The U.S. Spent Nuclear Fuel Policy: Road to Nowhere

The Nuclear Waste Policy Act and Amendments of 1982 and 1987 established a national policy and schedule for developing geologic repositories for the disposal of spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive wastes. Those deadlines have come and gone; the cancellation of Yucca Mountain was only the latest failure of this policy to become reality. The task of finding a new storage location is now a political committee’s homework assignment. History tells us that committee members have been given an impossible task.

Source: NRC

The U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) two-paragraph March 3 press release describing its motion to withdraw its pending license application for Yucca Mountain was an indecent obituary for the disposal site’s brief 23-year life and $8 billion cost. The relatively short history of nuclear power in the U.S. reminds us that the Yucca Mountain project may have been doomed from the start. A number of permanent nuclear waste storage site projects have been cancelled over the past 45 years, although Yucca Mountain was exponentially the most expensive failure. History also tells us that political considerations will always trump technology when it comes to siting a nuclear waste repository.

The DOE’s terse statement was expected given the funding death spiral for the project over the past few years and a new president who promised to close Yucca Mountain: "The U.S. Department of Energy today filed a motion with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to withdraw the license application for a high-level nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain with prejudice."

This decision again leaves the power generation industry without a long-term spent nuclear fuel (SNF) disposal site, despite the federal government’s legal obligation to provide one. The pivotal difference between Yucca Mountain and previously cancelled projects: This time nuclear utilities collected billions of dollars from ratepayers to pay for the project (Figure 1).

1.    Gone but not forgotten. View of the above-ground support structures and north and south portals at the now-defunct Yucca Mountain repository. Source: Department of Energy/Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management (DOE/OCRWM)

Ratepayers Pay to (Not) Play

The nuclear industry is unique among energy producers in its contractual commitment to cover the full costs for managing its waste. The Nuclear Waste Policy Act (NWPA) of 1982 directed utilities to levy fees on electricity generated by nuclear power and to pay those fees into a federal Nuclear Waste Fund (NWF) that was to be used to develop and operate a national repository. In return for the payment of fees, the NWPA directed the federal government to accept ownership and begin disposing of the SNF and other high-level waste (HLW) no later than January 31, 1998. Those fees included the cost of transporting SNF to the repository.

Since 1983, consumers of electricity from nuclear power plants have paid approximately $32 billion into the NWF. Consumers in Alabama and Georgia, for example, have sent more than $1 billion to the NWF and continue to contribute over $44 million a year. The current balance in the NWF exceeds approximately $22 billion, and consumers nationwide are contributing about an additional $750 million a year. The difference between total collections and the current balance is roughly equal to the approximately $9 billion already spent on preparing the Yucca Mountain site to date.

The key unanswered question: Is the federal government responsible to reimburse ratepayers for the cancellation of Yucca Mountain? The U.S. Senate Committee on Environmental and Public Works weighed in on this issue in 2008 and prepared an estimate of the potentially huge long-term liabilities. The committee estimated additional liabilities of $7 billion by 2017 and $11 billion by 2020 should Yucca Mountain be cancelled.

The committee’s estimates seem to be in the ballpark, given the torrent of federal lawsuits that have been filed by utilities. First up was the suit filed by Energy Northwest in 2006. The U.S. Court of Federal Claims ruled on March 5, 2010, that the DOE owes Energy Northwest nearly $57 million in damages for breach of contract involving the former repository. The amount awarded offsets costs incurred by Energy Northwest to construct a used fuel storage area at its Columbia Generating Station Unit 2, located in Hanford, Washington (see this issue’s cover photo). The court found the breach of contract was the failure of the DOE to begin accepting SNF from nuclear power plants in 1998 when Yucca Mountain was to be in operation per the DOE’s "Standard Contract" with nuclear power plants.

The Energy Northwest suit is the first of more than 60 similar suits filed by nuclear utilities. If each nuclear plant in the U.S. received the same award as Energy Northwest did for Columbia, then almost $6 billion would be owed to those utilities to cover future costs of storage and processing.

If Not at Yucca, Then Where?

If the desolate Yucca Mountain location (on federal land) is unacceptable, can there possibly be another politically acceptable location for such a repository in the lower 48 states? Probably not. However, the second paragraph of the DOE press release describes the next steps in the process that the DOE has been directed to take: "President Obama is fully committed to ensuring that the Nation meets our long-term storage obligations for nuclear waste," said DOE General Counsel Scott Blake Harris. "In light of the decision not to proceed with the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository, the President directed Secretary Chu to establish the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future to conduct a comprehensive review of policies for managing the back end of the nuclear fuel cycle and to provide recommendations for developing a safe, long-term solution to managing the Nation’s used nuclear fuel and nuclear waste."

