Breaking America’s Nuclear Waste Impasse

Former NRC Chairman Allison Macfarlane discusses four decades of failed efforts to find a permanent disposal solution for America’s civilian nuclear waste and new thinking, based on successful disposal efforts in the military and overseas, that could lead to a workable solution.

There are 90,000 tons of highly radioactive nuclear waste in temporary storage at sites across the United States. The waste is the responsibility of the federal government, which nearly four decades ago entered into an agreement with the nuclear power industry to collect and permanently dispose of spent reactor fuel. Yet today, after pouring billions of dollars into the mothballed Yucca Mountain disposal facility in Nevada, a solution to the country’s nuclear waste problem appears as distant as ever, while the nation’s nuclear waste stockpile continues to grow.

Allison Macfarlane, former chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, explores the challenges, ranging from safety concerns to politics, that have foiled efforts to find a nuclear waste solution. She also discusses some new thinking, based in successful efforts to develop disposal abroad, that might make it possible to reach a permanent solution here in the US.

Andy Stone: Welcome to the Energy Policy Now podcast from the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy at the University of Pennsylvania, I’m Andy Stone. There are 90,000 tons of highly radioactive nuclear waste in temporary storage sites across the United States. The waste is the responsibility of the federal government, which nearly four decades ago entered into an agreement with the nuclear power industry to collect and permanently dispose of spent reactor fuel. Yet today, after pouring billions of dollars into the stalled Yucca Mountain disposal facility in Nevada, a solution to the country’s nuclear waste problem appears as distant as ever, while the nation’s nuclear waste stockpile continues to grow.

In today’s podcast, we’ll explore the challenges ranging from safety concerns to politics that have foiled efforts to develop a permanent nuclear waste disposal site in the United States. And we’ll look at some new thinking based on successful efforts to develop disposal abroad that might make it possible to reach a permanent solution here.

My guest is Allison McFarlane, former chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission under President Barack Obama, and now a professor of public and Technology Policy at George Washington University. Allison, welcome to the podcast.

Allison McFarlane: Thank you.

Stone: So you were chairman of the NRC during the Obama administration, can you tell us about the oversight role of the commission?

McFarlane: So first, I should say that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is an independent agency, within the executive branch of the government, and its role is its mission is a good one. It’s to ensure that nuclear power plants, nuclear research reactors and test reactors and nuclear materials are managed safely and securely.

Stone: Now, you mentioned it’s independent does the NRC and its chairman report to anyone in Washington in particular?

McFarlane: Not officially report that they’re not under another agency. They are an independent commission, they receive oversight by Congress, there are there’s a committee in the Senate and a committee in the House, or the oversight designated oversight committees for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. And the chairman and the commissioners there five in all, obviously serve at the pleasure of the President. 

Stone: Okay, so now you teach public and Technology Policy at George Washington University in Washington, DC, and you’ve been involved in ongoing work to find a solution to the nuclear waste problem in this country. Can you tell us about that work?

McFarlane: Sure. I’m actually trained as a geologist. So, I bring a technical perspective to these issues. But these issues are also very largely rooted in the social sciences. So, I work in the social sciences as well and try to bring this kind of knowledge to bear on the question of what to do with our nuclear waste. And I do that by looking at what other countries do as well as what we do in the U.S.

Stone: So looking at the problem itself, here, there is no permanent disposal solution for spent nuclear fuel. And part of that fuel can remain dangerous, dangerously radioactive for 10s of 1000s, even millions of years. Yucca Mountain in Nevada, is the plan disposal project. It has been on hold since President Obama defunded that program. Can you tell us more about the current impasse that we have with the disposal site, and why this impasse is existed so long?

McFarlane: Yeah, it’s, it’s an interesting story. And I don’t know that it has a resolution anytime soon. But it basically goes like this. In 1982, Congress passed the first nuclear waste Policy Act. And there they spelled out that nuclear waste from high level nuclear waste from power plants, the spent nuclear fuel needs to go into some kind of deep geologic repository. The Department of Energy would find that repository, operate it, and they would be licensed to use it by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission using radiation dose standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency. And the legislation required three sites to be examined in detail and then one side selected from those three.

