Category Archives: Yucca Mountain

Surface storage of used nuclear fuel – safe, cost-effective, and flexible

by Rod Adams

In August 2014, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission approved NUREG-2157, Generic Environmental Impact Statement for Continued Storage of Spent Nuclear Fuel. That action was the end result of several years worth of detailed analysis of the known and uncertain impacts of storing used nuclear fuel on the earth’s surface in licensed and monitored facilities.

As summarized in section 8 of the document, the staff determined that the environmental impact under expected conditions is small and acceptable even for an indefinite period of time. The analysis included consideration of a complete societal breakdown and loss of institutional control and determined that this situation would have an uncertain effect on the safety and security of used nuclear fuel, but determined that there is little likelihood that society will falter that much.

NUREG-2157 both eliminates the hold that was placed on issuing new or renewed nuclear facility licenses and it provides the technical basis supporting a decision to stop working on a geologic repository. If storing used material on the surface is acceptably safe, environmentally sound, and cost-effective for the foreseeable future, it would be a waste of resources to attempt to develop a facility using today’s technology. It is likely that technology will improve in the future. It is inevitable that the material of interest will become easier to handle as the shorter-lived, more active components decay at a rate established by physical laws.

NRC Chairman Allison Macfarlane wrote the following perceptive statement in her comments about her vote on the rule:

In essence, the GEIS concludes that unavoidable adverse environmental impacts are “small” for the short-term, long-term, and indefinite time frames for storage of spent nuclear fuel. The proverbial “elephant in the room” is this: if the environmental impacts of storing waste indefinitely on the surface are essentially small, then is it necessary to have a deep geologic disposal option?

Almost exactly right! We should ask hard questions of those who maintain that “deep geologic disposal is necessary” because “a majority of the public industry, academia, and regulators” say it is. Here are some questions worth asking:

  • Why do you think a mined deep geologic repository is required?
  • What makes it so important?
  • Where is the recorded vote on which you base your claim that it is the majority opinion?
  • If there was a vote, when was that vote taken?
  • Have there been any changes in circumstances that challenge the validity of that determination?
  • Should options besides a mined deep geologic repository be reconsidered?
  • How much will it cost each year to simply defer action into the indeterminate future?
  • From an accounting perspective, aren’t costs that are deferred far into the future worth less, not more, if they are recalculated into today’s dollars?

Those who have read Macfarlane’s full comment should recognize that she is not only the source of the “elephant in the room” statement above, but she is also the source of the assertions that the United States must continue pursuing a mined geologic repository because we have a “long-established responsibility to site a repository for the permanent disposal of spent nuclear fuel,” and she wants to make sure that the NRC’s determination that continued surface storage represents a small environmental impact for the indefinite future does not enable “avoiding this necessary task.”

Last week, I had the opportunity to ask Chairman Macfarlane if she thought that the NRC had a role in deciding U.S. policy on long-term nuclear waste storage. She explained that the only role for the NRC would be to review the license application submitted for any specific facility. The responsibility for planning and developing that facility and obtaining the funds necessary would be under the purview of a different agency.

I asked what the NRC’s role should be if no organization submits an application for a facility. She admitted that its only role in that case would be to continue monitoring existing facilities and approving license renewals or new licenses.

Congress can, and should, make a determination that the plan for nuclear waste for the indefinite future is to continue safely storing used material. It should remove the responsibility for permanent disposal of nuclear waste from the Department of Energy and put it into industry’s hands to solve. Of course, the industry will remain under the watchful eye of the already established federal regulator using procedures and processes that are already in place and continually being refined. It should make use of existing products and services, continue improving those offerings and should consider the need for facility consolidation as that makes economic sense.

Macfarlane and I also agree about when we would begin to believe that the United States can site, license, build, and operate a mined deep geologic repository, as she said:

I will have confidence in the timing when a renewed national consensus emerges on a repository for spent nuclear fuel.

(Emphasis added.)

There is no reason to suspect that a sufficiently bulletproof consensus will ever exist. Recent history has proven that it takes just a handful of people elected or appointed into the right positions to derail even the best laid plans made with strong support throughout the rest of the country.

Though Macfarlane seems concerned about the potential impact if there is a “loss of institutional control,” the controls required to ensure continued safety and environmental protection from used nuclear fuel are simple and easily implemented. As long as we do not believe that future generations will forget how to read, we can be sure enough that they will remember how to keep used nuclear fuel safely isolated.

Many people in Chairman Macfarlane’s generation—which is also my generation—probably believe at least some of the many entertainment products depicting that there is going to be an inevitable dystopia in the future. Those fictional predictions of the future might have made for good reading or viewing, but they are as useful a decision tool as any other wild fiction. Even if their fanciful dystopia becomes reality, used nuclear fuel will be low on the prioritized lists of risks.

Macfarlane has expressed some concerns about the financial responsibility associated with continued storage of used nuclear fuel. Establishing bonds or other forms of continued financial surety is a common business practice. Radioactive materials are not uniquely hazardous or even uniquely long-lived compared to other elements and compounds in common industrial service. We have learned to live with them. We have proven that we know how to protect the public from any harm. There is no reason to expect that society will forget the lessons it has already learned.

A simple financial solution would be to have nuclear plant owners establish a used fuel fund that would be as isolated from their normal finances as their decommissioning funds. The experience that we have with the current Nuclear Waste Fund shows that a tiny fee on each unit of nuclear electricity will grow into a very sizable fund if undisturbed over time. We should stop stealing the capital accumulated by such a fee to pay for other continuing government expenses and we should not fritter it away by conducting geologic studies of the depths under any region that has the proven potential to produce politically powerful majority leaders. (Nearly every state in the union has that potential given the longevity of any proposed repository program.)

In the conclusion of her seven page comment, Macfarlane included the following statement:

Finally, I note that at least one commenter has suggested that development of a repository in the U.S. has developed into a Sisyphean task. I agree that much in the national management of spent fuel and development of a geologic repository over the past decades fits this analogy.

Once again, I agree with Macfarlane’s description of the current situation associated with attempting to site a single geologic repository in the United States.

Americans must remember that we are not subjects of Greek gods condemned to continue the frustratingly impossible task of pushing a rock uphill every day just to have it roll back down at the end of the day. We are free members of a society that has the ability to make choices and to change its mind to adapt to new situations or when new information is revealed. The cancellation of Yucca Mountain through actions of a tiny group of people shows that successfully siting a repository in the United States, with its multiple interest groups and arcane procedural rules, is not possible.

The good news is that we don’t need a repository in order to operate nuclear power plants safely and to store the created residues in a way that produces negligible environmental impacts. We don’t need a government program that can be milked for assets and jobs for decades before being derailed. We don’t need to have the federal government—which means us, as taxpayers—pay the costs of continued storage; the costs are predictable and can be paid with a small fee on each unit of power generation.

Making the choice to quit now and spend our limited resources on something more useful must not be judged as unfair to future generations. Used nuclear fuel has potential value, and we can create savings accounts now that can enable a different long-term solution in the distant future when there is more general agreement that constipating nuclear energy would be a suicidal course of action for society.

As technology improves, assets build up in the coffers of responsible parties, nuclear power plant sites continue to be developed, nuclear power plant sites occasionally become repurposed, and the demand for nuclear fuel changes, future societies can change their mind. Nothing in the above plan precludes any choices for the future; the key action needed today is to stop digging the hole that currently seems to provide no possibility for escape.

Rod Adams is a nuclear advocate with extensive small nuclear plant operating experience. Adams is a former engineer officer, USS Von Steuben. He is the host and producer of The Atomic Show Podcast. Adams has been an ANS member since 2005. He writes about nuclear technology at his own blog, Atomic Insights.

A reason for holiday cheer–Significant court victories on nuclear waste

By Jim Hopf

DC PerspectivesA United States appellate court recently handed down two long-awaited rulings with respect to Yucca Mountain. As most observers expected, both decisions were decidedly in nuclear’s favor.

Yucca licensing effort

The court essentially has ruled that the administration’s termination of the Yucca licensing process is illegal, as it is in violation of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act (NWPA). On August 13 of this year, the court directed the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to resume the licensing process, but allowed a comment period to determine how best to proceed.