If we are enlightened by history, this committee will be unable to identify a politically acceptable site within the two years given to produce a final report. We believe that, absent suitable representation from the utility industry — Exelon’s John Rowe is the only utility representative on the 15-member commission composed mainly of former politicians and political appointees, five university professors, and several think tank associates — the process will be troubled from the start. The commission is being co-chaired by former Congressman Lee Hamilton, who represented Indiana’s 9th congressional district from 1965 to 1999 and served on the 9/11 Commission, and Brent Scowcroft, who served as the national security advisor to Presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush.

Once the interim report is released in 18 months (and rest assured the candidate locations will be leaked early and often), the extreme political pressure on Chu will surely delay the final report.

This commission’s report is reminiscent of the Energy Policy Act of 2005 and its provisions for identifying "Corridors of National Interest." In that case, the DOE prepared an interim report for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) listing perhaps a dozen regions where FERC should take action to enforce construction of interstate transmission lines when they were blocked by individual states. Within weeks, political fallout caused the draft report to be removed from the DOE website. When the DOE report was finally issued many months later, only two regions were listed. Moreover, absolutely no further progress has been made over the past two years.

Why should we expect faster progress by the DOE on a much more contentious issue than power lines? In addition, the time given to committee members to complete their work is out of balance with that of past studies, which we’ll discuss later. Also, witness the fine hand of Nevada Senator Harry Reid. Withdrawing the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) application "with prejudice" eliminates that site from further consideration by the Blue Ribbon Commission.

Underlying motives are always unclear when blue ribbon commissions are appointed. Yes, the political landscape has changed since a similar location survey was completed about 20 years ago — that one identifying Yucca Mountain by name in legislation as the nation’s SNF repository. Nevertheless, appointing this blue ribbon commission and apparently pushing for a new long-term SNF repository was an excellent strategic move for the administration. If the federal government does not continue its quest for a long-term repository for SNF, then ratepayers are due a $33 billion refund from the NWF (plus interest, we would assume, since 1983). Furthermore, each of the nuclear utilities will sue for the cost of providing individual long-term on-site storage of SNF, transportation, and other costs, if they haven’t already.

We believe the total liability of the federal government could quickly surpass $50 billion plus operating costs of the many facilities in perpetuity should a Yucca Mountain replacement not be found. Pursuing a new repository appears to push into the future these NWF repayments and reimbursements caused by DOE’s contraact breach with each nuclear plant owner.

The Birth and Slow Death of Yucca Mountain

Congress established a national policy for the disposition of commercial SNF and HLW with passage of the NWPA in 1982. When it was passed, the NWPA required the DOE to identify and evaluate two different sites to ensure regional equity for the permanent geologic disposal of SNF and HLW. Initially, nine sites were identified, and eventually three were short-listed. In 1987, Congress officially designated Yucca Mountain, located about 85 miles by air northwest of Las Vegas, Nevada. The selection of Yucca Mountain as the nation’s permanent nuclear waste repository was then codified with passage of Nuclear Waste Policy Act Amendment (NWPAA). The DOE expected to begin accepting nuclear waste in an operating geologic repository by 1998.

But official selection did not build a straight desert highway for the depository’s development to follow, as we detail below. Most recently, while Yucca Mountain remained on the books, progress was limited by extreme budget cuts over the past two years. The March 3 announcement was the equivalent of a death sentence. The final "time of death" pronouncement will come only when the administration asks Congress to update the NWPAA by removing the specific reference to Yucca Mountain.

Meanwhile, ongoing responsibilities under the NWPAA, such as administration of the NWF, continue under the Office of Nuclear Energy, which will continue to lead future waste management activities.

Should the blue ribbon commission and Congress ever come to a consensus on a new repository site, expect a revision to the NWPAA to replace Yucca Mountain with the new site in order to codify the decision. In the meantime, Yucca Mountain remains codified as our nation’s nuclear waste repository, although the designation is meaningless without funding and an approved license application from the NRC.

Origins of the U.S. Nuclear Waste Management Policy

The record shows that enactment of U.S. nuclear waste management policies has always been problematic. Yucca Mountain is not the first time that U.S. taxpayers and the nuclear industry have lost their "investment" to establish a geologic repository for SNF.

During the U.S. reactor development programs of the 1950s and 1960s, there was every expectation that that SNF would be reprocessed and its valuable components, uranium and plutonium, would be recycled into new fuel. At the same time, nearly 2.4 billion gallons of HLW, the aqueous waste resulting from the solvent extraction cycles after reprocessing, were projected to accumulate by the year 2000. These projections convinced the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), the predecessor agency to the NRC, to address the unprecedented issue of how to safely isolate radionuclides from the environment for long periods. The AEC was also to ensure that neither catastrophic acts of nature nor inadvertent or malicious actions of this or future generations would cause the material to enter the environment.

In 1955, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) began formulating the scientific basis for establishing a U.S. nuclear waste management program. The NAS, National Research Council, and Earth Sciences Committee on Waste Disposal appointed an eight-man committee, at the request of the AEC. The eight-member committee consisted of prominent geologists and geophysicists whose mission was to consider the possibilities for disposal of HLW in geologic formations within the U.S. Note the extreme difference in the technical qualifications of the study committee members now and 55 years ago.

