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U.S. Spent Nuclear Fuel Policy: Road to Nowhere [Part I: Historical Context]

In addition to building nuclear power plants, a robust nuclear energy infrastructure requires a means to store and recycle spent nuclear fuel (SNF) and other high level nuclear waste (HLW) products.

The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 and Amendments of 1987 established a national policy and schedule for developing geologic repositories for the disposal of SNF and HLW. Those deadlines have come and gone; the cancellation of Yucca Mountain was only the latest failed attempt to make this policy a reality.

Nuclear fuel reprocessing traces its roots to work started in 1943 but the development work was suspended in the mid-1970s after several failed projects. The task of finding a new long-term storage location has now been assigned to yet another committee and SNF reprocessing remains in limbo in the U.S. while other nations are building modern reprocessing facilities.

Are developing a coherent nuclear fuel policy and following through on the plan impossible tasks?

In Part I of this series, we examine the historical context of the U.S. nuclear waste storage policy. In Parts II and III, we will look at the history of the ill-fated Salt Vault and Yucca Mountain projects.  Part IV will look at the legal and political fallout from the Yucca Mountain failure, and Part V will explore failed attempts to reprocess nuclear fuel in the U.S. and examine the global state-of-the-art reprocessing plants now operating or under construction.

The U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) two-paragraph March 3 press release describing its motion to withdraw its pending license application for Yucca Mountain was an indecent obituary for the disposal site’s brief 23-year life and $8 billion cost. The relatively short history of nuclear power in the U.S. reminds us that the Yucca Mountain project may have been doomed from the start. A number of permanent nuclear waste storage site projects have been cancelled over the past 45 years, although Yucca Mountain was exponentially the most expensive failure. History also tells us that political considerations will always trump technology when it comes to siting a nuclear waste repository.

The DOE’s terse statement was expected given the funding death spiral for the project over the past few years and a new president who promised to close Yucca Mountain: “The U.S. Department of Energy today filed a motion with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to withdraw the license application for a high-level nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain with prejudice.”

This decision again leaves the power generation industry without a long-term spent nuclear fuel (SNF) disposal site, despite the federal government’s legal obligation to provide one. The pivotal difference between Yucca Mountain and previously cancelled projects: This time nuclear utilities collected billions of dollars from ratepayers to pay for the project.

On Tuesday, June 29, a three-judge panel of the the NRC’s Atomic Safety and Licensing Board declared that the Secretary of Energy did not have authority to override the law that named Yucca Mountain the nation’s nuclear waste repository.  While this decision leaves the project with a faint pulse, it is likely that Nevada Senator Harry Reid and the Obama Administration will find a way to pull the plug.

The Birth and Slow Death of Yucca Mountain

Congress established a national policy for the disposition of commercial SNF and HLW with passage of the NWPA in 1982. When it was passed, the NWPA required the DOE to identify and evaluate two different sites to ensure regional equity for the permanent geologic disposal of SNF and HLW. Initially, nine sites were identified, and eventually three were short-listed. In 1987, Congress officially designated Yucca Mountain, located about 85 miles by air northwest of Las Vegas, Nevada. The selection of Yucca Mountain as the nation’s permanent nuclear waste repository was then codified with passage of Nuclear Waste Policy Act Amendment (NWPAA). The DOE expected to begin accepting nuclear waste in an operating geologic repository by 1998.

But official selection did not build a straight desert highway for the depository’s development to follow, as we detail below. Most recently, while Yucca Mountain remained on the books, progress was limited by extreme budget cuts over the past two years. The March 3 announcement was the equivalent of a death sentence. The final “time of death” pronouncement will come only when the administration asks Congress to update the NWPAA by removing the specific reference to Yucca Mountain.

Meanwhile, ongoing responsibilities under the NWPAA, such as administration of the NWF, continue under the Office of Nuclear Energy, which will continue to lead future waste management activities.

Should the blue ribbon commission and Congress ever come to a consensus on a new repository site, expect a revision to the NWPAA to replace Yucca Mountain with the new site in order to codify the decision. In the meantime, Yucca Mountain remains codified as our nation’s nuclear waste repository, although the designation is meaningless without funding and an approved license application from the NRC.

Origins of the U.S. Nuclear Waste Management Policy

3 comments

1 Ed Reid { 07.08.10 at 10:52 am }

Current “spent nuclear fuel” is hardly “spent”. It still contains enormous fuel value. It makes absolutely no sense to store all of this fuel value away forever. It is time to separate ourselves from this element of the Carter “legacy” and begin extracting the remaining fuel value from this “waste”.

2 Jon Boone { 07.08.10 at 11:49 am }

Well said, Ed. The technology is probably too distant for complete recycling in the foreseeable future, which will require some storage. But 97-98 percent can be re-used–and not just for power, since medical applications are legion.

3 Rod Adams { 07.10.10 at 8:55 am }

Robert – you have overlooked or slanted some key aspects of the technical and political history.

The 1970s suspension of recycling did not come about because of failed projects; it came about because of a focused effort to elect a president that promised to end recycling as part of his “non proliferation” campaign. Carter’s policy assumed that the rest of the world would follow our lead on recycling – which was an arrogant and misguided approach from the very beginning. (As an aside – Carter was never a “nuclear engineer” in the US Navy. He resigned his commission and went back to raise peanuts in October, 1953. The USS Nautilus did not go to sea under nuclear power until January 17, 1955. Even the land based prototype of for the Nautilus reactor did not start operation until Jimmy had already decided to leave the Navy because his father had passed away and he wanted to go home to run the family business.)

Secondly, you ignore the politics around the decision to eliminate all options other than Yucca Mountain in 1987. The key leaders of the initiative were all from states that were still on the short list. There was no science involved, just pure power politics aiming to pick on a lightly populated state with only one representative at the time.

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