Yucca_Mountain_2 180x144In a more recent (November 18) ruling, the court has given more specific instructions (summarized in this NRC order). It has ordered the NRC to complete the Safety Evaluation Report (SER) for the repository, and to place all licensing documents that support the Yucca application into its official records system, where they can be accessed by the public. The court also requested that the Department of Energy complete an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) that is required for repository approval.

The administration, as well as the NRC, has tried to argue that even if required by the NWPA, the NRC cannot complete (or continue) the licensing process since Congress has not appropriated the money to do the work. However, it appears that this will not get in the way of the NRC complying with these recent court orders. Documents show that the NRC has $11 million in “unobligated carryover funding” that was originally appropriated in 2011. The NRC staff estimates that $8.3 million will be required to complete the SER.

tour group yucca  mountainA completed SER, with a positive conclusion, would represent a scientific determination by the NRC’s technical staff that the repository would meet all the (strict) technical requirements. Although the full licensing process would still involve steps for legal challenges and other stakeholder input, a final, published SER would essentially settle the scientific/technical question as to whether or not Yucca is a viable solution to the nuclear waste problem.

Nuclear waste fee

The court also handed down a ruling that indefinitely suspends the 0.1 cent/kW-hr fee that the federal government has been collecting from nuclear utilities to support the nuclear waste program. The fund has been collecting ~$750 million per year from nuclear utilities, and has accumulated almost $30 billion, despite the ~$12 billion that has been spent already on the Yucca project. The court order would zero out the fee indefinitely (probably until a new repository project was started, at a new selected site).

The Yucca project has been terminated, or is at least on indefinite hold, and no other repository site is being pursued or characterized. Thus, it is not at all clear what significant (and justifiable) expenses the program would face in the near- to mid-future. Given that any repository operations date has been moved far into the future, any expenses related to shipping and handling fuel have also been moved into the distant future. Thus, the court concluded that there is no reason why additional contributions to the fund are needed and justified.

In an attempt to justify the continuation of the fee, the DOE produced an extraordinarily wide estimated range for the total eventual cost of the repository program; essentially arguing that it had no idea what it would cost. The court sharply disagreed with the DOE’s cost estimates, calling its fee assessment “fundamentally flawed”, “legally inadequate”, and “absolutely useless.” The court, in fact, ridiculed the DOE’s fee assessment (and the absurdly large cost estimate range), saying that it “reminds us of the lawyer’s song in the musical “Chicago”—”Give them the old razzle dazzle.” That is, the court suggested that the DOE was being deliberately dishonest and evasive.

Significant victories

I believe that both decisions will significantly benefit nuclear, for the following reasons:

Impact of SER publication

I’ve always believed that having the NRC publish a SER, which determines that Yucca Mountain is a scientifically and technically sound solution for permanent nuclear waste disposal, would be of significant value to nuclear power, even if the project does not end up going forward.

The fact is that nuclear waste can be stored at plant sites, very safely and at very low cost, due to its miniscule volume. My view is that the biggest negative impact of failure to resolve the nuclear waste problem is that it leaves the public with a false impression that nuclear waste is a unique, intractable problem with no acceptable technical solution. In terms of long-term health/environmental risks, the real truth is that nuclear’s waste problem is more technically solved than that of many, if not most, other industrial waste streams, including those of fossil fuels. The false notion of intractability is a source of significant public opposition to nuclear power. That opposition, in turn, leads to the use of fossil fuels in lieu of nuclear, which results in public health risks and environmental impacts that are orders of magnitude larger than any that will ever be caused by nuclear waste, no matter where or how it’s disposed of.

A SER, with a positive conclusion, published by the NRC’s objective technical staff, could go a long way toward ameliorating those (mostly unfounded) concerns on the part of much of the public. Even if Yucca does not go forward, it can be argued that while Yucca was a technically sound (adequate) solution to the problem, we are choosing to pursue other options that are even better and/or have a greater degree of state and local public support. The point would be that it is not the case that we have no acceptable options (i.e., that we are “doomed” in some respect). We will be able to say that we know the waste will be buried in a way that does not result in significant long-term impacts or risks, given that we know we have at least one technically sound option.

The advantage of a published SER will only be significant if scientists and the nuclear industry and its supporters highlight the SER’s conclusions and strongly make the above case to the public. The publishing of the SER, as well as its scientific significance with respect to the real risks of nuclear waste disposal, will not be noticed by the public unless we make an effort to raise public awareness. A clear message must be sent that the nuclear waste problem has been solved, from a scientific and technical perspective.

Impact of waste fee elimination

As for the waste fee, it’s clear that further contributions are not justified. Not only is there no repository project to spend money on right now, but since any project, and any significant expenditures, have been pushed far down the road, long-term interest on the funds already accrued would likely be sufficient to cover any future expenses. At a minimum, it’s clear that the fee should be suspended until a new site is selected and significant (and justified) program expenditures resume.

One almost has to wonder if the government was deliberately dragging its feet on moving forward with a repository, making the fee essentially a nuclear power tax that the government could use to spend on other things—or, at least, use the trust fund to make the deficit/debt appear smaller. With the fee suspended, and with courts requiring the government to compensate utilities for on-site storage costs, the government may finally have a financial incentive to actually resolve the problem.

The immediate effect of the suspension is to reduce nuclear plant operating costs by 0.1 cents/kW-hr (i.e., $1 per MWh). Given the financial pressures that many older, smaller existing nuclear plants currently (and hopefully temporarily) face, every little bit helps. The fee elimination could well reduce the probability of seeing any more plant closures over the next few years. That, in turn, would significantly benefit both public health and environment, and reduce CO2 emissions.

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Hopf

Hopf

Jim Hopf is a senior nuclear engineer with more than 20 years of experience in shielding and criticality analysis and design for spent fuel dry storage and transportation systems. He has been involved in nuclear advocacy for 10+ years, and is a member of the ANS Public Information Committee. He is a regular contributor to the ANS Nuclear Cafe.

Nuclear Matinee: Powering America – Managing Nuclear Waste

The nuclear energy industry is the only large-scale energy producer responsible for managing and storing (and paying for) all the wastes generated by the process [in contrast to, for example… dumping wastes into the atmosphere].

This short video takes viewers inside the system for handling spent nuclear fuel, and explores the option of recycling and reprocessing to aid in resolving the long term storage issue.

Thanks to The Heritage Foundation for the video. We also highly recommend the full documentary on America’s nuclear power industry at http://heritage.org/poweringamericafilm/.

Post-election outlook for nuclear energy

By Jim Hopf

In my September post at the ANS Nuclear Cafe, I discussed the Democratic and Republican party platforms, along with their potential impacts on nuclear energy. With the 2012 U.S. elections now behind us, this post provides a post-election follow up, and discusses the impacts of the election results on nuclear’s prospects over the near- to mid-term.

With the reelection of Barrack Obama, and minor gains by Democrats in the House and Senate, the election results portend a continuation of the status quo, for the most part. Impacts of the election in various areas that may impact nuclear’s prospects are discussed in the sections below.

Yucca Mountain

I’ve always taken great issue with the Obama administration’s actions on Yucca mountain, and maintain that, at a minimum, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission licensing process should be finished, even if a political decision is made to not pursue the project. It is clear to most observers that the NRC technical staff (which had completed its review) was about to conclude that the repository met all the technical requirements, before the process was terminated near the finish line, for political reasons. The public has a right to know that Yucca would have met all the requirements, and that yes indeed there is a viable, acceptable technical solution to the nuclear waste problem.

With the reelection of Obama and with (Democrat) Harry Reid remaining as Senate majority leader, the current status quo on Yucca Mountain will remain. Reid will continue to block funding for completion of NRC licensing, and the (Obama/Reid-appointed) NRC chair will likely cooperate with the effort to stop the process. As was the case before the election, whether the NRC will complete the licensing process will be primarily determined by the courts.

Yucca Mountain is one area where a Romney administration may have been more helpful to nuclear, but it’s not clear whether there would have been any meaningful difference. Romney was also making anti-Yucca statements (such as “states should have the right to decide if they want the repository”) during the campaign. Republicans winning the Senate would have made a far larger difference, as Reid would have lost the Majority Leader position, which is essential to his ability to block Yucca. On the other hand, if the president is not interested in changing the situation, even that may have not made much difference.