The state of the technology in 1955 was to dissolve nuclear wastes in liquid until they reached relatively low concentrations prior to storage. This approach to storing nuclear waste was obviously favored by the committee, as evidenced by several discarded options. For example, the use of granite and other crystalline rock quarries, including permeable noncrystalline rocks, such as sandstone and limestone, was discounted because of the near impossibility of sealing a facility against leaks. The uncertainties surrounding sealing nonpermeable materials such as clay and shales seemed too formidable. Other options, such as injecting the waste into deep-lying porous media, inter-stratified with impermeable beds, were feasible in principle but deemed impractical to put into operation because of concerns with filter media clogging.

The committee believed the most promising repositories were medium-stable salt formations. The prevailing view was that abandoned salt mines or cavities especially mined to hold waste are, in essence, long-lasting tanks. Two primary factors made salt the appropriate answer. First, a relatively stable salt formation is essentially impermeable to water and other fluids that could leak waste. Second, fractures in the salt would be self-sealing because of the plastic flow properties of the material at typical repository depths. The committee also backed salt for these additional reasons: the wide distribution and large reserves of salt formations, salt’s structural properties (it has the structural strength of concrete), the relatively low cost of developing space in salt, thermal conductivity (salt has a high thermal conductivity compared with most geologic materials), and the location of salt deposits in areas of low seismicity.

The NAS committee believed it had determined the types of acceptable geologic formations that would be capable of isolating and storing radioactive waste for thousands of years. Furthermore, the committee’s position was based on the assumptions that neither the chemical nor physical properties of the waste nor the salt would be altered when exposed to the heat and radiation generated by the waste. If these assumptions were validated, then all that was necessary was to find a suitable salt formation to dispose of the waste. The committee would eventually publish its findings in the September 1957 report, "The Disposal of Radioactive Waste on Land," which heavily influenced waste management policy over the next two decades. The report is available from Google Books (

Over the next four years (ca. 1957 to 1962), small-scale research projects were initiated to test the validity of the committee’s assumptions. Also in 1962, the U.S. Geological Survey evaluated the suitability of more than 200 salt domes throughout Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi, thereby initiating the process for conducting siting studies for nuclear waste disposal. Concurrently, substantial improvements in fuel reprocessing technology were being made, the most important being a 20-fold reduction in liquid waste volumes. These advances facilitated transforming the remaining aqueous waste into a solid form but substantially increased the heat and radiation levels of the final waste form. This breakthrough redirected the AEC to examine the effects of packaged radioactive wastes in salt by performing the first major in-situ test to obtain the data needed to design a waste repository. This experiment was called Project Salt Vault.

Project Salt Vault

The primary objective of Project Salt Vault was to demonstrate the safety and feasibility of handling and storing HLW solids from power reactors in salt formations. The engineering and scientific objectives were to:

  • Demonstrate waste-handling equipment and techniques required to handle packages containing HLW solids from the point of production to the disposal location.

  • Determine the stability of salt formations under the combined effects of heat and radiation (approximately 4,000,000 curies of radioactive material, yielding up to 109 rads).

  • Collect information on creep and plastic flow of salt that was needed for the design of an actual disposal facility.

  • Monitor the site for radiolytic chemical reactions, if such should occur.

The demonstration site selected was the inactive Lyons, Kansas, mine of the Carey Salt Co. The 1,020-foot deep salt mine had operated from 1890 to 1948 and had been kept open for possible future use. Preparations for the demonstration began in 1963, and the first radioactive material was placed in the mine in November 1965. The tests involved the emplacement of actual irradiated fuel assemblies from the Engineering Test Reactor (ETR) in Idaho. The ETR assemblies were chosen because of their availability on a dependable schedule and their relatively high radioactivity levels.

Seven sealed canisters containing 14 SNF assemblies were transported by truck in a lead-shielded carrier to the site. Those canisters were lowered into the mine one at a time through a 19-inch-diameter charging shaft. In the mine, the canisters entered a lead-shielded vessel on a trailer pulled by a diesel-powered tractor called the "waste transporter." The hauler delivered the canisters, one at a time, to an array of lined holes drilled in the floor. The waste transporter was also used to recover and transfer the canisters at the end of the tests.

The canisters were placed in a ring-like arrangement in the floor of the mine (Figure 2). Electrical heaters — used to compensate for lower heat release rates of the fuel elements compared with actual waste — were attached to the lower liners to raise temperatures in the central pillar in order to obtain information on its in-situ structural response to heat.

2.    Working in a salt mine. In-situ testing of nuclear wastes was conducted in the mid-1960s at the Carey salt mine. Source: Kansas Geological Survey

The program plan called for replacing the waste every six months to maximize the radiation dose to the surrounding salt formations. At the end of each phase, the spent fuel was retrieved and returned to Idaho.

