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While Nuclear Waste Piles Up in U.S., Billions in Fund to Handle It Sit Unused

Energy companies have been suing the government over a lack of a long-term fix for nuclear waste—costing taxpayers millions and potentially billions.

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This undated image shows the entrance to the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository located in Nye County, Nev. (Maxim Kniazkov/AFP/Getty Images)

While the nuclear crisis in Japan has focused attention on the risks of spent fuel piling up at the U.S.'s reactors, one curious fact has gone largely unnoted: There is $24 billion sitting in a "nuclear waste fund" that can't actually be used to pay for a safer way to store the waste at reactors.

In 1982, Congress passed the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, and the federal government effectively struck a deal with the nuclear industry: Reactor operators and their customers would pay a tax on the waste they produced, and the government would use the money to create a safe place to store it for generations. The idea at the time was to build a repository inside volcanic rock on Yucca Mountain, about 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas. That plan proved to be wildly controversial and was eventually abandoned by the Obama administration in 2010. After 29 years, there are billions of dollars in the fund and no plan for the waste.

To compound the problem, the 1982 law only allows the money to be spent on a permanent solution, such as Yucca, and it can't be used for what many experts say is the best interim solution: taking spent fuel out of increasingly crowded cooling pools and encasing them in concrete and steel. So, nuclear companies have begun doing that themselves -- and have been suing the government for not holding up its side of the bargain. The companies have filed dozens of lawsuits, for $6.4 billion in total claims, according to figures maintained by the Department of Justice. The government has already paid out $956 million. It's also spent nearly $170 million simply defending itself against the claims.

"Basically lawyers are getting rich and nobody is really better off, as far as I can tell. That seems to be the bottom line," Allison MacFarlane, a professor at George Mason University, said at a February meeting of the Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future, a federal advisory committee on which she sits.

Department of Energy statistics show that new lawsuits and other costs could eventually push the government's legal liability to $16.2 billion.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who opposes storing waste at Yucca Mountain in his home state, introduced legislation in 2007 to amend the law so the fund could be used for interim waste storage. But the bill never came to the floor for a vote. Reid's office didn't respond to questions about whether he intends to re-introduce the bill.

"The whole story is a black mark on the system," said Jay Silberg, a Washington, D.C.-based attorney who has been representing utilities in these cases for more than a decade. "It's bad for society, bad for taxpayers, bad for ratepayers and bad for the government."

Spent fuel is contained in zirconium-clad rods that remain highly radioactive for years after they've been heated inside a reactor core to produce energy. In order to cool, the rods first have to be immersed in large pools of water.

There is about 70,000 tons of spent fuel stored at reactor sites around the country. Three-quarters of the material sits in cooling pools. Reactor operators have been re-racking the rods so they can fit more of them in the pools -- a practice that makes the pools more radioactive and potentially more dangerous in the event of an accident.

The pools in the United States have been criticized by nuclear industry watchdogs who say they are too crowded and in some cases have been known to leak low levels of radioactive water.

Some reactor operators have begun building large tomb-like structures called dry casks to contain the waste after the rods have cooled for five years or more in the pools. The dry casks are considered a safer way to store the rods.

But the industry has been reluctant to use dry casks on a large scale because it's extremely expensive to transfer the radioactive rods. A 2003 study by a former Energy Department official and a team of nuclear experts concluded it would cost at least $3.5 billion to move all rods that had been in pools for over five years.

Critics of the industry have urged the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to require reactor operators to begin moving all spent fuel that has cooled for five years or more into dry casks, because the pools are more vulnerable to terrorist attacks and the loss of a small amount of water could cause a radiation field to grow large enough to prevent emergency workers from mitigating a full-blown meltdown in the pool.

But the NRC has argued that the safety risks of keeping the fuel in pools aren't severe enough to warrant the amount of money it would cost to move the rods into dry storage.

The waste disposal issue isn’t so much a technical problem as it is a political problem in the US. Yucca mountain is the most timely example of this technical/political divide.

Practical solutions based on widely used technologies do exist and have been used for nearly 50 years both in the US and abroad. Reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel to extract reusable fissile materials decreases the volume of the material, provides new fuel for reactors, and dramatically reduces the long term hazards of spent fuel. Unprocessed waste is dangerous for thousands of years, processed waste is dangerous for decades.

Of course this makes too much sense and if the waste disposal issue were addressed it would take one of the biggest clubs away from the no-nukes crowd. One side argues that waste reprocessing in too dangerous, another side argues that dry cask storage is too dangerous while another side argues that any permanent repository is inadequate. The strategy is intended to create fear, uncertainty, and doubt and it works.

Re: Mike H post above.

“Unprocessed waste is dangerous for thousands of years, processed waste is dangerous for decades.”

How can I verify this? Would love to.

