The Problem with Yucca Mountain

by Jeanie E. Gosline

No one wants nuclear waste. We all want the energy that comes from splitting a uranium atom, but we don’t want its waste product, and we certainly don’t want it in our backyards. The uncomfortable question of where to put the waste has been plaguing American policy since we figured out how to harness nuclear power.

Congress legislated a solution in 1987, when Nevada’s Yucca Mountain was designated the nation’s repository for nuclear waste. It was to be paid for by a fee charged to the nuclear utilities (and passed through to their consumers). But controversy, delays, and political opposition have postponed it for decades. Despite the uncertainty, more than $35 billion in fees have been collected from consumers and deposited in the Nuclear Waste Fund, which has a current balance of $29 billion.

“This issue is like a pothole,” explained Rob Thormeyer, communications director for the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NARUC). “That pothole is getting bigger and bigger and no one’s doing anything about it. We’re paying for it to be fixed, but the money is not going anywhere. Eventually, you can’t avoid the pothole anymore, or you’ll drive off the road.”

The problem has grown so large, in fact, that NARUC has taken its case to court. In July 2009, the DOE and the Obama Administration cut all funding, and therefore all support, for the Yucca Mountain project, prompting NARUC to ask DOE to suspend the fee until a new nuclear-waste strategy and program is developed.

After the DOE denied this request, NARUC filed suit, arguing that because the agency had not completed its mandatory assessment, the fee should be suspended. The DOE quickly submitted a “determination” that the fees associated with the Nuclear Waste Fund were adequate and would still be collected. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, after receiving this filing, dismissed the NARUC pleading, but said the association could challenge the veracity of the fee assessment itself. In March 2011 NARUC did just that, joining the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), a trade organization, in a lawsuit asking for the suspension of the collection of the waste fee pending DOE’s release of a fee review that complies with the Nuclear Waste Policy Act. The case is still pending.

The Saga of Nuclear Waste

In a nuclear fission reactor, a uranium atom splits into two fission products, releasing several hundred million times more energy, per unit mass, than the average chemical reaction. That energy (heat) is then harnessed using a steam-powered generator. But in releasing that energy, the stable uranium atom becomes radioactive due to changes in the relationship between the atomic nucleus and its electron clouds. The long road to reestab-lish balance leads the split atoms to emit radiation, often for centuries. Those split atoms are what we refer to as high-level nuclear waste, or spent nuclear fuel.

In nuclear power plants, the spent fuel is submerged in a pool of water for several years to cool down. The majority of our nuclear waste is still stored in this manner.
According to the NEI, the United States has produced a total of 67,500 metric tons of high-level nuclear waste. That’s enough to cover a football field seven yards deep if the fuel assemblies were stacked end to end. Spent fuel pools are now reaching capacity at many power plants, leading several of them to build alternative storage facilities and prompting several states to pass legislation that bars new nuclear facility construction until a storage solution is worked out.

Finding a Home for It

The quest to find a home for the country’s nuclear waste began with the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982. It made the DOE responsible for finding, building, and operating a central, underground nuclear waste repository site. The DOE identified nine potential locations in 1983, and after two years of study, announced three potential sites for more in-depth study: Hanford, Washington; Deaf Smith County, Texas; and Yucca Mountain, Nevada.

Powerful politicians have a track record of keeping nuclear waste out of their districts. In 1987, the Speaker of the House, Jim Wright, was from Texas, and Majority Leader Tom Foley was from Washington State. That left Nevada, and its freshman senator, Harry Reid, holding the bag. Congress directed the DOE to study Yucca Mountain as the sole repository option. However, since Reid became the Senate majority leader in 2005, he has successfully sidelined the Yucca Mountain debate.