The results showed that the structural properties of salt were not significantly altered by the high radiation levels. Useful information was gathered with respect to thermal stresses, migration of brine-filled cavities, and salt-flow characteristics as a function of temperature. For example, the demonstration revealed that inclusions of moisture, or brine, in the salt beds had a tendency to migrate up a thermal gradient toward a heat source placed in the salt. Quantities of brine were measured as migrating and interacting with the deposited waste canisters.

All the predictions of thermal and radiation effects based upon theoretical modeling and laboratory experiments were confirmed by the in-situ demonstration. Despite the rather high radiation levels and high thermal loading, no measurable radiolytic or excessive structural effects in the salt were observed. In addition, operations at Lyons, both at the surface and in the mine, were carried out without the use of hot cells (shielded nuclear radiation containment chambers used to protect workers). Maximum personnel recorded dose during any quarter was 200 mrem, principally to the hands of a worker.

The results of the Project Salt Vault demonstration led many in the AEC to believe that the use of bedded salt was satisfactory for the disposal of radioactive wastes. The experimental phase of Project Salt Vault was terminated in June 1967 when the last canister was removed from the mine. The Lyons Mine was then placed on standby on February 1, 1968.

The Beginning of the End

Workers from Project Salt Vault recall that it enjoyed the support of the local community. Four factors contributed to this climate of acceptance:

  • The experiment was designed from the beginning to be reversible; that is, once it was completed, all the waste would be completely removed.

  • Consultations were held with local groups before the project began.

  • Efforts were made by Oak Ridge National Laboratory personnel to conduct the studies in full view of Kansans.

  • Once the research started, regular tours were conducted in which the general public could visit the mine.

However, two intervening events forced the AEC to withdraw from the Lyons site. The first was a fire in 1969 at the Rocky Flats facility in Colorado, which produced pits for nuclear weapons. The accident generated a large volume of low-level, plutonium-contaminated debris. Following standard operating procedures, the managers of Rocky Flats sent the waste to the National Reactor Test Station in Idaho for storage. That action outraged Idaho’s political leadership, which saw no reason why their state should become the "dumping ground" for waste created in Colorado. They acted and ultimately extracted a commitment from AEC Chairman Glenn Seaborg (1961 – 1971) that all of the waste would be removed from Idaho by 1980. That pledge necessitated the construction of a disposal facility. The second factor, dominating an entire decade, was the growing opposition to nuclear power punctuated by the Three Mile Island accident in 1979.

Confronted with the immediate need for a repository, and given the available information at the time, the AEC’s siting strategy was to quickly identify a site for storage of nuclear wastes in a salt dome underlying about 500,000 square miles in portions of 24 states. Most importantly, bedded salt deposits were completely free of circulating groundwater and were isolated from underground aquifers by impermeable shale. Any fractures that might develop would be sealed by plastic deformation and recrystallization of the salt. The regions considered cut down the site options because only salt deposits 200 feet thick and lying within 2,000 feet of the surface were deemed suitable for the first waste repository. The largest areas meeting these criteria lay in central Kansas, although there were two smaller areas in Michigan and one in west central New York. In 1970, the AEC announced that, pending confirmatory tests, the Lyons site was being selected as the first full-scale national repository.

The degree to which the AEC had consulted with state and local officials before this announcement is in dispute. What is clear is the AEC’s decision did not receive the same ringing endorsement as the earlier experimental tests had. Moreover, state and local political opposition to the Lyons site was intense, particularly when technical problems with the site became apparent. The political arm-twisting had just begun.

Political Opposition Begins

A widely held view among leaders of the Kansas Geological Survey was that there was insufficient knowledge about repository design, the heat-flow models were primitive, and there were large gaps in the understanding of waste-rock interactions and rock mechanics. These concerns, among others, were the basis for opposition from U.S. Representative Joe Skubitz, who represented a Kansas district that did not include Lyons, and Governor Robert Docking. What followed was a barrage of criticism, and, despite the agency’s best efforts, protests asserting that the AEC was tramping on state interests took hold in the public mind.

As an example of the political discourse at the time, Skubitz inquired why the Kansas salt fields were selected instead of a site in the Salina Basin, which would have been closer to the operating and planned reprocessing plants in New York, Illinois, and South Carolina. The agency responded by saying the Kansas site possessed geologic characteristics more favorable than those of the salt in the Salina Basin. The AEC furthermore justified the long transport routes to Kansas by suggesting a reprocessing plant would be built in California, thus making the Lyons site centrally located. In retrospect, the AEC was tone deaf when responding to the nontechnical factors, relying on its highly technical justifications for the Lyons site. Furthermore, it is believed that the Kansas salt mine was chosen because of prior local acceptance of Project Salt Vault and because the AEC did not have the resources to investigate other locations, nor did it wish to spend two years studying other sites.