Well, the Department of Energy started along this path and by the late 1980s, around 1985, 86, it became clear that this was going to be an expensive proposition to look at three sites in detail. And those three sites, by the way, we’re in Texas, Washington State and Nevada. Now, Congress, people from Texas and Washington state were quite powerful in Congress at that time, the group from Nevada was not. And Congress decided to reduce the number of sites being examined down to one, Nevada got stuck with it.

So, they passed the nuclear waste Policy Act Amendments in 1987. Ever since then, Nevada has both differently resisted the location of a nuclear waste repository in their state, they actually call the Nuclear Waste Policy Act Amendments, the screw Nevada bill. And that’s where the initial problem cropped up. You know, so there was actually a good plan to do this fairly. And then Congress decided to look at only one side. So essentially, they selected a site based not on science, not on any kind of public engagement, just on politics.

Stone: With the science that science doesn’t defend, or doesn’t recommend Yucca Mountain as the optimal place to store or to dispose of the nuclear waste?

McFarlane: Well, that’s a complicated question. So, the Department of Energy went forward. Given these given the new legislation, and they worked on characterizing Yucca Mountain, it took a really long time. And they didn’t submit a license application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission until 2008. Now, the Department of Energy has decided that it’s technically reasonable to put nuclear waste there and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has looked at some of the technical issues and been okay with some of those. But the licensing process is only halfway through because there’s a big adjudicatory piece of the licensing process that hasn’t started yet. Where contentions and technical contentions are brought up and evaluated.

Stone: Is it possible that if that process were to move forward that that Yucca would be denied as the site based upon some scientific concerns?

McFarlane: It’s possible, possible.

Stone: Now, I wanted to point out, as you point out in the report that we’re gonna be talking about in just a few minutes, that this is not a problem that’s unique to the United States. You say in that report, you and the other authors, that 12 countries have tried 24 separate times, over the last 50 years to find, or to cite, nuclear waste disposal, only five of those have succeeded. So the next question is, and this may seem obvious, but like to get your input on it, why is nuclear waste so dangerous? And why is the permanent disposal, so technically challenging?

McFarlane: So nuclear waste is dangerous, because the waste itself is radioactive. And it stays radioactive for a long time. When fuel rods are used in a reactor, when they’re discharged, they give off, they would give you a lethal dose if you went near them within, you know, less than a minute. And, you know, as time goes on the radioactive radioactivity decays, but it still stays at dangerous levels for many, many, many decades, hundreds of years.

And so we have to somehow minimize our contact with this material. And really, the best way to do it is to put it deep underground, people have thought about shooting it into space. I have a one word response to that, which is challenger. We are not good at getting things up into space without blowing them up on the way. And that would sort of put all of this stuff in the atmosphere, which would be a bad thing. You know, somebody else will probably say, well, we’ll put it in the deep sea. Well, those are international waters. And you’d have to get every country to agree to that. So I don’t think that’s going to happen either.

The consensus is that we need to put this stuff deep underground. And as you point out, many countries have tried and failed and tried and failed and, and then and then started to succeed. So, this tends to be an iterative process. Is it technically difficult? No, it’s socially difficult. Clearly, you need to pick locations that are technically suitable. But there are plenty of those around the world. But you do need to pick locations that are that are socially acceptable. And that’s the real challenge.

Stone: Spent fuel can be reprocessed and reused or stored in the less hazardous form and other countries do this such as France, Great Britain in Japan. The U.S. does not consider this an option? And why is that?

McFarlane: Okay, so really the only country that’s really actively reprocessing right now is France, and maybe Russia, to some degree, the U.K. is going to be shutting down its reprocessing facilities, and Japan hasn’t opened up their processing facility. So, it’s not like there lots of other countries that do this. A, B, it’s really expensive. And uranium is plentiful. It turns out, you know, we even have uranium and C well, it’s ubiquitous, it’s all over the place. So, you don’t really need to reprocess. See, you actually produce much more waste by reprocessing than you do by not reprocessing. So though, you may reduce the volume of the high level waste by reprocessing, you create a huge amount of low level waste and intermediate level waste, which you have to dispose of.

So, you really haven’t solved the problem there. And D, I think we’re up to, you create a real proliferation hazard in terms of nuclear weapons, because you separate things like plutonium, which can are directly usable in nuclear weapons. So after India tested a, quote, peaceful nuclear device in 1974, first President Ford, then President Carter decided to indefinitely defer reprocessing in the United States to set an example for other countries that they did not have to reprocess spent fuel, they could simply manage it by disposing of it directly. So reprocessing is not really an option. And it’s really not an option, based on the economics, even France is having trouble with this. And you still need a repository, you don’t get rid of the need for a repository. So we’re processing simply a management step in dealing with your spent nuclear fuel, it doesn’t make a repository less necessary, and, frankly, doesn’t really reduce the volume, the capacity the size of a repository, either.