It seems that completion of the licensing process (the best we can hope for in the near term) is up to the courts at this point, and would have remained so regardless of who won the election. Also unclear is whether the lack of progress on the waste issue is having a significant effect on how much nuclear power there will be over the near-to-mid term. I’ve grown to believe that it is not as critical an issue as I formerly thought.

Fukushima–related upgrades and regulations

Whereas the anticipated regulations and required plant upgrades that will result from NRC’s response to Fukushima will add costs for existing nuclear plants (and to a small extent, new plants), it is unlikely that the outcome of the election would have had any significant impacts on those regulations. No parties or candidates have made any significant statements on the NRC’s actions in this area.

Nuclear plant loan guarantees

The Obama administration had supported increasing the nuclear loan guarantee volume by a factor of several (to over $100 billion) but could not get it through Congress. On the other hand, the Obama administration has been dragging its feet in actually approving any loan guarantees, even for the Vogtle and Summer plants. With the current budget situation, any increase in loan volume is unlikely.

It is unlikely, however, that Romney or the Republicans would have been better in the area of nuclear loan guarantees. Although the Republicans are ostensibly pro-nuclear, many in the Republican party are opposed to loan guarantees for any energy projects.

Finally, the overall impact of the nuclear loan guarantees is no longer clear. Indications are that other factors such as lack of power demand and low natural gas prices, as opposed to the lack of loan guarantees, are the primary reason that no plants other than Vogtle and Summer (and Watts Bar) are going forward. As for the Vogtle and Summer projects themselves, they appear to be going forward even without the government loan guarantees.

Climate change policies

Although the Obama administration is not planning to propose a cap-and-trade system or a carbon tax in the near future, Obama has stated that the nation needs to have a “conversation” about climate change, implying a desire to develop some type of policy.

It seems clear that the chances of some type of policy or progress on climate change are far greater under Obama and the Democrats then they would have been under Romney and the Republicans, who had explicitly promised to block all such efforts. For example, the chances of the Clean Energy Standard policy (being debated and developed in Congress) moving forward would definitely be greater under the Democrats. Any type of climate change policy that creates a disincentive to emit CO2 would be tremendously beneficial to nuclear, particularly over the longer term.

Although climate change had fallen off the agenda in recent years, and in the last election, there are reasons to believe that it will (again) rise in importance. Increasing numbers of Americans believe that climate change is a serious issue. As the economy improves, issues like the environment are expected to become more important in voters’ minds. Also of note is the fact that even some conservative organizations are starting to consider a CO2 tax as a better approach than cap-and-trade, as well as a potential source of government revenue in lieu of increased income tax rates (as one example).

Election impacts on coal

It is clear that the reelection of Obama has hurt coal’s future prospects. The coal companies themselves, as well as the stock market, confirm this. Coal company stocks fell substantially after the election, and some coal companies have laid off workers.

Under Obama, the Environmental Protection Agency is in the process of significantly tightening up air pollution requirements, which would significantly impact the oldest (and dirtiest) coal facilities. To stay in operation, such plants would have to spend large amounts of money on air pollution controls. Given the current low cost of natural gas, these requirements will render those facilities uneconomic, and many are expected to close. With Obama’s reelection, the EPA is also expected to proceed with a rule that requires all new power plants to emit no more CO2 than a typical gas-fired plant; a requirement that essentially precludes the permitting of any new coal plants.

In contrast, Romney (and the Republicans) campaigned on the promise to stop any tightening of air pollution limits, and perhaps even rolling requirements back. Their message was that they would act not only to keep existing coal plants open (including the oldest ones), but to increase the use of coal in the future. They emphatically opposed any efforts to reduce power-sector CO2 emissions.
With respect to any impact on nuclear’s future prospects, policies that result in the closure of old coal plants would help, the only question being how much. Any retired coal-fired generation will be replaced by gas-fired generation (as opposed to nuclear), at least over the short to mid-term. Over the longer term, however, the resulting increase in gas demand will result in higher natural gas prices, which in turn would make nuclear more competitive.

Regardless of any impact they may eventually have on nuclear, these air pollution and global warming policies are the right thing to do, in my personal opinion. Nuclear professionals and advocates need to ask themselves why, specifically, they support nuclear, i.e., why it’s important. Given our abundant reserves of coal (let alone gas), coupled with coal generation’s low cost, the economic and energy security arguments for nuclear may appear relatively weak—if they come from someone who doesn’t care so much about the environment, and therefore would have no problem with expanded fossil fuel use. The most compelling argument for nuclear (for me, anyway) has always been its environmental benefits. By extension, if one cares about air pollution and global warming, these policies are something to be celebrated, whether or not it is nuclear that replaces the old, dirty coal plants.

Wind tax credit

The reelection of Obama, and the Democrats’ small gains in Congress, make it somewhat more likely that the (~2 cent/kW-hr) wind energy production tax credit will be extended, for at least some period of time. Romney had stated that he would seek to end the tax credit, whereas Obama supports it. Even now, however, it is not clear that it will be extended, given the great need to cut government spending. This is true despite the fact that many Republican lawmakers, from farm states mainly, support the tax credit.

The wind power tax credit has some degree of negative economic impact on both new nuclear plant projects and existing plants. Wind often produces surges of power at times of very low power demand, which can actually lead to a negative market price for power over some time periods. The tax credit makes it still profitable to run the windfarms even under such conditions. These situations have a significant negative economic impact on existing nuclear generators in the region, which cannot shut down over short time periods. These problems are particularly acute in Illinois, where wind is being introduced and there is a large amount of nuclear generation (without much fossil generation that can be cut back in times of low wind demand). As a result, Exelon (the regional utility) has changed its position and is now opposing the extension of the wind power tax credit.

One final potential impact of the wind tax credit is that since it will result in more wind power, gas demand will be somewhat lower in the future, which may result in lower natural gas prices that would in turn make nuclear somewhat less competitive.

A legitimate issue that nuclear supporters should have with the wind tax credit is the question of fairness, i.e., why one non-polluting form of energy should benefit from large subsidies and (often) outright government mandates, whereas another, nuclear, does not. Yes, new nuclear plants also get a tax credit, but unlike with wind, the credit is limited to just the first few plants. Another issue is whether wind is being sufficiently penalized for its intermittent nature (producing power when it is least needed). Perhaps having the tax credit not apply during periods of very low demand, or some type of mechanism to support the electricity price during such glut periods, should be in order.

Natural gas

I have saved the best for last. Most experts agree that the single most important factor that affects nuclear’s future prospects is the price of natural gas. If gas remains at current (very low) prices over the long term, not only will few, if any, new nuclear plants be built (beyond Vogtle and Summer), but even the continued operation of existing plants may be threatened.

A perfect example of this is the recently announced closure of the Kewaunee nuclear plant. The plant lies within a “merchant” market, where the price of electricity is determined by the “last” supplier (highest variable cost), which is usually a gas plant. With the low price of natural gas, market prices for power in the region are very low. At current prices, Kewaunee is losing money. (This came as a shock to me, as the whole idea with nuclear is that whereas the initial capital cost is high, the operating cost, once built, is extremely low, low enough to easily compete with anything—or so I thought.)

If anything, the reelection of Obama and the Democrats somewhat increases the chances that the price of natural gas will increase in the future. They are considering tightening regulations on the fracking process, to a greater extent than the Republicans would have (although neither party is showing a significant degree of interest). Also, as I discussed earlier, Obama’s policies concerning coal (and perhaps global warming in general) can only lead to higher demand for gas, which would act to increase prices.

It seems that the common wisdom today is that natural gas prices will remain low for a very long time. Others have a different view, although they seem to be in the minority, at present. To me, it seems clear that gas prices will increase significantly in the future, at least from today’s historic lows, for several reasons:

First, the cost of natural gas is extremely sensitive to the balance between supply and demand. As the economy improves, and gas demand increases (especially if large numbers of old coal plants are retired), gas prices will increase, a lot. Second, gas costs several times what oil does, on an energy equivalent (per BTU) basis. Given that these two fuels are supposed to be largely interchangeable, this situation cannot last. (Right now several proposals for using natural gas for transportation are being explored.) Third, natural gas costs 3–4 times as much (as current U.S. prices) in Europe and 5–6 times as much in Japan. This is also a situation that won’t last, and plans are being made right now to export U.S. gas to world markets. And finally, today’s natural gas prices are far lower than what it actually costs to extract the gas (about half, actually), and producers are losing money hand over fist. This, again, is a situation that cannot last.