By August 1971, the controversy escalated to the level of involving both Kansas senators, Robert Dole and James Pearson, who sponsored an amendment to the AEC’s authorizing legislation. The amendment prohibited buying land or burying waste materials at Lyons until such time as an independent advisory council, appointed by the president, reported to Congress that the establishment of a repository and burial of waste could be carried out safely. Thus, the AEC’s inability to satisfy concerns of state officials resulted in its losing considerable autonomy in implementing a major policy.

In September 1971, newly discovered technical difficulties would severely threaten the project’s future. Roughly 20 oil and gas boreholes in the area were found to be impossible to plug, and the unexpected disappearance of water from a nearby solution mining operation raised many questions about the geologic integrity of the salt domes for storing liquid nuclear waste. In February 1972 the AEC withdrew from further operations at the Lyons site, citing technical uncertainties and problems with political and public acceptance.

In the 1980s, Kansas refused to issue a permit for low-level nuclear waste to a new contractor. The shaft was permanently sealed in December 1994. (Though this article does not concern waste from the DOE defense program, it should be noted that transuranic radioactive waste from that program (and from nuclear power generation) has been transported to and stored at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad, N.M., since March 1999. That geological repository is in the Permian Salt Basin.)

The Retrievable Surface Storage Facility

The AEC announced plans (circa May/June 1972) to construct an engineered, at-grade Retrievable Surface Storage Facility (RSSF) to be used until a permanent geological repository would be available. The plan was to locate the RSSF at an AEC or federal site in the western U.S. However, the environmental impact statement (EIS) issued by the AEC in support of the RSSF concept drew intense criticism from the public and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Both criticized the plan because of the possibility that economic factors could later dictate using the facility as a permanent repository, contrary to the planned interim use of the RSSF. In this instance, it was unacceptable to proceed with an interim storage system unless there were unambiguous assurances that a permanent repository would be developed.

In 1975, Dr. Robert Seamans — in one of his first acts as administrator of the Energy Research and Development Administration (ERDA) — withdrew the EIS associated with the RSSF and decided that a permanent waste repository should be given budget priority. ERDA was created to assume the responsiblities of the then-dissolved AEC that were not covered by the newly formed NRC.

In 1976 a multiple-site strategy was initiated that would have led to the development of several repositories by 2000. Letters were sent to 36 state governors, informing them of these plans and asking for their cooperation in site exploration activities. A number of generic studies were undertaken at the Nevada Test Site, the Permian Basin and Palo Duro sub-basin in Texas, and Salina Basin in Michigan, Ohio, and New York. Exploration of specific sites would begin in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Washington, and Nevada for the site that would host the first commercial waste repository.

As a group, these states realized the importance of becoming more intimately involved in the nuclear waste management decision-making process. ERDA offered to work closely with the states and to keep the governors informed of how its programs were progressing. It also promised to terminate a project within a state if technical issues were not resolved through mutually accepted procedures. The states, in effect, were being offered what they believed to be veto power over construction of a waste facility within their jurisdiction. Thus, what began as a new initiative to involve states in participative decision-making soon devolved into individual states halting projects because they were reluctant to consider a facility in their state.

The AFR Storage Concept

Because of the geologic disposal program’s relatively late start and the federal government’s deferral of commercial reprocessing (see "How to Solve the Used Nuclear Fuel Storage Problem," POWER, August 2008), concerns were raised that a number of operating reactors would run out of room to store their SNF on-site. Should that occur, and if there were no alternative locations for storing the SNF, the reactor would be forced to shut down. To address this particular concern, and while ERDA was reorganized into the current DOE, in 1977, ERDA pursued an "away-from-reactor (AFR) storage" concept for any spent fuel that utilities wished to transfer to the federal government. The government would then take title to the fuel and be responsible for its permanent disposal. At the time of transfer, the utilities would pay a one-time charge that would fully pay for storage and disposal costs.

The AFR concept was initially designed to serve four different functions: preventing the shutdown of reactors pending repository development; providing time for the geologic disposal program to mature; allowing the U.S. to accept limited amounts of foreign spent fuel to achieve nonproliferation objectives; and maintaining access to plutonium and uranium in the SNF should reprocessing become viable again in the future. However, the AFR concept was viewed very much as the RSSF concept had been several years earlier. The result was also similar: The project was terminated in 1981.

Nuclear Waste Policy Act

In 1982, Congress enacted the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, which was signed by President Ronald Reagan on January 7, 1983. The NWPA represented the most expensive civil works project in history, establishing a schedule for the DOE to site and for the NRC to license geological repositories for permanent disposal of SNF and HLW. The DOE was directed to assess numerous locations around the country for possible sites and present a minimum of three finalist sites. Although this legislation was a decisive step forward, its attempted implementation again raised a public outcry based on accusations that government agencies were acting in secret to identify storage sites.

