Science should be “left to its own devices” over US nuclear waste

Waste management has long been a thorn in the side of the nuclear energy industry in the United States, and it remains a debate that continues to linger on and on. Has political will rather than science been the root of the problem?

By Peter Taberner

Before going forward on the US nuclear waste debate, we must look at the political dynamics of the past two administrations. At the federal government level, the Blue Ribbon Commission on the future of nuclear energy in America was released in January 2012, outlining a three point strategy in how to deal with spent nuclear fuel.

The Commission concluded that a consent based process was necessary for nuclear waste storage and all disposable facilities, as forcing waste amenities was not a positive move on unwilling states, who could view themselves as victims of a federal dogma.

Dues paid

A new organisation was also recommended outside of the Department of Energy to deal with a nuclear waste management programme, and the $750m fees that are paid into the Nuclear Waste Fund, has to be handled differently by Congress, to ensure the money is directed into the right areas.

This mantra was repeated in February by the Secretary of Energy Dr Ernest Moniz, during a speech to the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, where a collaborative approach was lauded to embrace local, state, and tribal levels.

The position on the Yucca Mountain project was also made emphatically clear, the Obama administration deems it unworkable, and better solutions should be looked at.

Consolidated interim storage Dr Moniz believed was the way forward, with a view to finding alternative sites for a mass geological disposal.

Lake Barrett, who used to run the US Department of Energy’s Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management, reflects: “We have to look closely how radioactive waste is managed from old reactors, as the decaying time is over a period of 30 years, and since 1944 the federal government has assumed responsibility for nuclear energy policy.”

He continues: “At the federal level, the Yucca Mountain project was approved in 2002 by Congress, and was progressing until the election of Barack Obama as President. This was a difficult situation, but similar projects like this are only likely to be resurrected by a Republican President at the 2016 election.

“The citizens of states that are reliant on nuclear energy from the plant operators and utilities are fortunate to receive the carbon free energy that is produced by nuclear power,” he says.

“The utilities that have to tackle the problems associated with low level waste upwards, can rely on companies, such as Energy Solutions to promote the safety measures needed.

The elephant in the room: on-site waste storage

“There is increasing storage of nuclear waste at nuclear plants, and this situation needs to be addressed in a partnership at the state level and at the federal level going forward.”

As a federal regulator the NRC is not part of the heated debate on Capitol Hill over waste management, but the NRC has regulations for the independent fuel storage facilities at nuclear plants, and the decommissioning of nuclear plants.

Subsequently the NRC engages with the states and plant operators in various forums as and when the issues come to light, where the agency works tirelessly with these stakeholders to address all the problems, thus providing the capacity for a fluctuating relationship between all parties involved.

From a plant operator’s perspective, Entergy owns and operates 11 nuclear plants, located in eight different states that stretch from Louisiana to the state of Vermont, where they will be responsible for the decommissioning of the recently shut down Vermont Yankee plant.

The company says that it is strongly in favour of a lead position being taken by the federal government that should meet its responsibility to take ownership of the situation, and manage used fuel.

Local collaboration

In the attempt to deliver the ambitions of the Blue Ribbon Commission, one of Entergy’s main principles as a nuclear fleet is to collaborate with local leaders and authorities, which can be a chessboard to manoeuvre around as regulations and practices differ.

“Waste management is approached on a state by state basis, for example South Carolina has a positive outlook on nuclear power and the waste issue, which is a little different to California, which has always been a little against nuclear energy I feel,” says Chris Gadomski, a lead nuclear energy analyst for Bloomberg.

“There is the issue of spent fuel to be addressed, at the moment the NRC seems in favour of repackaging the dry caste that store used fuel every 100 years.”

Science should rule over decision making

He adds: “To use the word poisonous to describe the atmosphere between nuclear plant operators and the federal government on this topic would be extreme, but there have been disagreements.”

“I would say that the best way forward for political engagement on the nuclear waste issue, would be that science should be left to its own devices to analyse the technology for the problem of spent fuel, this is opposed to political administrations interfering in this process where it is perhaps not necessary.”

As nuclear plants are constructed and decommissioned, and as Presidents come and go, the waste management issue will no doubt continue to provoke contention.