Summary

The election results largely preserve the status quo concerning policies that affect nuclear and energy in general. So, as to whether or not Romney and the Republicans would have been better or worse for nuclear, it’s a mixed bag of offsetting effects. In any event, few new nuclear plant projects are expected over the short term due to the current low price of natural gas in the United States. Over the longer term, nuclear’s future looks significantly brighter, especially if a serious global warming policy is (eventually) implemented.

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Hopf

Jim Hopf is a senior nuclear engineer with more than 20 years of experience in shielding and criticality analysis and design for spent fuel dry storage and transportation systems. He has been involved in nuclear advocacy for 10+ years, and is a member of the ANS Public Information Committee. He is a regular contributor to the ANS Nuclear Cafe.

The party platforms on energy–and nuclear

By Jim Hopf

Both the Republicans and the Democrats have recently released their party platforms. Here’s a look at what each platform has to say about energy and environmental issues in general, and on nuclear specifically.

Republicans on energy

The Republican party platform favors an “all-of-the-above” energy strategy that involves responsible development of all our energy resources, and results in a domestic, secure energy supply that is stable, reliable, and affordable. Other general goals of the strategy include the creation of jobs, spurring economic growth, lower energy prices, and a strengthened domestic energy industry. The platform states that it does not support, however, policies that “pick winners and losers” through government intervention in the energy industry.

With respect to environmental regulations, the platform is generally opposed to federal environmental regulations and the Environmental Protection Agency, preferring regulation by the states as well as an approach to achieving environmental goals that is more cooperative (vs. punitive) with industry.

With respect to coal, the platform support the development of new “environmentally responsible” coal plants, as well as research and development into clean coal technology and technologies to convert coal into liquid fuel or gas (that can be cleanly burned). The platform states that it is opposed to President Obama’s “war on coal”, since there is no economic replacement for coal (the largest electricity source) and reductions in coal use will result in the loss of large amounts of jobs in that sector. It states that the GOP is opposed to any type of carbon dioxide–limiting legislation such as cap-and-trade. It also opposes the EPA’s regulation of greenhouse gases, and supports legislation that specifically bars the EPA from doing so. It also appears to be generally opposed to stricter limits on other coal pollutants as well.

With respect to oil and gas, the platform claims that the use of imported oil is undesirable in that some of the money sent overseas may wind up in the hands of nations, or other groups, that want to harm the United States. The main response, favored in the platform, is the opening up of offshore areas, federal lands, and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas development. In addition to reducing oil imports and increasing energy security, the platform states that the resulting domestic oil and gas development will result in large numbers of new jobs. It also explicitly states its support for the Keystone XL oil pipeline (from Canada to refineries in the United States) for similar reasons, and it criticized Obama for opposing the pipeline. It also expressed support for natural gas fracking and opposed new federal regulations on the practice, saying that state regulations are sufficient.

The platform touched briefly on renewable energy, stating that it supports the development of renewable energy in general, but that it was opposed to government loan guarantees for renewable projects. It instead favors a “market based approach” to renewable energy development. (Not in the platform is that most Republicans also oppose extension of the wind energy tax credit, one of the most significant federal renewable energy subsidies.)

Democrats on energy

The Democratic party platform does not have a section on energy per se. Its policies related to energy can be found in the section on the environment. The discussion on energy is shorter in general than it is in the Republican platform, and it generally does not discuss specific energy sources.

The platform states that protecting the environment is a top priority for the party, and touts Obama’s investments in clean energy and the administration’s efforts to protect the environment. It states that Obama has made the most significant strides in decades to cut pollution, citing the increase in the fuel efficiency standard for vehicles as an example. It specifically talks about many of the pollutants that primarily arise from coal-fired power plants and states that they are a significant threat to health. It states that clean energy development will be a significant source of domestic jobs. It also highlights Obama’s (first time ever) proposed limits on CO2 for new power plants.

Much of the platform’s discussion relates to climate change (global warming). It affirms the party’s belief that global warming is a problem, calling it “one of the biggest threats of this generation–an economic, environmental and national security catastrophe in the making”. It says that the administration (and party) will combat global warming by exercising leadership on the issue abroad, while using “market and regulatory solutions” to reduce emissions at home. It argues that domestic reductions are necessary to show leadership on the issue, which is essential to getting a global agreement to reduce emissions.

Specifically, the platform states that the administration will continue diplomatic efforts to work toward an international agreement to limit/reduce emissions. At home, Obama and the Democrats will continue to invest in clean energy, and will take steps (both legislative and regulatory) to reduce domestic emissions. Regulatory measures include the (already passed) vehicle gas mileage standard and the (proposed) EPA regulations that limit CO2 from new power plants (effectively requiring CO2 sequestration for any new coal plant). Possible legislative efforts would include cap-and-trade, some kind of CO2 tax, or the proposed Clean Energy Standard for getting ~80 percent of electricity from “clean” sources by 2035. None of these legislative options are specifically mentioned in the platform, however, with discussion of specific CO2 limiting policies such as cap-and-trade being conspicuously absent.

In another section of the platform, it states that global warming also represents a “real, urgent and severe” national security risk, arguing that it will result in increased geopolitical conflicts over resources (e.g., water) and refugees, will result in suffering from drought and famine (creating potential instability in various regions), and increased frequency and severity of natural disasters.

Finally, the platform criticizes the Republican party (and candidate), stating that the GOP doubts the science of climate change and wants to roll back regulations protecting our air and water. It also states that the Republicans do not recognize the benefits of the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, and do not recognize the jobs created by clean energy development.

Nuclear energy

In a relatively brief (two paragraph) discussion, the Republican platform expresses support for nuclear energy, saying that it “must be expanded”. It calls for timely review of new reactor license applications by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. It also raises the waste issue, stating that federal government’s failure to address storage and disposal of spent fuel has cost “the States and taxpayers” a lot of money. It calls for a “more proactive” approach for managing spent fuel, which includes the development of advanced reprocessing technologies. Mention of Yucca Mountain is conspicuously absent.

The Democratic platform is completely silent on nuclear energy. Although the platform generally does not mention specific energy sources (as I said earlier), it also does not touch on any policies or proposals that would affect nuclear in any way.

Who’s better for nuclear?

While the Republicans have generally had kinder words for nuclear than the Democrats, it’s less clear whether or not Republican policies would be more helpful to the industry. In general, it appears that while Republicans may be more helpful in the area of waste, Democratic policies such as CO2 limits (and stricter limits on fossil fuel pollution in general) would do more to make nuclear more economically competitive with fossil fuels.

Waste issues

In the area of waste, it would be hard to do worse than the Obama administration, with the shameful termination of the Yucca Mountain licensing process, and the (political) suppression of the results of the NRC staff’s essentially finished licensing review (which virtually everyone knows was about to approve the repository). The administration also appointed not one but two NRC chairmen whose opposition to Yucca Mountain was clearly the primary basis for their selection. On the other hand, would the Republicans be much better? Given that Yucca is not mentioned at all in their platform, it appears that they are not willing to stand up for the repository (or the completion of the licensing process, at least) either.

My view is that the waste issue does not impact nuclear’s competitiveness, since the cost of storing the waste, even over a long time period, is very small—on the order of 0.1 cents/kW-hr. The primary impact of the continued delay in resolving the waste issue is that it strengthens and extends the false notion, held by much of the public, that nuclear waste disposal is an intractable problem with no technical solution. This, in turn, results in increased opposition to the construction or continued operation of nuclear plants. For this reason, I’ve advocated the completion of Yucca’s licensing process, even if the project itself is not continued, since it will show the public that we had a technically sound solution. I personally doubt that alternative solutions—such as the reprocessing discussed by the Republicans, which involves going back to the drawing board and pushing resolution of the issue decades into the future—will have much positive impact.