To finance the project, the NWPA established the NWF, to which electricity consumers would pay a fee of one-tenth of a cent for every nuclear-generated kilowatt-hour of electricity consumed. The DOE would draw upon the NWF to finance the siting, construction, and operation of repositories. In exchange for payment into the NWF, the DOE was required to take title to the SNF and HLW following the opening of the first repository — scheduled for January 31, 1998.

In February 1983, the DOE carried out the first requirement of the NWPA by formally identifying nine potentially acceptable locations (the host rock is shown in parentheses), for the first repository:

  • Vacherie dome, Louisiana (domal salt)

  • Cypress Creek dome, Mississippi (domal salt)

  • Richton dome, Mississippi (domal salt)

  • Yucca Mountain, Nevada (welded tuff)

  • Deaf Smith County, Texas (bedded salt)

  • Swisher County, Texas (bedded salt)

  • Davis Canyon, Utah (bedded salt)

  • Lavender Canyon, Utah (bedded salt)

  • Hanford Site, Washington (basalt flows)

By 1984, the DOE believed that one or more repositories would be available by 2007 – 2009 and that sufficient repository capacity would be available 30 years beyond the expiration of any reactor operating license to dispose of SNF and HLW generated during that time. In addition, the DOE reaffirmed its obligation to accept SNF assemblies beginning in January 1998, whether or not a permanent disposal facility was ready. This announcement was to enable utilities to plan for their projected waste disposal needs with confidence and certainty.

After evaluating the nine candidate sites, the DOE selected three finalists: Yucca Mountain, Deaf Smith County, and Hanford. These sites advanced into the next round of intensive scientific study described as the "site characterization process." Critics had claimed the sites were recycled from surveys performed in the 1970s and that the NWPA required the DOE to conduct a new screening process rather than proceed with sites considered prior to the passage of the NWPA. On May 28, 1986, President Ronald Reagan approved Yucca Mountain for site characterization under the NWPA. By that time, nearly $1.5 billion had been spent surveying, drilling, recording seismic information, monitoring, and analyzing the Yucca Mountain site.

Nuclear Waste Policy Amendments Act

President George H.W. Bush signed the NWPAA on December 22, 1987, which supposedly "settled" the waste storage issue by codifying the Yucca Mountain site in Nevada as the nation’s first geological waste nuclear fuel repository. Characterization of each site had been estimated to take five to seven years, costing somewhere around $1 billion to $2 billion, so work on the other two finalist sites was postponed indefinitely.

The NWPAA outlined a detailed approach for disposal involving review by the president, Congress, state and tribal governments, the NRC, and other federal agencies, while retaining the 70,000 metric ton limit on the amount of SNF and HLW that the DOE could place in the first repository. According to the amendment’s legislative history, the intent of this limitation was to ensure that no state would have to bear the entire nuclear waste disposal burden. The DOE also extended the timetable for opening the first repository from 1998 to 2003. However, if Yucca Mountain was found to be unsuitable, Congress was to be notified and provided alternatives.

Regional Equity Concerns

Regional equity concerns were being raised over a majority of the SNF being generated in the eastern U.S., yet having the final candidate sites for a repository located in the western U.S. At one time, however, there were 12 potential sites in seven eastern states for a second repository.

To counter the regional equity issue, a monitored retrievable storage (MRS) facility would be integrated into the ultimate disposal system and preferably be located in the eastern U.S. Also, the licensing process would be straightforward because the MRS did not have to isolate wastes for thousands of years but simply serve as a temporary, multi-decade storage facility; then shipments would be consolidated in dedicated trains and trucks taking waste to the repository. Three sites had been identified in Tennessee, with the preferred site being Oak Ridge, which was originally identified for the postponed Clinch River breeder reactor in 1983 when funding was terminated. The State of Tennessee was against designating Tennessee alone as a contender and sued. The proposal was held up and ultimately went to the Supreme Court. The DOE won the case and submitted its proposal to Congress.

Nevertheless, in order to prevent the MRS from becoming a de facto repository — similar to the RSSF and AFR facility — the DOE recommended certain conditions linking MRS development to repository development. The license for the MRS would contain conditions allowing construction and operation of the MRS only when repository construction and operation was proceeding and would limit the total capacity of the MRS to 15,000 metric tons of waste.

The NWPAA had also established the Office of the Nuclear Waste Negotiator to negotiate agreements with states or Indian tribes willing to host a repository or an MRS. Such an agreement could contain different conditions than those imposed on a DOE-sited facility. However, the office was not reauthorized by Congress and was eliminated in 1995.

The Yucca Mountain Saga

Between 1987 and 2001, the DOE would spend another $3.8 billion on scientific and technical studies of Yucca Mountain. For instance, in 1997, a 5-mile tunnel through Yucca Mountain was completed to function as an Exploratory Study Facility. In 1998, a second 2-mile cross drift tunnel would facilitate additional experiments in the potential repository host rock. These tunnels, and the numerous niches and alcoves, created the world’s largest underground laboratory (Figures 3 and 4).

