report suggests that such a program’s initial costs could be funded “comfortably” through the Nuclear Waste Fund, for which annual amounts of roughly $800 million are being collected from nuclear plant operators. The report cites a 2009 study by the Electric Power Research Institute that estimates the capital cost for a 60,000-MTU site (about 6,000 casks) to be $757 million.

“A site this size would be able to handle all the spent fuel currently in at-reactor ISFSIs and all the additional spent fuel discharges through 2030,” the report says. “Two of these facilities would be large enough to hold the entire industry’s discharges from existing plants, including all fuel currently stored in wet pools and all future discharges through 2050. The capital cost for one of these sites could be covered with a single year’s collections under the current funding mechanism—meaning the new program could be pursued without putting any new strain on federal budgets (no new taxes or borrowing).”

The alternative is much worse, the report points out. As the backlog of unmoved, spent at-reactor fuel continues to pile up in the U.S., the costs of maintaining numerous facilities would continue to accumulate as a federal liability, it says.

“Delaying a program much beyond 2020 would have adverse engineering and economic consequences in the U.S.,” said Brattle principal and co-author Frank Graves in a statement. “This is a situation where ‘the perfect would be the enemy of the good.’ The knowledge and technology to produce a safe and successful program at a reasonable cost already exist, without any uncertainties in areas that should pose a barrier to action. The U.S. government should find the political will to act soon.”

Sources: POWERnews, The Brattle Group