That’s easier said than done, said Tom LaTourrette, a geologist and the senior physical scientist at the RAND Corporation, the famous California-based think tank. Nevada has fought federal efforts to store its nuclear waste there since the feds designated Yucca Mountain as a permanent repository in 1987, and that opposition doesn’t seem to have diminished.
“I’ll believe that when I see it,” he said. “I’m not thinking anything’s really changed.”
Nevada’s Republican US Sen. Dean Heller immediately condemned the administration’s proposal, asking, “Why should a state without any nuclear power plants of its own be forced against its will to house all of our nation’s nuclear waste?”
A report released last week by the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, estimated that restarting the process of getting the Yucca Mountain site licensed and approved could take five years. The government has already spent about $15 billion on the project, including boring a five-mile exploratory tunnel into the mountain; Heller said the cost could end up costing $75 billion.
“We have a federalist system,” LaTourrette said. “States have power, and I don’t think you can just shove this down a state’s throat.”
But most spent fuel pools weren’t designed to hold more than one full fuel core, plus two additional batches of spent fuel at a time, so operators have had to make several modifications to safely contain more, said Christina Simeone, the director of policy and external affairs at the University of Pennsylvania’s Kleinman Center for Energy Policy.
“It’s universally accepted that dry storage is safer than wet storage,” Simeone said. It makes sense to move fuel rods to dry casks after five years, but it will cost money.
NRC figures cited in the Science paper estimated that moving older spent fuel to dry casks would cost operators about $5 billion, at a time when many of them are struggling to stay competitive in electric markets now dominated by cheap natural gas. The Department of Energy has already paid utilities more than $5 billion to store waste at their plants, and a 2015 CBO estimate said that tab might top $29 billion before a permanent repository could be built.
“The issue may be cash flow,” Simeone said. “There is a lag from the time the investment is made to the time they come to a settlement and get paid, and I don’t know if they’re reimbursed for those carrying costs … the margins for these companies might be a little thin.”
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But the federal government is already paying operators about $1 billion a year to house the waste at their plants because of the lack of a permanent repository. And the government has piled up a $36 billion fund from fees that were collected from ratepayers for a permanent disposal site that was never built.
“I think it is very, very important that the federal government honor this commitment, whether it’s an interim storage facility or ideally a permanent repository,” Simeone said. “Because this situation where the communities that overpaid and are accepting more risk, and they’re not getting compensated for that risk, is inequitable.”
And LaTourette said the feds are in a Catch-22: The Obama administration explored options for holding nuclear waste at an interim storage site, but federal law requires that a permanent site get built before establishing any interim site.
“Initially, this was meant to prevent them from getting partway there and getting stalled and then having an interim become a de facto permanent site,” he said. “But look at what we’ve got now. Talk about de facto permanent.”
But Lyman said Congress could help reduce the risk of long-term storage by appropriating the money needed to put more waste into dry storage — or, as nuclear utilities seek state help to keep plants open, states could require it as a condition of subsidies.
“States don’t have the legal authority to require nuclear plants to do something for safety reasons,” he said. “But there’s nothing saying a state couldn’t say, ‘We’ll bail you out, but you need to spend some of that money improving safety and security.’ That’s certainly within their ability, to have a private contractor or a utility deal with that.”
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