Some guy named Mike in Phx

What gets me is that Harry Reid was very interested in taking billions of dollars to do all of the studies of Yucca Mountain.  This brought many jobs to Nevada.  But when it came time to move onto the real deal of storing waste Harry said “no” after accepting the preliminary money.  This just doesn’t seem fair to me as a taxpayer. 

The problem with Americans is that when someone says “nuclear” or “radiation” they think mushroom cloud.  If Americans thought the same about electricity their first image in their mind would be the electric chair rather than the light bulb.  Perhaps one of the first steps the nuclear power industry should take is educating the public.

Good article, J. S. 

If the state, Navada in this case, uses the energy produced by these plants then they should also have to store the waste.  Regardless of the position one takes on nuclear energy, these spent fuel rods are an existing problem that won’t go away by itself.  It is flat-out embarrassing that our legislature would rather waste billions of tax-payer dollars in litigation than modify a law to make it effective. 

Maybe we should all just take sides, move to, or from, “nuclear states”... no, wait, didn’t something like that start the Civil War?  If I recall correctly wasn’t it radiation from the spent fuel pool at Fukushima that caused the first pull-out?  Remember the helicopter water drops?  Seriously, a 29 year-old law, and no solution. I would be calling my lawyer, too!  I see what one of the commentors meant (re; a previous story in this series) when he said that the plant operators had to pay the government to dispose of the waste, and then they still had to dispose of the waste.

It seems to me that the largest enviromental disasters have come from human error, cutting corners, and neglect.  If a problem developes from the overflowing spent fuel pools in this country we can"t blame the plant operators exclusively, but I bet our government will try.

Good article that addresses the issues.

As I understand it, the main argument against Yucca Mountain is that in some future century, the storage containers will have deteriorated to the point that they leak radioactivity that will migrate through the solid rock of the mountain to a groundwater field that will by then exist and someone miles away will be harmed because the radioactivity reached them via the motion of the groundwater through the field.

In other words, Yucca Mountain is not a permanent solution.

It is not realistic to expect anything we do today to continue to work for thousands or even hundreds of years. Congress must start over, recognizing that we must keep reinventing temporary measures, and build that requirement into the law.

Bruce Gellerman

March 31, 2011, 1:39 a.m.

Actually, this story hasn’t gone largely unnoticed. I reported this in a two- part special a year ago on PRI’s Living on Earth.

http://www.loe.org/shows/segments.html?programID=10-P13-00010&segmentID=3

What’s wrong with using depleted uranium (DU) to form containers to isolate the rods. Even though DU emits very low levels of radioactivity, it can isolate, effectively, materials with high emissions.

What can we do about nuclear waste?
According to a report from the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, it will take 3 million years for radioactive waste stored in the United States as of 1983 to decay to background levels. So, presently, the only solution is to store the waste in a place so that the environment won’t be contaminated. The problem with storing nuclear waste is both political as well as technological. In terms of politics, no one wants it stored near them. So there’s much dispute as to where radioactive waste should be stored. In addition, storing so much waste is a major technological challenge. According to a report issued by the British Parliament, “In considering arrangements for dealing safely with such wastes, man is faced with time scales that transcend his experience.”


http://library.thinkquest.org/3471/nuclear_waste_body.html

So are any of these electric companies gonna be around when the storage containers fail in 300 years? 2000 years? 1 million years? Maybe after an earthquake?  Who will be responsible for the price tag to clean up?

there is now way we will be able to keep track of the waste for as long as it will be radioactive. we can plan for the future, but what happens when something goes wrong? we cannot predict the future. on a side note, why is the us continuing is nuclear programs immediately after being shown just a fraction of the destructive capabilities (japan)?

Dennis F. Nester

March 31, 2011, 3:16 p.m.

The aim of nuclear power is to make plutonium 239, the element needed to make atom bombs. The rest is PR to entrench nuclear power. Electricity is made from the heat produced which turns steam electric generators.

The DOE ‘knew or should have known’ that so-called nuclear waste can not be safely buried. It continues to generate heat and will leak out of any containment, polluting the water table and vent to the atmosphere. Japan’s meltdowns show the lethal realities of nuclear power!

However, there is a 30 year old invention, outlawed by President Reagan, which will backwards engineer plutonium 239 into non-radioactive lead known as the Roy Process. It should be tested and installed! See:

VIDEO - YouTube - The Roy Process
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_v7030VAeLA

SCOOP News -
http://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/HL0308/S00219.htm

My vote is to store nuclear waste at the Capitols of the state in which it was generated and the overflow in DC, all above ground where it is a constant reminder, that the problem with disposal is of their making, like it or not! Their lack of sensible decisions has created a nightmare - not at all what our forefathers had in mind. I will never be a politician.