All that said, it’s not clear that public opposition to nuclear over the waste issue is all that big a factor, in the grand scheme of things. It has not led to much increased opposition to specific projects, especially in the Southeast, where most new plants are proposed. The biggest obstacle to new nuclear plants is clearly economic competitiveness (with fossil fuels, especially gas).

Economic competitiveness

The Republicans made a vague statement about expediting the NRC review of new reactor projects, but specifics, and any real impact, remains to be seen. One would hope that now that the initial license applications (e.g., Vogtle and Summer) have been approved, follow-on applications would go pretty quickly. In any event, a somewhat faster approval process will not help nuclear’s competitiveness that much. (The cost of the licensing process is more of an issue.)

On the other hand, policies that would significantly reign in fossil fuels’ privilege of just dumping massive amounts of pollution (including CO2) into the environment, for free, would significantly increase nuclear’s competitiveness in the future. I’ve always believed that nuclear will never stand much of a chance if it is required to completely contain all of its wastes/toxins (with even the small possibility of release being something that has to be avoided, almost regardless of cost), while its competitors have nowhere near the same requirements.

Policies that would aid nuclear’s competitiveness (in addition to being the right thing to do) would be taxing or limiting CO2 emissions, reducing allowable emissions levels for other toxic pollutants (e.g., particulates, mercury, etc.), classifying coal ash/sludge as a hazardous material, and doing something to more adequately regulate gas fracking, which currently enjoys an exemption from the Clean Water and Safe Drinking Water Acts (I believe).

The EPA’s proposed policy that effectively bans new coal plants that don’t employ CO2 sequestration would have a huge impact over the long term. Although it would mainly result in the replacement of coal with gas over the shorter term, it would greatly help nuclear over the long term, since it would increase gas demand (leading to higher natural gas prices). I (and many others) also believe that the current gas glut will not last forever, and that renewables will never be capable of providing most (let alone all) of our power generation.

It’s clear which party would be better in this regard. Many in the Republican party are actually calling for pollution regulations to be rolled back, let alone be improved. The GOP platform clearly states that it will block any attempts to tax or limit CO2, prevent or reverse the EPA’s proposed policy on new coal plants, and oppose any regulations on gas fracking. With fossil fuels getting such a (continued) free ride, and the regulatory playing field remaining so unlevel and unfair, it is hard to see nuclear being competitive in the future.

Some may argue that global warming policies will not happen anyway, so having more reasonable treatment of nuclear in the waste area, as well as (perhaps) better NRC appointments, would make the Republicans better for nuclear, over the next presidential term. My personal view is that the EPA’s new coal plant rule alone, not to mention not having air pollution regulations rolled back, is more than enough to offset those benefits, in terms of the overall climate for nuclear.

Nuclear’s influence?

My general view is that the Republicans primarily support fossil fuels while the Democrats primarily support renewables. Both are now supporting gas, to some degree. Neither party supports nuclear to any significant degree.

This is due to a profound lack of influence in Washington by the nuclear industry, compared to other energy industries. Recently, some have tried to suggest that the industry (Exelon Corp., specifically) has had significant influence with Obama, due to campaign contributions and its presence in Illinois. This view is absurd. Here’s a question: What is the ONLY major energy source that was NOT mentioned at all in Obama’s Democratic convention speech? He (the Democratic candidate) even made brief mention of “clean coal”, but didn’t mention nuclear at all.

Due in large part to this lack of influence, the current regulatory playing field is heavily slanted against nuclear, with nuclear’s requirements being orders of magnitude more strict than those applied to fossil fuels (as measured by dollars spent per unit of public health and safety benefit, etc.). Five years ago, it seemed like things were finally moving in a more fair, balanced direction, with the prospect of CO2 limits, etc., but now things seem set to get even worse.

We have the NRC considering adding even more regulation, and arguing that current regulations are insufficient since the Fukushima event inflicted significant economic costs, even though the public health impacts have been very small—much smaller than what NRC had always assumed the consequences of a severe meltdown would be (i.e, current regulations were always based on the assumption that such an event would be vastly more harmful). Meanwhile, we hear calls from the right side of the political spectrum, to reign in or even eliminate the EPA, with no similar calls for the NRC. Humble proposals to merely reduce the ~20,000 annual deaths, in the United States alone, from fossil plant pollution are loudly decried, while nuclear requirements are being increased even further, in a quest to reduce even the chance of the release of pollution to even more negligible levels, without any fanfare or political resistance (even from the industry itself).

Nuclear’s complete lack of political influence, and the overly powerful influence of other sources such as coal, is starting to be examined in some quarters—a recent article by William Tucker being one example.

If our industry does not find a voice, its future does not look bright. We will continue to have policies such as Renewable Portfolio Standards (that mandate the use of large amounts of renewable energy, regardless of cost or practically) on one side, while continuing to allow fossil fuel plants to freely pollute on the other. The tremendously unlevel regulatory playing field between nuclear and fossil sources will remain, or get even worse.

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Hopf

Jim Hopf is a senior nuclear engineer with more than 20 years of experience in shielding and criticality analysis and design for spent fuel dry storage and transportation systems. He has been involved in nuclear advocacy for 10+ years, and is a member of the ANS Public Information Committee. He is a regular contributor to the ANS Nuclear Cafe.

 

The NRC chair and Yucca Mountain

By Jim Hopf

Several important events have recently occurred involving the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository, and the interactions between the two.

New NRC chairman

Last month, NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko stated that he would resign as soon as his replacement was appointed. His resignation was likely the result of political pressure and questions raised regarding his management of the NRC (which I’ve discussed in an earlier post).

Soon afterward, the Obama administration nominated Allison Macfarlane as a replacement for Jaczko. Macfarlane has a PhD in geology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and is an associate professor of environmental science and policy at George Mason University. She also served as a member of the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future.

Based on past statements she’s made and publications she’s authored, it is clear that Macfarlane is an opponent of the Yucca Mountain repository. She had referred to it as seismically and volcanically unstable, and said that its selection “broke the covenant with the states that the siting process would be fair and the best site would be selected.” Her views may be reflected in the conclusions of the Blue Ribbon Commission, which recommended the long-term dry storage of used nuclear fuel, and a new “consent-based” repository siting process. Macfarlane is also on record as supporting the idea of moving used fuel into dry storage as soon as possible to reduce fuel pool-related risks.

Nonetheless, it appears that opposition to Macfarlane’s appointment as chairman has been relatively muted. There appears to be a (political) understanding that Macfarlane would be accepted as chairman, as long as Kristine Svinicki is also reappointed to another term as a commissioner (Svinicki’s term expires on June 30). Republican (pro-Yucca) senators have stated that they will not block Macfarlane’s nomination, and their questioning during Senate confirmation hearings was relatively mild. The Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) has also not opposed her nomination. On the flip side, Democratic senators have made it clear that they will, in turn, accept Svinicki’s reappointment.

Based on the above, it appears clear that Macfarlane will soon be appointed as NRC chairman and Svinicki will reappointed for another term as commissioner.

Court decisions on waste program

There have also been important recent court decisions pertaining to the U.S. nuclear waste program.

In a unanimous decision, a federal appeals court has given the US Department of Energy six months to explain/justify continuing to collect a 0.1 cent/kW-hr waste disposal fee from nuclear utilities, given that there is no plan on the table for permanent disposal (with the abandonment of Yucca Mountain). The plaintiffs were seeking a halt or suspension of the fee. In six months, the court will rule on whether the DOE has given sufficient justification for continued collection of the waste fee. The plaintiffs and other observers are confident that the DOE will not be able to come up with a sufficient justification at that time.

Another recent federal appeals court decision threw out the NRC’s waste confidence ruling, which had concluded that waste could be safely stored on (plant) site for as long as 60 years after plant closure, and that a repository would become available when necessary. The court said that the NRC’s evaluation failed to consider the impact if a repository doesn’t become available, and did not adequately assess the risks of long term on-site storage. The chief judge wrote that “the commission’s evaluation of the risks of spent nuclear fuel is deficient,” and that spent fuel “poses a dangerous long-term health and environmental risk.”