The decision to pick the storage location by congressional action as opposed to local consent has also been a point of contention. Critics point to successful efforts to build nuclear waste depots in Finland, France, Spain, and Sweden that were based on local communities accepting the risks in exchange for the economic benefits.
Despite the political minefield and opposition to the Yucca Mountain Repository, the DOE submitted its license application for review by the NRC in 2008, as required by law. But in 2010 under the Obama administration, the DOE petitioned to withdraw its license, leading the NRC in 2011 to move to stop consideration of Yucca Mountain.

Nonetheless, fees are still being collected from utility customers, growing the Nuclear Waste Fund by $1 billion each year from new payments and interest. Thus far, the DOE’s response has been that if the fees are required by law, it will continue to assess them to fund the program, even if it is no longer active.

In July 2011 NARUC joined Washington and South Carolina, states with large quantities of civilian and military nuclear waste, in another lawsuit, this time against the NRC for unreasonably delaying a decision on whether Yucca Mountain is safe for the storage of spent-nuclear fuel.

All the lawsuits and political wrangling mask a bigger problem: we are running out of space for our nearly 70,000 metric tons of spent fuel. As originally conceived, Yucca Mountain was authorized to store about 77,000 metric tons of waste. In 2007 the DOE determined the facility could be expanded to hold an additional 190,000 metric tons. Without expansion, space will run out by 2014; expansion would buy us a few more decades.

Alternative Strategies

In mid-2010 the Obama administration appointed a Blue Ribbon Commission, which in 2012 issued a brief report, Strategy for the Management and Disposal of Used Nuclear Fuel and High-Level Radioactive Waste. The report outlines a ten-year plan that includes the construction of temporary “pilot” facilities by 2025 and suggests making “demonstrable progress on the siting and characterization of repository sites to facilitate the availability of a geologic repository by 2048.”

Thus, in the best-case scenario, a permanent repository will open in 35 years—more than double the 16 years that were estimated in the original plan. “Here in 2013,” said Commissioner Greg White of the Michigan Public Service Commission, “we are further away from opening a permanent, high-level nuclear waste repository in the U.S. than we were in 1982 when the Nuclear Waste Policy Act was passed, despite billions of dollars having been collected from customers of nuclear utilities and having been spent on the program.”

The group with the best chance to take action on Yucca Mountain may be the U.S. Senate. In April of this year, Ron Wyden (D-OR), the chair of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, began a bipartisan effort to move forward on nuclear waste storage. Wyden worked with Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Diane Feinstein (D-CA), and Lamar Alexander (R-TN) to produce a draft bill containing no mention of Yucca Mountain. The legislation would create a new federal agency for nuclear waste administration, removing jurisdiction from the DOE. The bill would also require state and local consent to build temporary or long-term disposal.

Another option is to recycle spent fuel to generate power. Reprocessing some of the country’s spent nuclear fuel could remedy the delay in finding a place to store it. Currently, the majority of U.S. nuclear reactors are pressurized water reactors that house spent fuel in water. The split uranium atoms can reassemble in the water, releasing energy as they do. This energy can power a steam turbine to produce electricity or heat water. This low-level nuclear waste storage option is generally stable.

Time Is Running Out

In February, six of the storage tanks at Washington’s Hanford Nuclear Reservation began to leak. Far older than their intended 20-year life span, the tanks contain low-level nuclear and toxic waste dating back to the time of the Manhattan Project. Hanford is now the country’s most contaminated nuclear storage facility; one million gallons of radioactive waste have already leaked at the site. Cleanup could take decades to complete and is costing the federal government $2 billion annually.

Although they pose no health or safety threats, the leaks at Hanford are a stark warning of what could happen at any of the 131 spent fuel storage sites scattered across 39 states. In the meantime, the country’s stockpile of nuclear waste continues to grow by 2,000 to 3,000 tons each year.

Commissioner White is not optimistic that anything will be done in his lifetime. “We should not be passing on this problem to future generations,” he said, “and that’s exactly what we’re doing—saying, someone else is going to have to figure this out because we don’t have the political will to do it.”