3.    Holes in the mountain. View of the South Portal of the Exploratory Studies Facility showing the 25-foot-diameter tunnel boring machine. Source: DOE/OCRWM

4.    Boring holes. Tunnel boring machine cutter head at the South Portal in April 1997. Source: DOE/OCRWM

From the surface, more than 180 boreholes were drilled deep into the geology and its surrounding features. Independent scientists working for Nye County, Nevada, drilled additional exploratory holes and collaborated with DOE scientists on their findings. These efforts were further supplemented by numerous laboratory experiments and excavation of similar geologic features both nearby and at sites around the world. The results ultimately provided an understanding of the Yucca Mountain geology and its ability to safely contain radioactive wastes.

In 2001, the DOE issued reports containing thousands of pages of information, summarizing the extensive site characterization effort. Over the next year, the department would hold more than 65 public hearings, sending 6,000 letters to individuals, corporations, and groups, eventually responding to more than 17,000 comments. In 2002, President George W. Bush approved the secretary of energy’s recommendation of Yucca Mountain as the site for a nuclear fuel repository.

In April 2002, Governor Kenny Guinn ® of the State of Nevada, as provided for by the NWPA, vetoed this decision. In the NWPA’s unprecedented procedure for ensuring that any site decision received thorough and fair consideration, the governor’s veto could only be overridden by a majority vote in both houses of Congress. For three months, Yucca Mountain was debated in Congress, in committee hearings, and on the floor of the House and Senate. Eventually, Congress would vote to override the objection by approving the Yucca Mountain site 306-117. Later, the Senate would approve the Yucca Mountain site by voice vote following a procedural "motion to proceed" vote, 60-39. This approval, known as the Yucca Mountain Development Act (YMDA), was signed into law by the president on July 23, 2002, allowing the DOE to prepare and submit a license application to the NRC.

By the time the YMDA was enacted, the DOE had spent $7.1 billion on the evaluation of multiple sites, detailed study of Yucca Mountain, the preparation and defense of the site recommendation, and related waste acceptance and transportation planning activities. It would spend another $1.5 billion preparing the Yucca Mountain license application, including transportation and waste acceptance plans. After years of delay, the DOE submitted the 8,600-page license application to the NRC in June 2008 (Figure 5).

5.    The Yucca Mountain license application. Source: DOE/OCRWM

After a preliminary 90-day screening period, the NRC determined that the application contained sufficient information to formally docket the application and move on to the next stage of technical and scientific review. Approximately 40 NRC staff members and consultants reviewed the license application prior to the docketing decision. The license application was not reviewed for merit during this screening period, but rather to determine whether it was complete enough for the NRC to proceed.

According to federal legislation, the NRC must complete the Yucca Mountain license application review within four years. However, there is no penalty if the NRC fails to finish the review within the required time period. According to the DOE, the earliest the repository could start accepting waste, given a smooth licensing process and consistent funding, was 2020. The total system life-cycle cost that includes the cost to research, construct, and operate Yucca Mountain for 150 years, from the beginning of the program in 1983 through closure and decommissioning in 2133, was estimated to exceed $96 billion.

The Only Option Remaining: On-Site Storage

Today, the only available solution for utilities is to store SNF on-site in water pools or in long-term above-ground storage casks. The volume of the water pools within each reactor limits the number of fuel assemblies it can hold at one time. Conceptually, the number of dry casks that can be used to store SNF is unlimited.

The water-pool storage option involves storing SNF assemblies under at least 20 feet of water to provide shielding from the radiation and removal of decay heat (Figure 6). About one-fourth to one-third of the total fuel load is removed from the reactor, typically every 18 months, and replaced with fresh SNF. You may recall that early in the development of commercial nuclear reactors, the government was expecting to construct a nuclear fuel reprocessing plant and the pools were sized to hold and cool SNF until it could be transported to the reprocessing facility. On April 7, 1977, President Jimmy Carter banned the reprocessing of commercial reactor fuel in the U.S. Since then, many of the nuclear plant spent fuel pools have either reached or are nearing capacity (Figure 7).

6.    Pool party. Storing spent fuel assemblies underwater in a storage pool. Source: DOE

7.    Limited nuclear fuel pool capacity. This chart shows the cumulative number of filled pools at nuclear power plants. All operating nuclear power reactors are storing used fuel under NRC licenses in spent fuel pools. Some operating reactors are using dry cask storage. Source: NRC

Current regulations permit re-racking of the storage pool grid and fuel rod consolidation, subject to NRC review and approval, to increase the amount of SNF that can be stored in a pool. However, both of these methods are constrained by the size of the pool.