Opinion on the impact of this second ruling varied widely. Anti-nuclear groups (including some of the plaintiffs) hailed the decision and hoped that it would eventually block the NRC from granting new reactor licenses or reactor life extensions.

Klein

Others—including former NRC Chairman Dale Klein—believe that the impact will be relatively small, and that it will simply be a matter of the NRC doing additional work, such as allowing more public comment (some of the court decision text appears to support this view as well.) The NRC could also perform site specific (as opposed to generic) evaluations of long-term fuel storage risks. Others in the industry actually view the ruling in a positive light, thinking that it will put pressure on the government to move forward with solutions to the waste problem, such as centralized storage or licensing a repository (e.g., Yucca). NEI disagreed with the ruling, and urged the NRC to quickly address the court’s concerns.

Finally, there is a federal appeals court decision due sometime this summer as to whether the NRC is legally required to finish the Yucca Mountain license application. While the Nuclear Waste Policy Act requires the NRC to evaluate the application, the NRC is arguing that since Congress has not appropriated any more money to the NRC to complete the task, it “cannot” do so. Yucca supporters have pointed to $10 million that the NRC has at its disposal for the task, but the NRC maintains that $10 million is not nearly enough money to finish the task. Meanwhile, the House recently approved an additional $10 million for the NRC to complete the licensing review. The fate of this funding in the Senate is unclear (of course).

In addition to disagreeing with the lack of funding argument in general, Yucca supporters point out that while $10 million may not be enough to get through the legal hearings phase of the process, the NRC could certainly release the safety evaluation reports (SERs), which give the scientific/technical conclusions of NRC staff (which almost everyone believes concluded that Yucca Mountain met the requirements).

Perspective on Macfarlane’s appointment

Macfarlane

As for the NRC chairman position, the selection of Macfarlane was clearly political, as was the selection of her predecessor. It is clear that one of the primary, if not the primary, basis for her selection was her opposition to Yucca Mountain. It’s clear that opposition to Yucca was a requirement (i.e., a litmus test) for being considered for NRC chairman; a testament to the power of Senate Majority Leader Reid. Macfarlane’s background is in geology and public policy, with some experience in nuclear waste issues. She has very little background or experience in the area of nuclear power or nuclear reactor technology. (Then again, neither did her predecessor.)

NEI’s acquiescence to Macfarlane’s selection as chairman is either a sign that they know that they won’t be able to get anything better, or that they are more focused on reactor issues and are willing to let Yucca go by the wayside. (It is true that, frankly, long term on-site storage of used fuel does not represent a significant cost, in the grand scheme of things.)

Jaczko’s conditioning his leaving on the appointment of a successor was politically shrewd, in that it gave the advantage to Reid and Obama. Refusal to accept anti-Yucca nominees by Yucca supporters in Congress would have simply led to Jaczko staying on indefinitely. Thus, the choice was clearly between Jaczko or another Yucca opponent. My only question is, couldn’t NEI, and other industry supporters (in Congress, etc..), have held out for a Yucca opponent who also knows a thing or two about nuclear power/reactors?

Macfarlane may be right that Yucca may not be the very best repository site anywhere in the country, and yes it would be ideal to have both local and state consent for a repository (note that Yucca DOES have local consent). But that’s not the point, at least as far as the Yucca license application is concerned. The question is whether Yucca is good enough to meet the requirements (impeccable requirements that far exceed those applied to any other waste stream). After spending billions on Yucca analysis, the American public deserves to at least know if Yucca would have met the requirements, and if it remains a viable disposal option (if we ever decided to use it).

All indications are, however, that Macfarlane will continue to do what Jaczko has done, which is to use administrative tricks and the lack of funding excuse to effectively halt the licensing process. She will probably also try to prevent the release of the SERs (which show that the repository passed the NRC staff’s objective, scientific evaluations). Whatever you believe about policy, whether or not Yucca passed the specified technical requirements is a matter of simple fact/truth. How can anyone in good conscience favor the suppression of the truth? I find the actions of Jaczko (along with Reid, possibly Obama, and soon to be Macfarlane) in this specific area to be unconscionable.

Yucca Mountain's north crest

I’ve always believed that the release of the SERs, or having Yucca pass the NRC licensing review, would be of significant value even if a political/policy decision were made to not proceed with the repository. A significant fraction of the public is laboring under the false notion that there is no practical or technical solution to the waste problem (i.e., they don’t understand that it is purely a political problem that has been technically solved). This is a significant source of opposition to nuclear. If we go back to the drawing board (in a quest to find a “consent-based” repository), without getting it on record that Yucca passed the (impeccable) technical requirements and is a technically viable solution, the public will go on believing the false premise that there is not (and may never be) an acceptable technical solution to the waste problem. This will have a negative impact on public support for new reactors going forward.

With Macfarlane at the helm, and any funding for completing the licensing review likely to be blocked by Reid, the only hope for completing the licensing review may be in the courts. Let’s hope that the courts understand that the political will of one man (Reid) does NOT represent the will of Congress. Many votes have already made clear that large bipartisan majorities in both houses support Yucca, and that it is only the power of one man, over both legislation and appropriations, that is causing the current situation. Given that the Nuclear Waste Policy Act was passed into law (making Congress’ intent at that time clear), and that finishing the application still reflects the will of the great majority of legislators, the court should see that finishing the application is the clear “will of Congress”, one senator’s undue influence over the budget and appropriations process notwithstanding.

Perspective on court decision

As for the court decision throwing out the NRC’s waste confidence ruling, all I can say is that I hope the optimists are right (i.e., that it’s just a matter of doing some more work or that the ruling is a means by which the government will be pressured to move a waste solution forward). Personally, the decision makes me a bit nervous. The anti-nukes seem to believe that it will lead to blockage or shutdown of reactors.

Can we be sure that the government (or courts) will not take such a (drastic) step? What will be sufficient to satisfy the court? Will centralized long-term storage facilities be enough, or will we need a repository (or at least tangible progress in that regard)? Or will further analysis into technical issues of very-long-term dry storage be sufficient? Again, this is an area where having a licensed repository would be of value, even if the political/policy decision (at present) is not to pursue it.

I personally take issue with the court’s characterization of stored nuclear fuel as “a dangerous long-term health and environmental risk”. As someone who works in the dry used fuel storage field, I’m confident that the risks of long-term storage are negligible. The issue of whether fuel is stored in pools or in dry storage casks is independent of the issue of how long it takes to establish a repository. The result of a lack of (or delay in) a repository is increased dry fuel storage (not pool storage) especially given that confidence ruling considered the period after the plants are closed/decommissioned (where all fuel is in dry storage). There are few, if any, conceivable mechanisms that would cause a significant release from dry storage casks. Tangible or significant public health impacts are all but inconceivable. Also, inspections of casks, which have been loaded for ~20 years, are not showing significant degradation of the cask materials.

In addition, one must ask the question, “dangerous compared to what”? The (obvious) fact is that the risks associated with long-term dry fuel storage are negligible compared to the public health and environmental risks associated with the fossil fuel plants that would be used in lieu of nuclear plants, if nuclear plants were closed (or not built) over the lack of a waste confidence rule. One would hope that the NRC would mention such issues (risk comparisons that look at the bigger picture) in the revised waste confidence evaluations required by the court. But alas, I wouldn’t hold my breath . . .

I’ve been advocating looking at the bigger picture (i.e., the risks of nuclear compared to the fossil fuel alternatives) for some time now, with respect to a lot of things, such as deciding nuclear regulations and how strict they should be. I’d love to see a cost vs. public health risk benefit analysis for the Vogtle basemat rebar issue. Any remotely reasonable evaluation would conclude: “use as is”. But, of course, no such evaluation will be done (“verbatim compliance!”).

There’s one positive development in this area, however. The American Nuclear Sociery has taken a courageous stand in its Fukushima Committee Report, where it suggests that the federal government quantitatively assess the relative risks/impacts between nuclear and other energy sources. Hopefully, the conclusions of such an evaluation would be considered when making decisions on future requirements for nuclear plants. It may perhaps lead to recognition that if such requirements were to result in nuclear plant closures, public health risks and environmental impacts would increase due to the use of fossil fuels instead.

