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America's Nuclear Waste Is Now Even Farther from Finding a Home

We've got it for 10,000 years, so where does it go?

by Derek Mead
Nov 21 2013, 10:00am
People in hats look at a tunnel boring machine at Yucca Mountain, where only a few exploratory tunnels have been cut. Via the NRC

For 23 years, the US nuclear industry had its eyes on Yucca Mountain, a planned repository for long-term storage of nuclear waste. Now, after three years of limbo, one of the last sources of funding for the now-dead project has been axed, and America is left with a pressing question: Where do we put our nuclear waste?

In 2010, the Obama Administration abruptly cut funding for the still-uncompleted project, in a move the Government Accountability Office slammed for being wasteful and politically-motivated.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which oversees the search for waste storage, still had funds to continue a safety analysis of the site—a controversial survey on its own—and a federal judge ordered the NRC to spend them as recently as August. But in September, NRC Chairman Allison Macfarlane testified that the commission didn't have enough money to complete the survey, which would make the last three years of dwindling federal support come to a complete stop.

But if the federal government was barred from directly funding a search for nuclear storage, there was one major revenue stream left: the Department of Energy's Nuclear Waste Fund, to which nuclear plants pay around $750 million in fees per year. Today, that collection ended. A ruling from the Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit ordered the collection of fees—amounting to a tenth of a cent per kilowatt-hour generated by nuclear plants—to stop immediately. 

The court called the Energy Department out for still collecting fees despite the White House's 2010 stop work order. “Because the [energy] secretary is apparently unable to conduct a legally adequate fee assessment, the secretary is ordered to submit to Congress a proposal to change the fee to zero until such a time as either the secretary chooses to comply with the Nuclear Waste Policy Act as it is currently written, or until Congress enacts an alternative waste management plan,” Senior Circuit Judge Laurence Silberman wrote, per Politico. So if Yucca reopens, or if a new storage facility is found, the fee can be collected again.

And as Politico noted, the same three judges from this ruling also ruled against the Energy Department in 2012, saying that its justification report was weak. Naturally, utilities companies are pleased to not have to pay a fee they've paid since 1983—especially since the Fund, which is worth more than $24 billion and has yet to be used to build the storage facility it's supposed to pay for. Oddly enough, those funds aren't included in the budget for the NRC's safety survey, which is why Macfarlane is worried about running out of money.

I felt this image from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory really highlights the problems we're facing with nuclear waste.

But the most recent ruling also highlights how the Yucca Mountain project—which, again, has remained America's best hope for a long-term storage solution for 30 years, despite being nowhere near completion—continues to be a political football.

For example, the August ruling ordering the NRC to continue spending money on Yucca Mountain safety assessments, which came from another trio of judges in the DC Circuit Court of Appeals, blasted both the NRC and the White House. The court called out the former for "flouting the law" in stopping work, and the latter for failing to "follow a statutory mandate or prohibition simply because of policy objections.” 

Of course, Yucca has been a highly political site from the beginning. Congress initially chose the site despite the objections from Nevada, whose government naturally didn't want to become the country's dumping ground for nuclear waste. (See Senator Harry Reid's web page dedicated to the topic.) Since then, work has been exhaustingly slow, and even safety assessments covering whether or not the site is even viable have dragged on. The entire saga is unfathomably convoluted at this point.

What remains is a lack of a permanent home for the tens of thousands of tons of accumulated nuclear waste created by the US's six decades with nuclear power. Currently, much of that waste is stored in temporary casks. With an ever-aging nuclear fleet, a glut of nuclear waste will need homes as old plants are decommissioned. Where will it go?

Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz says he's optimistic about finding a new location. But even that's years away at best, and a site hasn't been picked yet. (Officials in whatever state does get chosen as an alternate are sure to argue that the current law states Yucca Mountain is the official US choice.) Before a congressional panel regarding nuclear storage, Moniz was asked if a ten year timeline was even possible for finding a new site. Such a goal is "aggressive, but quite feasible," he said, before also saying that "it will take a dedicated organization to manage that."

@derektmead

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