Stone: It’s interesting, because I have seen it portrayed as this kind of miracle solution. But you’re saying it’s not very, very interesting.

McFarlane: It’s absolutely not. And I defy anyone to prove me wrong.

Stone: Alright. We’ll go with that. So, one of the ironies here, then, is that the federal government is legally obligated to collect and store nuclear waste, per the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, which you mentioned goes back to 1982. Now, we’re nearly four decades down the road, and we don’t have a permanent disposal solution. And, you know, much has been blamed on the process used to select that site. In your view, what is an alternative to the process that we’ve had, which is basically imposing a site on a state or location from above from the government level?

McFarlane: I think there are multiple alternative methods of finding a site. And I think what the U.S. has done is, it’s clearly a failure. We still don’t have a site, we’re not closer to it. We’re still, you know, at loggerheads in Congress over progress on this. That seems to be a failure to me. I don’t know what the definition of failure would be otherwise.

So, if you look at what other countries have done, some countries have asked for volunteers, our neighbor to the north Canada, for volunteer sites, and they are I think they’ve down selected to about four sites now. And they’ve, they’ve heavily involved in public engagement. And so the affected communities have been deeply involved in the whole process. The same is true in Sweden and Finland, Finland has actually selected a site in is in the process of constructing a repository. So, they’re the country closest to developing a repository. Sweden is in the last legs of the licensing process for a site that’s been selected. And other countries have been making some progress as well.

What’s interesting in the case of Canada, Sweden, Finland and Switzerland, actually, is that the group running the siting process and doing all the site characterization interacting with the, the public, the affected public, etc, is an industry entity. It’s a company that’s set up by the companies that own the nuclear power plants. And so, it’s deeply involved in this whole process, it’s got a lot of incentive to do things economically and do them sensibly and do them timely. Whereas in the United States, we pass this off to a federal agency in the administration, the Department of Energy, who, you know, whose leader leadership changes every two to four years, and who, whose budget is deeply affected by the politics of the moment.

Stone: Now, this is laid out in the port that you worked on and came out last October, it’s called reset of America’s nuclear waste management. And you just talked about some of the financial incentives, you talks about what’s going on in some other countries. And more to the point, you say that one of the key issues here is that you would develop this what you term in the report, a new CO, which would be a nonprofit company, here, run by the electric utility industry, to cite and manage the waste going forward. Can you tell us a little bit more about how that would work and what the incentives for that, you know, for the industry would be the fall of us.

McFarlane: The way I see it, there’s multiple incentives. And the idea would be that the nuclear industry would have to band together and develop a separate independent corporation. So, they won’t be able to directly influence this corporation, right, it needs to remain independent of them. It would be regulated by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, just like other nuclear licensees. And their job would be to manage the waste from discharge at reactors.

And so, you would get a lot more of a sensible process here. So, let me let me just explain some of the problems that exist right now. When a nuclear reactor is done with its spent with its fuel, after about six years in the reactor, the fuel is discharged, it can’t be used anymore. And it’s put directly into a deep swimming pool. Every reactor has one of these deep swimming pools on site. Why? Because it’s both thermally and radioactively very hot and the water cools the fuel, and it also provides a radiation barrier.

So, after about five years, the fuel has cooled thermally and radioactively enough that it can be put into what’s called dry storage. It’s a passive storage. And it’s tends to be these stainless steel canisters put into concrete overpack. And almost all the reactors in the country, with the exception of a handful, have these dry storage systems as well as the spent fuel pool. Now, these dry storage systems are in multiple designs, some are transportable, some are not. The new ones that are coming out now have are licensed at two different levels, one for storage and one for transport. So, if you stuff at full of hot spent fuel, you can’t transport it for many decades until that fuel has decayed. Because there are heat limits thermal limits on the transportability of these casks.

So, you get situations like this, at reactors, that don’t make any sense. And by the way, none of these casks are, are designed to be placed in a repository. So, we have this system that hasn’t made a lot of sense, because nobody was really running the show. And so, you could have much more of a streamlined economic process. If you had an entity like an industry organization that had incentives to save money, do things at a reasonable pace, and dispose of this material. So that’s the idea behind the new CO.

