Is a Solution Possible for The U.S. Nuclear Waste Impasse?

While nuclear power may help keep the atmosphere clearer of carbon, little has been accomplished in the 60 years since the first U.S. commercial reactor opened to address the toxic mess that nuclear creates here on Earth.

This piece was first published in Forbes on July 31, 2019. It is reprinted with their permission.

Nuclear power has had a turbulent recent history.

In the early 2000’s nuclear was on the cusp of a renaissance, a resuscitated darling of the electric power industry that promised, with the aid of a new generation of efficient reactors, to produce growing quantities of cost-competitive electricity and counter increasingly expensive coal generation.

The dream came to an end with the 2011 Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear disaster that turned public opinion against nuclear power, and when next-generation reactors failed to economically pan out. Above all else, nuclear’s bright future was cut short in the U.S. by a flood of cheap shale natural gas into the power generation market.

Today, with the help of economic life support, nuclear power’s health may be stabilizing. The support comes from states including Illinois, New York and New Jersey that have elected to subsidize nuclear for the carbon-free electricity it generates, an important resource in those states’ efforts to dramatically cut greenhouse gas emissions by mid-century.

Yet, while nuclear power may help keep the atmosphere clearer of carbon, little has been accomplished in the 60 years since the first U.S. commercial reactor opened to address the toxic mess that nuclear creates here on Earth.

That mess, currently 90,000 metric tons of spent reactor fuel spread among 80 sites in 35 states, is growing each year. The spent fuel resides in cooling pools and stainless steel casks designed to safely contain waste for maybe a century, while certain components of the waste will remain dangerously radioactive for hundreds of thousands of years to come. Nuclear waste may be one of the biggest barriers to nuclear power meaningfully addressing the climate problem in the future, particularly if communities that might be open to hosting a new reactor understandably balk at the prospect of perpetually hosting spent fuel rods as well.

The solution to the nuclear waste disposal dilemma has always been simple, at least conceptually. Beginning in 1982 with the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, the U.S. Department of Energy set out to site and build a permanent fuel waste repository deep under the Earth’s surface. The repository would receive the spent fuel from all of the country’s reactors and reliably store it for at least 100,000 years. Given stable geology the discreetly buried waste would, with a bit of luck, lose its radioactivity long before any distant future descendant of the human race would by chance happen upon it. Nuclear generators and their customers would pay into the Nuclear Waste Fund to finance the project, eventually totaling more than $40 billion.

The process, however, got sidetracked by politics. Originally the DOE was supposed to consider a range of possible sites for the repository based on geologic and technical soundness. But in 1987 DOE abandoned consideration of sites in Texas and Washington state under pressure from their sizable delegations in Congress. The odd man out was Nevada, small and with a limited presence on Capitol Hill. That year, in amendments to the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, DOE designated Nevada’s Yucca Mountain as the future location for its disposal facility. Nevadans dubbed the amendments the “Screw Nevada Act.” The state’s Republican and Democratic officials proceeded to fight project at every turn.

DOE persisted, and in 2002 President George W. Bush officially selected the Yucca site. In 2008 DOE submitted its formal license application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, with an intense safety review standing between the application and final approval.

The whole process came to an abrupt end a short time later when President Obama, under NIMBY pressure from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, defunded the whole Yucca project. NRC review of Yucca came to a halt, offices assigned to perform the review were closed and experts let go. Recently, Nancy Pelosi pledged that Yucca will never happen, an effort to preserve two at-risk congressional seats in Nevada.

“It’s hasn’t been just the Democrats playing that political game,” says Allison Macfarlane, chairman of the NRC from 2012 to 2014. “The Republicans played it very recently, not voting for money for Yucca in the last Congress because they were concerned that a Senator from Nevada, Dean Heller, would lose.”

Heller lost regardless, while the impasse over Yucca lives on. To date taxpayers have provided well over $6 billion to cover settlements the DOE has paid to generators for failing to take their waste, while Congress has raided the Nuclear Waste Fund to pay down the national debt.

“The Nuclear Waste Fund was supposed to be an escrow account,” says Macfarlane. Now that the $40 billion has vanished, “Congress would have to agree to some sort of payment plan where they pay in some amount every year to cover the cost of a storage facility.”

That’s assuming that there is a path forward.

Macfarlane thinks that there is, but that to take it the federal government will have to completely rethink the way it has gone about selecting a disposal site. Congress would have to agree to let go of the purse strings, freeing the funds from political whims. It would require working with communities to select and develop a site, rather than attempting to force a repository on them. And, it might mean that Yucca won’t be the site of a U.S. repository, despite at least $12 billion already poured into the project.

Macfarlane and a group of energy experts, politicians and community leaders outlined such a vision in a series of meetings that culminated in a report, “Reset of America’s Nuclear Waste Management” published late last year. The report faults Washington for its failure to work with Nevada to develop the site and build trust. And, it notes that a process that takes local concerns into account can in fact succeed, as has happened in Finland, where a community actually asked to have a geologic disposal facility located in its midst. The facility is set to open in the next decade.

Could the Finnish model be used to revive hopes for high level waste disposal at Yucca? The consensus is that such an effort would be a slog given years of bad blood between the state and DOE. Thus a second key part of the Reset would be to take the process out of the federal government’s hands and give it to a newly created company, owned by nuclear power generators, that would have more incentive to see the project succeed, allowing them to get out of the business of caring for waste indefinitely, even after a reactor has closed.

A couple of important caveats accompany such a radical reworking. First, Congress would have to agree to give up financial control over any disposal effort, a challenge given political considerations. And it’s important to note that the Finnish communities that agreed to host the country’s depository already had their own nuclear power reactors.

The alternatives are business as usual. In June the House Committee on Energy and Commerce heard three proposals to restart the Yucca process, all of which were eerily similar to the process that failed before. In a notable incident of political tone-deafness, California representative Doris Matsui told Nevada’s head for nuclear projects that “it isn’t fair that my constituents should have to wait,” for a resolution.

But, positively for the process, Nevada did state that it would be open to a new set of amendments to the Nuclear Waste Policy Act that would lead to the establishment of an independent agency to handle site selection – as long as the state would be given the power to approve any final project.

If Yucca is revived, it could be two decades before disposal begins.  If a totally new site is selected, disposal will come even later.  If.  Already forty years in, disposal is nowhere in site.  

Andy Stone

Energy Policy Now Host and Producer
Andy Stone is producer and host of Energy Policy Now, the Kleinman Center’s podcast series. He previously worked in business planning with PJM Interconnection and was a senior energy reporter at Forbes Magazine.