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Hopf

Jim Hopf is a senior nuclear engineer with more than 20 years of experience in shielding and criticality analysis and design for spent fuel dry storage and transportation systems. He has been involved in nuclear advocacy for 10+ years, and is a member of the ANS Public Information Committee. He is a regular contributor to the ANS Nuclear Cafe.

The Blue Ribbon Commission’s final report

By Jim Hopf

Soon after declaring that it would end the Yucca Mountain repository project, the Obama administration created the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future to reevaluate the nation’s nuclear waste program and policies. The commission was asked to recommend improvements to the waste program and the Nuclear Waste Policy Act (NWPA), and to make general recommendations on the path forward. The commission was specifically instructed to not address the Yucca Mountain project, or any specific project or site. The commission’s final report was released this month.

Primary recommendations

The main recommendations of the Blue Ribbon Commission (BRC) are as follows:

• A repository (or long-term storage facility) should be sited using a “consent-based” approach, as opposed to having the federal government select a site and then impose it on the state and/or local community. The government would offer incentives to a large number of communities, whose locations are potentially suitable as a repository site, and let communities (and states) come forward voluntarily. (In essence, this implies that Yucca Mountain should be abandoned and the process should start over.)

• Responsibility for siting, licensing, building, and operating repositories and/or centralized storage facilities should be shifted from the Department of Energy to a new, independent single-purpose organization (most likely a federal corporation). Most experts agree that such an organization would offer more focus, stability, and credibility than the DOE, which has lost credibility with many stakeholders.

• The waste program must have full access to the nuclear waste fund that has been paid for by the 0.1 cent/kW-hr fee levied on nuclear-generated electricity. In the short term, the administration should amend the DOE’s standard contract so that only the money appropriated (i.e., spent) that year is transferred from the waste fund to the federal government. Remaining funds would be placed in a trust account that is managed by an independent organization. Over the longer term, legislation should be passed that transfers the entire balance of the nuclear waste fund to the new waste management organization.

• A prompt effort to develop a geologic disposal facility is necessary. There is scientific consensus that deep geologic disposal is the best option for final disposal of nuclear waste, and that a geologic repository will be necessary for any type of fuel cycle. The BRC did recommend further research and development of advanced fuel cycles and reactor designs, but stated that committing to a specific fuel cycle option or technology at this point in time would be premature.

• There should be a prompt effort to develop one or more consolidated used fuel storage facilities. This would allow the government to meet its contractual obligation to take the used fuel from utilities much sooner than if it waited for a final repository to be developed. It may also reduce the (small) risks associated with fuel storage somewhat, by reducing the number of sites where fuel is stored. Removing the fuel from decommissioned nuclear sites would free those sites up for other uses.

• Preparations for the eventual shipment of large amounts of used fuel should begin soon. A large number of stakeholders should be involved in the planning of the waste transportation program.

• The government should support research and development into advanced reactors and fuel cycles, as well as nuclear workforce development programs. The BRC stated that the general direction of the DOE’s current R&D is appropriate.

• The United States should maintain its leadership role in the international community in the area of nuclear technology. It should provide aid, advice, and technical and regulatory assistance to other countries, particularly those who are starting new nuclear programs.

NWPA changes

The BRC’s recommended path forward involves specific changes to the NWPA:

• The NWPA currently specifies Yucca Mountain as the sole site to be evaluated as a repository. The law would have to be changed to allow other sites to be evaluated.

• The NWPA currently allows only one centralized used fuel storage facility with limited capacity, and this storage facility may only be developed after a repository is licensed. The NWPA would have to be amended to allow multiple centralized storage facilities, and to remove any linkage with repository licensing.

• The NWPA would be amended to broaden the number of jurisdictions that could receive funding and technical assistance in support of the fuel transportation campaign.

• The NWPA would have to be amended to create the independent waste management organization discussed earlier, and to shift the DOE’s current responsibilities (for siting, licensing, building and operating repositories and/or centralized storage facilities) to that organization.

• The NWPA would also have to be amended to remove the nuclear waste fund from the congressional appropriations process, and to allow the independent nuclear waste management organization to have full access to the fund.

• Some NWPA changes may be required in order to allow the United States to provide a broader range of support to other nations in the area of nuclear waste management.

ANS response

The American Nuclear Society has responded to the BRC’s final report. ANS concurs with the BRC’s recommendation to create a new, independent agency to manage the nation’s nuclear waste in the future. ANS also agrees with the recommendation to create one or more centralized used fuel storage facilities, to accommodate much of the nation’s used fuel until a final repository is finally sited, licensed, and constructed. ANS also supports the BRC’s call for continued R&D on advanced (closed) fuel cycles.

One area of disagreement between ANS and the BRC, however, concerns the Yucca Mountain repository. While ANS acknowledged that the BRC was explicitly instructed not to address Yucca Mountain, it reiterated its position that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission should conclude the licensing process for the repository (at a minimum).

My perspective

I largely concur with ANS’s point of view on the BRC recommendations. Almost everyone believes that having an independent organization, as opposed to the DOE, manage the waste program would be helpful. Allowing full access to the nuclear waste fund (for its intended purpose) is absolutely essential, given the history of Congress in hijacking the waste funds for other uses or for political reasons. Right now, the fund is little more than a (punitive) 0.1 cent/kW-hr tax on nuclear electricity.

I also agree that R&D into advanced fuel cycles and reactors is important. The BRC stated that they do not believe that fuel cycle technology that would significantly alter the nuclear waste situation is anywhere on the horizon. ANS thought that this was overly pessimistic, and I’m inclined to agree. Fuel cycle technologies such as “UREX+” are a few decades away at most. Such fuel cycles have the potential to significantly reduce the bulk and heat generation level for the final waste stream, which should greatly reduce the number of final repositories required (to one, probably). This is enormously important.

I also agree with ANS on the subject of Yucca Mountain. It is imperative that the NRC complete the evaluation and licensing process, and formally rule on whether the Yucca Mountain repository would have been acceptable from a scientific and technical perspective. (Virtually all observers believe that NRC staff had concluded that the repository met the requirements.) This should be demanded as part of any “compromise”, in exchange for accepting the BRC’s recommendation that we start the repository siting, evaluation, and licensing process all over again (largely wasting the ~$15 billion that has been spent).

I believe that the single largest drawback of starting the repository program over, and delaying final resolution of the waste issue by decades, is that it will result in a large fraction of the public continuing to believe—falsely—that there is no technical solution to the nuclear waste problem. This in turn will measurably increase public resistance to nuclear power, which will result in greater fossil fuel use in the future. The public health risks and negative environmental impacts of this increased fossil fuel use will utterly dwarf any risks and/or impacts associated with any nuclear waste repository.

Although it wouldn’t be as good (or effective) as having an actual repository in place, having the NRC formally rule that the Yucca Mountain repository met all of the (impeccable) requirements would go a long way toward convincing the public that we do have acceptable scientific/technical solutions to the nuclear waste problem.

I would go on to insist that the government make sure that NRC’s ruling is highly publicized. The government should inform the public that an adequate technical solution to the waste problem has been found, but that we are electing to wait awhile to see if “even better” solutions can be found. Waiting is justifiable and prudent, given the very small risks and economic costs of storing nuclear waste. Those “better” solutions may include the use of advanced fuel cycles that result in a smaller, colder, or shorter-lived waste stream, or simply a final repository that has a greater level of political support from the surrounding state and local communities.

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Hopf

Jim Hopf is a senior nuclear engineer with more than 20 years of experience in shielding and criticality analysis and design for spent fuel dry storage and transportation systems. He has been involved in nuclear advocacy for 10+ years, and is a member of the ANS Public Information Committee. He is a regular contributor to the ANS Nuclear Cafe.

ANS statement on BRC’s final report

The Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future released its final report on Thursday, January 26. The report contains recommendations for a comprehensive U.S. strategy for managing spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste.

Please click here for the American Nuclear Society‘s statement on the report.