Stone: What’s interesting as well, the NRC has said that to show how temporary this solution is where you’re storing the waste on site of the nuclear power plant. The NRC has said that that waste can only be stored safely for about 60 years after a nuclear power plant shuts down. So again, the permanent disposal solution is really absolutely necessary.

McFarlane: Well, actually, the NRC said the opposite most unfortunately in their Continuous Storage Rule. They said that the waste can be basically be stored indefinitely in power plants, Oh, yes. But then there’s a major assumption or two assumptions in this NRC statement, which by the way I did not agree with and I voted against it. The two assumptions are this, that institutions last forever in the U.S. government, so there’s always a Nuclear Regulatory Commission that’s always well funded. And that’s always staffed by people who care. And there’s somebody to pay for this because it costs money to store this, the casks won’t last forever. In fact, we don’t even know how long they’ll last. But one assumes you’ll have to change them at least every 100 years, if not sooner, so somebody is going to have to pay for that. And nobody has been identified as paying for that.

Then you asked another reason earlier, why the industry might have an incentive to do some kind of new CO like organization that runs the waste management piece of things. And one incentive is this. So, there are a number of plants in the country, there are over 10 reactors that have shut down and they have fully decommissioned. The only thing left on these reactor sites is the spent fuel. So the main Yankee site, or the Yankee rotate Massachusetts, or the Connecticut Yankee site in Connecticut, or the Trojan side in Oregon, or the Big Rock Point site, in Wisconsin, all of these places, the only thing that’s there is the spent fuel. So, you can’t use the site. Because you’ve got the spent fuel there, the spent fuel needs to be monitored for safety, but it also needs to be monitored for security. So, you need an active security force. And the companies that own the sites, the Yankee company, for instance, that owns Maine Yankee, Connecticut Yankee in Yankee row, they can’t dissolve, they would like to go away, they can’t, because they have to keep managing this stuff. So that’s a strong incentive.

Stone: Let’s talk a little bit more about the finances of the CIO. So currently, there’s in excess of $40 billion in the nuclear waste fund. And that was a fund that was established in the 1980s collected money from the nuclear power utilities every year and that money was supposed to fund the permanent disposal site. That money is still sitting in that fund. And my understanding is that it’s off limits, too many storage options. That may not include I would suppose yucca is would there be a challenge in accessing those funds? For something like the the proposal that we’ve been talking about the NRC?

McFarlane: Yes, there would be but no, the 40 billion is for permanent disposal. So, it would be for something like yucca and it’s been been used for that, up to now. When Congress actually appropriates it, the problem with the nuclear waste fund, and it’s all ratepayers, everybody who got a list electricity, who paid for electricity that was produced by nuclear power, paid a 10th of a cent per kilowatt hour into that fund, until a few years ago, when the government stopped collecting money into that fund because of a court case. But nonetheless, Congress has been managing this fund, and they’ve been managing it really badly. First of all, they’ve used all of it to offset the debt. So, it doesn’t really exist anymore

Stone: To offset the national debt?

McFarlane: Yep. It’s ratepayer money. It’s not taxpayer money. Or money. It means it’s no longer there. It means, you know, they’d have to find some other taxpayer money to put it back. So, they’ve acted like it’s taxpayer money. And they continue to act like it’s taxpayer money when they have to appropriate it, because they subject it to regulations, which means that they have to offset other things to actually use this money. It’s ridiculous

Stone: How did they get away with this? That’s actually amazing.

McFarlane: Yeah, how did they get away with it? Because people don’t know. This is supposed to be an escrow account. It’s like a trust fund that we ratepayers paid into. But Congress has basically hijacked it.

Stone: So, we’ve got a problem here. So, we still need to develop some sort of disposal, but the money’s not there. So, moving forward, where would that money potentially come from? And what have you talked about in the report?

McFarlane: Moving forward that money would we would have to put on a payment plan, because clearly, they’re not going to fork over 40 billion in one lump sum. For nuclear waste, I can’t see that getting any political legs. But they would have to agree to some kind of payment plan where they pay in some amount every year. And, and then going forward, we’d have to be allowed to continue to collect money into the nuclear waste fund. And so that ratepayer money would go to a proper escrow account, which would be managed by this new company. 

