Temporary fixes are in line, but overall the United States is not dealing well with finding a real solution to the growing nuclear waste problem, according to a report from a government-appointed body.
The appointed committee, the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future, recommends the government free up a $25 billion fund designated for Yucca Mountain in Nevada and use that money to manage its nuclear waste now.
“The Obama Administration’s decision to halt work on a repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada is but the latest indicator of a policy that has been troubled for decades and has now all but completely broken down,” the committee concluded in its report to the Secretary of Energy.
Congress should create a new government-chartered corporation dedicated to managing the nation’s nuclear waste and then create several geologic disposal and interim storage facilities where they could consolidate and store nuclear waste from the country’s 104 operating reactors, the report said.
The commission, formed by the Secretary of Energy at the request of President Barack Obama, and its subcommittees met more than two dozen times between March 2010 and July 2011 to hear testimony and visit nuclear waste management facilities. The Commission will take comments on the draft through Oct. 31. A final report is due to the Secretary of Energy in January 2012.
Nuclear material stores in fuel assemblies filled with fuel pellets. Each pellet is about the size of a pencil eraser. Once every 18 months to two years, workers remove the head from the vessel that holds the nuclear reactor and move about one third of the fuel into pools to cool. Once there, the fuel must cool for at least five years, according to Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) regulations, before it can move into huge bunker-like “dry casks” for storage. Each cask, roughly the size of a one-car garage, can hold 66 fuel assemblies.
All the fuel produced at a nuclear plant like the Byron Generating Station about 100 miles west of Chicago over 40 years of operation — stacked end to end — would fit in a four-car garage, according to plant owner Exelon. In the U.S. overall, the amount of nuclear waste stored at reactors would cover a football field to a depth of about 20 feet, according to the Blue Ribbon Commission.
The problem for nuclear plant operators is dry casks weren’t a part of the original plan. By now the plan was for the Department of Energy to have taken ownership of that fuel and move it to a permanent federal repository. Utility ratepayers who receive power from nuclear plants have been paying into a fund since 1982 meant to pay for the removal of spent fuel from cooling pools for storage at Yucca Mountain.
But that repository hasn’t materialized and with fuel pools filling up nuclear operators have been removing and babysitting that waste on storage pads outside of reactor buildings. At Byron, the casks can withstand fire and heat up to 1,475 degrees Fahrenheit and tornado winds of up to 360 miles per hour.
While all this has been happening, the $25 billion fund remains untouched and nuclear operators have been successfully suing the government for reimbursement.
“The program they’re paying for just isn’t working,” the Blue Ribbon Commission wrote in its report. “Taxpayers are paying too — in the form of damage payments from the taxpayer-funded Judgment Fund to compensate utilities for the federal government’s failure to meet its contractual waste acceptance commitments.”
The central task of the new government-appointed corporation would be to site, license, build and operate facilities that store nuclear fuel or dispose of it underground, according to the report. The Commission recommends the new organization get direction by a board nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate.