Privatizing Centralized Nuclear Waste Storage

In August, the Kleinman Center released a report, “Nuclear Decommissioning: Paying More for Greater, Uncompensated Risks,” highlighting facts policymakers and communities should understand when considering support for economically challenged nuclear power plants. 

The report identified how the federal government’s failure to develop a geologic repository for permanent disposal of high-level radioactive waste has resulted in taxpayer-funded development of interim (i.e. indefinite) waste storage facilities at all U.S. nuclear power plants, a less safe and less secure option than geologic disposal.  Compared to the remote geologic disposal these communities paid for through fees on their electricity bills, interim storage presents greater risks.  These communities are not being provided a refund for their geologic disposal investments, nor are they being compensated for the additional risks associated with becoming nuclear waste storage communities.

As plants retire and begin the decommissioning process, communities may not appreciate losing the benefits of nuclear power, while maintaining nuclear waste storage risks.

Keeping economically struggling plants in operation through subsidies is one way to defer this issue. However, the broader problem of what to do with the over 70,000 metric tons of accumulated high-level waste from nuclear power plants may inhibit the longer-term future of this zero-carbon power industry.  For example, federal policy makers question moving forward with new, advanced nuclear power technologies before the legacy waste issue is adequately addressed.

If you care about addressing climate change, you should care about this issue.

A federally-owned and developed centralized interim storage facility(s) was envisioned in the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, to compliment geologic repository(s). DOE is doing some work in this area, but nothing significant has materialized.

DOE Secretary Moniz believes privatizing centralized interim waste storage can be part of the solution.

In April 2016, Waste Control Specialists LLC (a subsidiary of Valhi Inc), AREVA, and Centrus Energy Corp (a subsidiary of NAC International) filed an application with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to build and operate an above-ground, dry-cask interim waste storage facility in Andrews County, Texas.

The project, called a Consolidated Interim Storage Facility (CISF), would be built in eight phases with each phase accommodating 5,000 metric tons of spent fuel, for a total final capacity of 40,000 metric tons, and a plan to store the waste for 40 years or more.  This is a little over 50 percent of the spent fuel waste currently existing at U.S. power plants, which increases by 2,000 metric tons per year. The partnership hopes to receive a license in 2019 and begin accepting waste by 2021.

The good news is this project presents some compelling strengths and benefits.

  • From an equity standpoint, moving waste out of communities that never agreed to host the waste, are not being compensated to store the waste, and are preempted by the federal government from having a meaningful say in the matter, is a positive move. 
  • Overall, this strategy would reduce risks to the communities. Of course, transportation of waste out of these communities was always an envisioned risk, even if geologic disposal was constructed on schedule.
  • There are at least initial indications of community consent to the project, as the commissioners of the court of Andrews County adopted a resolution in January 2015, that supports the facility. As a result of the Yucca Mountain experience – where Nevada’s disapproval of hosting the nation’s geologic disposal site was overridden by Congress, creating public and political backlash that helped quell the effort – the theme of community consent-based siting has become pivotal to NRC’s future waste disposal plans.  In addition, this Texas community is at least familiar with nuclear waste, per the low-level facility currently operating in Andrews County.
  • The project partners are highly experienced. Waste Control Specialists already operate low-level waste storage facilities in Andrews County, and AREVA and NAC are global leaders in nuclear waste management.
  • This project has the potential to reduce federal government/taxpayer liabilities, pegged at $29 – $50 billion, to support interim storage at power plants.  The project’s license application has preliminary costs estimates including $1.36 billion in construction costs, $395 million in operating costs for 40 years, and $12.7 million for decommissioning. To be generous, this is significantly lower than the $14.5 billion in liabilities (i.e. 50 percent of low-end current waste liability cost of $29 billion, accommodating half of current waste volumes) associated with business as usual. Quantifying the reduction of risk to power plant communities is needed to better understand additional savings, as are the additional costs of doubling transportation (recall, the waste will eventually need to be transported again to the geologic disposal site).

The bad news? It’s not clear if this project is feasible, who will pay, or if it will negatively impact geologic disposal efforts.

  • A permanent geologic disposal site is still needed, even if this project is built.  This CISF doesn’t impact the remaining 50 percent of U.S. nuclear waste that will continue to grow, and the CISF waste will eventually need to be transferred to the repository.
  • There are various legal uncertainties – such as the ability for DOE to enter into contracts for private interim storage while maintaining custody, accessing Nuclear Waste Fund (NWF) monies, developing a regulatory regime for waste transportation, and more – many that likely require an act of Congress to address.
  • It is yet unclear who pays and how this impacts other costs. If taxpayers pay, it could represent a savings compared to business as usual. If ratepayer funds are taken from the NWF to support the project, taxpayers will save, but this diversion of geologic disposal resources will eventually have to be recouped from the remaining nuclear electricity ratepayers. 
  • Some lawmakers oppose the project fearing it will further stall geologic repository development, for example by diverting funds and reducing any sense of urgency.
  • Many believe any centralized interim storage site runs the risk of becoming the forever home of the waste, if a geologic disposal site can’t be established. One of many potential community concerns that will be tested as this project moves forward.

The bottom line, this strategy could be significantly better than business as usual, provided it does not delay development of the geologic disposal capacity needed to fully solve the entire nation’s challenge.

Christina Simeone

Kleinman Center Senior Fellow
Christina Simeone is a senior fellow at the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy and a doctoral student in advanced energy systems at the Colorado School of Mines and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, a joint program.