In the early 1980s, utilities began looking at using dry casks to increase on-site storage capacity. The process of loading a cask, consisting of a steel cylinder designed to hold typically two dozen SNF assemblies, takes place underwater in the storage pool. Once the assemblies have cooled for given period of time, they are transferred underwater from the storage racks to the submerged cask. Next, the cask is removed from the storage pool, where excess water is removed. Then it is backfilled with an inert gas to enhance decay-heat transfer capabilities, welded or bolted closed, inserted into a concrete overstructure (depending on design), and stored vertically on a concrete pad. The cask itself provides the necessary radiation shielding. Other above-ground designs seal the SNF inside a steel cylinder, which is then inserted either vertically into a concrete silo or horizontally into a concrete vault. The concrete provides the radiation shielding (Figure 8).

8.    On-site storage. Spent nuclear fuel storage canisters are designed to be placed either vertically in aboveground concrete or steel structures, or stored horizontally in aboveground concrete vaults. Courtesy: NRC

The NRC approves dry-storage systems by evaluating each design for resistance to accident conditions such as floods, earthquakes, tornado missiles, and temperature extremes. Some cask designs can be used for both storage and transportation. The dry-storage casks are located in an independent spent fuel storage installation (ISFSI). Such storage may be either at the reactor site or elsewhere (see "How to Solve the Used Nuclear Fuel Storage Problem," POWER, April 2008).

Site-Specific and General Licenses

The NRC authorizes storage of SNF at an ISFSI under two licensing options: site-specific licensing and general licensing. Under a site-specific license, an applicant submits a license application to the NRC, and a technical review is performed on the safety aspects of the proposed ISFSI. If the application is approved, the NRC issues a license that is valid for 20 years. The license contains technical requirements and operating conditions (including fuel specifications, cask leak testing, surveillance, and other requirements) for the ISFSI and specifies what the licensee is authorized to store at the site.

A general license authorizes a nuclear plant licensee to store SNF in NRC-approved casks at a site that is licensed to operate a power reactor under 10 CFR Part 50. Licensees are required to demonstrate that their site is adequate for storing SNF in dry casks. The licensee must also make any necessary changes to its security program, emergency plan, quality assurance program, training program, and radiation protection program to incorporate the ISFSI at its location. In addition, these evaluations must show that the cask’s technical specifications covered in the Certificate of Compliance (CoC) can be met, including analysis of earthquake intensity and tornado missiles (objects accelerated by very high winds). The NRC issues a CoC to the vendor following a technical review and approval of a dry storage system’s design in accordance with 10 CFR 72. The certificate expires 20 years from the date of issuance and can be renewed in additional 20-year increments.

The first U.S. commercial ISFSI was licensed by the NRC in 1986 at the Surry Nuclear Plant in Virginia. Since then, dry cask storage has become common among licensees needing additional SNF storage capacity. According to the NRC, SNF is currently in dry storage at 40 general license ISFSIs and 15 site-specific license ISFSIs. For example, Southern Nuclear’s Hatch and Farley nuclear plants safely store spent fuel in above-ground dry storage casks (Figure 9).

9.    Workable solution. Southern Nuclear’s dry-cask storage system at Hatch Nuclear Plant. Courtesy: Southern Nuclear

Southern Nuclear is the operator of the Vogtle nuclear plant (see "Plant Vogtle Leads the Next Nuclear Generation," POWER, November 2009). At Vogtle, all all of the used fuel for both units is stored safely under water in two storage pools located in the protected area of the plant. There is still storage capacity available in the existing pools to last for years. Therefore, by combing the existing capability of the storage pools and dry-storage facilities when the spent fuel pool does reach capacity, all of Southern Nuclear’s sites have the capability to safely store spent fuel on-site for the duration of each plant’s operating license.

Hard Lesson Learned

It remains unclear if a logical and politically acceptable path toward developing a national, long-term storage facility for SNF and HLW is possible. It is our opinion that there is not. The DOE and its predecessor agency has tried and failed multiple times, over several decades. State veto power over siting a storage facility makes approval of a facility essentially a national referendum on nuclear power, given that a veto must be overridden by the Senate and the House. Also, the extremely long period of time required to develop any storage facility would certainly span presidential administrations of both political parties, making any project like Yucca Mountain susceptible to closure when the political winds change. Why would we expect a different result at a new site a decade hence?

History can be a stern teacher, and we should learn this important lesson. There is no long-term, politically expedient road to a Yucca Mountain – type facility anywhere in the U.S. We expect the blue ribbon commission to spend the next two years or more studying the problem only to come to the same conclusion.

As a nation, we would be better served if Congress would amend the NWPA and NWPAA to delete the statutory responsibility of the DOE to store SNF, refund the NWF contributions, and quickly settle the 60-plus lawsuits pending to cover all current and future nuclear plant SNF storage costs. The elegant solution is nuclear fuel reprocessing, perhaps primed by reprogramming NWF money into building such a facility. But we’ll hold that discussion for another day.

—James M. Hylko ([email protected]) is a POWER contributing editor. Dr. Robert Peltier, PE is editor-in-chief.

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