Stone: I’d like to go back just for a moment to the process that you, you and the group of other authors, propose for citing disposal site in the United States. And you mentioned the successful processes in Finland, for example, where that site has been approved, France, etc. Other countries also working in a similar process.

In that process you said earlier, is a consent based siting process, where the local communities through a process that’s fully transparent, would understand the risks and the possible rewards of having a site for permanent disposal in their vicinity. Along with that, I wanted to bring in the political elements so that that is obviously worked overseas. On the political side, there obviously is been some opposition. And last month, House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi said that she is committed to blocking funding for Yucca. And it’s out of fear that the Democrats could lose a couple vulnerable house seats in Nevada, should Yucca go forward. Okay. So, on one side, we’re talking to the communities and getting their input. But we also have federal pushback. Can these be reconciled?

McFarlane: Yeah, I think they can be. And by the way, it’s not just the Democrats playing that political game. The Republicans played it really, very recently, they did not vote in the last Congress, for money for Yucca Mountain, because they were concerned about senator Dean Heller, seat which he did lose. So, they were trying to protect him. So, they both play that game of trying to protect people in Nevada by opposing Yucca Mountain.

So, you know, again, this is something that I think we can succeed with. But when Congress holds those purse strings, which they shouldn’t be holding, you know, they need to really put this money, which is not taxpayer money, it’s ratepayer money into a proper Trust Fund, proper escrow fund, that is managed by this new co with a board of directors, and the Board of Directors can have something you know, there can certainly be an oversight role for Congress. But you need to run this waste management organization like a corporation, so that you have a long term time horizon, citing a nuclear waste dump, if that’s what you want to call it, a repository is something that takes a long time, you have to have many years of research on different locations, you have to have a lot of engagement with the public, in the community, in the state, along transportation routes, etc. This is a large undertaking, which is going to take many decades. And so you need a corporate structure that’s going to be able to last over that period of time, we’ve proven very well, I think in this country, that putting it in a political structure, like the Department of Energy is a recipe for failure.

Stone: So what’s the next step in creating this new this new company to manage this and getting it out of Congress’s hands?

McFarlane: Well, you know, Congress has to agree to this, they’re going to have to amend the legislation. And so it’s a it’s a heavy lift politically. Because there’s value to there’s political value in, in the, in the status quo. People can make political points on either side of supporting Yucca or opposing the ACA. And so it’s, it’s gonna take some important powerful folks to get behind this idea. And that includes the industry.

Stone: Where is the bottleneck at this point, because last year in the house, there a bill to restart the permitting process passed by a 340 to 72 vote, obviously showing that there was bipartisan support for that.

McFarlane: Right that’s in the House and the Senate and that was last year in the house. Not this year’s house has changed dramatically that calculus. Like I said, well, you just told me that Nancy Pelosi is going to block funding. So yes. And I, you know, the Senate is sort of an unknown entity now, because they the current members, only 18 of the current 50 sorry, 100 members actually have ever voted on Yucca Mountain. So we don’t know where they all are on Yucca Mountain. There’s a, you know, a number of pieces of legislation that may win know this out, we’ll see how far they get.

Stone: So final question for here. Are you hopeful that we’ll see this happen?

McFarlane: I’m hopeful, yes, because the U.S. is the only country in the world that actually operates a deep geologic repository for nuclear waste. And that’s the waste isolation pilot project in southeastern New Mexico, which, in which we store our intermediate level nuclear waste, what we call transuranic waste from the nuclear weapons complex. And that’s been a real success story. So, so I am hopeful, so can happen here. Yeah. 

Stone: Alison, thank you very much for talking.

McFarlane: Alright, thank you.

Stone: Today’s guest has been Allison McFarlane, Professor of Public and Technology Policy at George Washington University, and former chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. For more energy policy, podcasts, blogs, and research from leading experts in the energy policy field, visit the Kleinman Center website. Our address is kleinmanenergy.upenn.edu. And tune into the next episode of energy policy. Now, while I’ll be talking with a pioneer in the field of climate sociology about the genesis of America’s divide around climate change, and how that divide might play out in the 2020 presidential election. Thanks for listening to Energy Policy Now and have a great day.


Allison Macfarlane

Former Chairman, Nuclear Regulatory Commission
Former Chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission under President Barack Obama, and is now a professor of public and technology policy at George Washington University.

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.