Danny, with what the gas and oil companies are putting underground, no one will be around 300 years. Query gas and oil wells in the US and consider the recent changes in our laws considering “The Right to Know Act. Do you believe they are doing nice things for the general public?

My vote is to store nuclear waste at the Capitols of the state in which it was generated and the overflow in DC, all above ground where it is a constant reminder, that the problem with disposal is of their making, like it or not! Their lack of sensible decisions has created a nightmare - not at all what our forefathers had in mind. I will never be a politician.

Danny, with what the gas and oil companies are putting underground, no one will be around in 300 years. Query gas and oil wells in the US and consider the recent changes in our laws considering “The Right to Know Act. Do you believe they are doing nice things for the general public?

Dennis F. Nester

March 31, 2011, 8:18 p.m.

The aim of nuclear power is to make plutonium 239, the element needed to make atom bombs. The rest is PR to entrench nuclear power. Electricity is made from the heat produced which turns steam electric generators.

The DOE ‘knew or should have known’ that so-called nuclear waste can not be safely buried. It continues to generate heat and will leak out of any containment, polluting the water table and vent to the atmosphere. Japan’s meltdowns show the lethal realities of nuclear power!

However, there is a 30 year old invention, outlawed by President Reagan, which will backwards engineer plutonium 239 into non-radioactive lead known as the Roy Process. It should be tested and installed! See:

VIDEO - YouTube - The Roy Process
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_v7030VAeLA

SCOOP News -
http://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/HL0308/S00219.htm

Javier Hernandez

April 1, 2011, 12:14 a.m.

It is all but a smoke screen. Same thing with the chinese drywall and the BP spill.The United States of America is becoming the same as communist countries but with money.Everything in life has a price and sooner or later bad kharma will return to these elite agencies,corporations,and individuals.Even the president of the USA is just a puppet.Money talks.

Dennis F. Nester

April 1, 2011, 6:59 a.m.

The aim of nuclear power is to make plutonium 239, the element needed to make atom bombs. The rest is PR to entrench nuclear power. Electricity is made from the heat produced which turns steam electric generators.

The DOE ‘knew or should have known’ that so-called nuclear waste can not be safely buried. It continues to generate heat and will leak out of any containment, polluting the water table and vent to the atmosphere. Japan’s meltdowns show the lethal realities of nuclear power!

There is a 30 year old invention, outlawed by President Reagan, which will backwards engineer plutonium 239 into non-radioactive lead and other isotopes. It will also make electricity from the heat produced, create jobs, guarantee international security, Put ‘The Roy Process’ in the Youtube Search box to see the late Dr. Roy

Nuclear propagandists like to say Yucca was selected based on science. It wasn’t, at least not entirely. Everyone blaming Harry Reid for blocking Yucca should look at who was in power when the site selection was made. The sites in Texas and Washington state were ignored because their politicians had more power at the time.

Politics has ALWAYS been the determining factor in this issue. So, Republicans can get off their high horse about Reid. He’s just doing what his constituents want. Take a look at a few state polls, most do not want this radiation factory in their state and I don’t blame them.

The US public has already spent many millions to make Yucca Mtn. a safe place to dispose of waste for the forseeable future.  Beyond that time new technology will be available to take care of any concerns.  In fact, there is already in existence methods to render the waste much less harmful (e.g. reprocessing, neutron “burning” of transuranics).  Activating Yucca will even produce jobs for Nevada (calling Harry Reid!).

Why haven’t I heard anybody suggest the possibility that, in the not too distant future, we will know how to use the stuff we now want to store in Yucca?

Unclean energy, not worth the lethal impact. They all cut corners for profit, time will show the sickness poured into the sky from the land of dragons. If fallout of a single bomb is cause for alarm what about the radioactive ellements of one reactor compared to the tiny amount of one bomb? I read the fuel is good appox 4 years thats 24 rods to one reactor every four years, and they have used fukishima 40 years. Thats alot of radioactive material X 6 reactors one running plutonium the most feared. Thats 24 Plutonium or Mox fuel rods every for years X 40 years for number 3 reactor alone.  I may not be a qualified to speak on it but, thats 240 rods stored in one pond and if that is blown up we aint seen nothin yet, the whole world will see prophecy unfold wormwood is bad news.

This article is part of an ongoing investigation:
Nuclear Safety

Nuclear Safety

With the disaster in Japan, we're investigating questions about nuclear safety.

The Story So Far

Following a massive earthquake and tsunami in Japan, hydrogen explosions rocked three reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Radioactive spent fuel stored in pools was also affected, especially at one reactor—the plant has a total of six—where multiple fires erupted. Evacuation orders were issued, potassium iodine tablets distributed, and plant employees used seawater and external electrical power to cool the stricken reactors, three of which had a partial core meltdown.

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