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“Waste Management” in Nuclear News

The November issue of Nuclear News magazine, which contains a special section on waste management, is available in hard copy and electronically for American Nuclear Society members (must enter ANS user name and password in Member Center). The special section contains the following stories:

  • What will we do with it all? by Ed Batts
  • Coupling repositories with fuel cycles, by Charles Forsberg
  • What does 1 million years mean to a regulator? by Edward D. Blandford, Robert J. Budnitz, and Rodney C. Ewing
  • Robert Sindelar: Extended spent fuel storage, interview by Rick Michal

The issue also contains a feature article on the inaugural ANS “live” webinar, with Nuclear Regulatory Commission chairman Gregory Jaczko as guest; and a report on the International Atomic Energy Agency’s 55th General Conference.

Other news in the November issue: A Government Accountability Office report states that United States has limited ability to secure nuclear material overseas; the world’s largest open-air nuclear storage pool moves toward decommissioning; a site is chosen for Finland’s seventh power reactor; startup testing for Argentina’s Atucha-2 power reactor. is launched; Vietnam awards contract for power reactor feasibility study to Japan Atomic Power Company; Fluor, GE Hitachi sign memorandum of understanding for proposed power reactors in Poland; Cameco signs mining, milling deal; Areva’s Eagle Rock enrichment plant receives NRC license; the Department of Energy gives grants for nuclear-related university research and development, infrastructure.; Areva launches “learning tour” for partner and customer company employees; NRC commissioners conduct mandatory hearing for Vogtle-3 and -4; spent fuel pool instrumentation, Mark II containment venting added to NRC staff’s near-term post-Fukushima actions; NRC finds no vital quake damage at North Anna, but shutdown continues; public support for nuclear power lower than before Fukushima, but a majority still in favor; foreign control contention added to South Texas-3 and -4 hearing process; and more.

Past issues of Nuclear News are available here.

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Roadblock in Congress for SMR Development

By Jim Hopf

As discussed in my June 20 post, small modular reactors (SMRs) have many potential advantages, and could very well represent nuclear’s best prospect for the future. The industry has run into trouble, however, in getting government support for getting SMRs off the ground.

The Obama administration has made a multi-year, $450 million request for SMR development, including $67 million this year to support SMR licensing. The U.S. House of Representatives has included the $67 million in its 2012 budget bill. That funding got removed from the U.S. Senate budget bill, however, by the Senate Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee, due primarily to opposition from Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D., Cal.).

Feinstein cited the fact that SMRs would create additional nuclear waste, for which there is still no permanent disposal site, as a reason for her opposition. She also said that federal nuclear R&D money should be spent on safety, as opposed to new reactor development, in light of the Fukushima disaster.

Improving Safety

I don’t agree with the Senator’s logic on the safety issue that she raised. I, for one, think that one of the best ways to improve nuclear safety is to develop and deploy much safer reactor designs, which are not vulnerable to the issues that caused the meltdowns at Fukushima. In turn, one of the best ways for the federal government to help improve nuclear safety is to support the development and deployment of such designs.

SMRs (such as designs from NuScale and Hyperion) are passively cooled, and are more able to reject heat to the environment (due to their small size). Large reactors, like Fukushima, require active cooling at all times, and fuel damage would occur almost immediately after the loss of all power. In stark contrast, the Hyperion module can go two weeks without any power (i.e., active cooling), and the NuScale module can go indefinitely without power (or active cooling). This is a critical difference, given that the Fukushima release occurred as a result of the loss of power, which was needed to provide continuous active cooling.

It’s true that SMR development does nothing to improve safety at existing reactors, and perhaps that’s where Feinstein is coming from. But the issue of implementing needed safety upgrades at existing reactors is being addressed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and will be implemented by the industry itself, on its own dime. It’s not clear how much government research would help, in terms of improving existing reactor safety, and it’s not clear that the government should be paying (directly or indirectly) for necessary safety upgrades at existing plants.

Waste

As for the nuclear waste argument, well, that’s an old, familiar issue. The fact is that most experts, and scientific studies, have concluded that the public health risks and environmental impacts associated with nuclear power are much lower than those associated with fossil fuels, despite the nuclear waste issue.

Unlike fossil fuels, nuclear’s wastes are safely stored and are not released into the environment. And we are confident that a final solution to the nuclear waste problem will be developed and/or agreed upon at some point, with the final result being no release of wastes into the environment, ever. Given this, opposing increased use of nuclear power because it generates nuclear waste is hard to justify, since the result of not using more nuclear is (still) primarily the use of more fossil fuels, which have an infinitely worse “waste problem”.

Finally, it’s difficult to argue that we have not found a solution to the nuclear waste problem, at least from a technical perspective. It seems clear, at this point, that Yucca Mountain was a valid permanent solution to the nuclear waste problem, from a scientific and technical perspective. NRC staff had completed its review of the Yucca Mountain repository, and most observers believe that the repository would have passed the review, and been licensed, had the review not been halted for political reasons.

It is also true that some of the SMR designs are fast reactors, which have the potential to be part of a closed fuel cycle that would reduce the volume and longevity of our nuclear waste stockpile.

One Bright Spot

If there’s a bright spot in all this, it could be that some or all of the SMR developers may proceed without such R&D aid from the federal government. Both NuScale and B&W (with its mPower module) say that they are proceeding with license applications to the NRC. And the Tennessee Valley Authority is making plans to deploy mPower modules at its Clinch River site.

NRC Issues More Important?

As many have observed, the main barrier to the deployment of SMRs may not be a lack of government financial or R&D support, but instead the enormous amount of time and money required to get new reactor designs licensed by the NRC. Reactor licensing processes have been taking many years and costing more than a $100 million dollars. Even approving an exact copy of an already-licensed reactor design (for a new site) is projected to take more than two years.

Even SMRs that deploy conventional light-water technology (such as NuScale or mPower) can expect a long (~ 5 year) licensing process (starting in late 2012 or 2013). For non-conventional technologies like Hyperion, who knows how long it will take? The NRC has stated that non-conventional SMRs like Hyperion are not on its priority list right now, and that it will only consider such an application when a serious customer has been found (thus setting up a chicken-egg problem).

Other issues that may hold back SMRs include security and emergency planning/evacuation requirements, and per-reactor NRC fees. If the NRC is not willing to consider the SMRs’ lower potential radioactivity release, as well as the lower probability of such release, in setting these requirements, as well as scaling fees with reactor capacity, it may destroy SMRs’ economic viability.

Perhaps a more effective way for the government to support SMRs is for it to do something to reduce the licensing-related barriers discussed above, as opposed to outright financial support of SMR development. Possible options include making sure the NRC has sufficient resources to handle the entire volume of incoming license applications, somehow limiting the scope of review, or requiring the NRC to complete reviews within some fixed, reasonable time period.

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Hopf

Jim Hopf is a senior nuclear engineer with more than 20 years of experience in shielding and criticality analysis and design for spent fuel dry storage and transportation systems. He has been involved in nuclear advocacy for 10+ years, and is a member of the ANS Public Information Committee. He is a regular contributor to the ANS Nuclear Cafe.

ANS webinar with NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko a success

A collaborative effort between the American Nuclear Society and the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission resulted in a successful 90-minute webinar on nuclear safety issues on October 4.

NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko (right) talks to ANS moderator Dan Yurman (left) at the Oct 4 webinar. Photo: Clark Communications

More than 60 people signed on to the webinar session when it started at 11 a.m. (Eastern time), and more than 40 were still with it when the event ended 90 minutes later. According to the NRC, another 15 people listened in through a toll-free 800 telephone number.

NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko took questions during the live, unscripted session on a wide range of topics including Yucca mountain, new reactor design reviews, and the NRC’s response to the Fukushima crisis.

Laura Scheele, ANS manager of Policy & Communication, noted that this was a first-of-a-kind effort by the two organizations. The project began last summer when NRC Public Affairs Chief Eliot Brenner approached ANS about the webinar idea.

“The ANS elected officers green-lighted the webinar as an opportunity for ANS to provide a virtual forum for ANS members and other nuclear professionals to ask NRC Chairman Jackzo about important nuclear energy issues,” said Scheele.

Webinar challenges

As the project took shape, the NRC agreed with Scheele that two separate sessions were needed—one for pro-nuclear bloggers and one for anti-nuclear organizations.  Scheele also insisted, and the NRC agreed, that the moderator could ask follow-up questions. About a third of the questions asked were of the follow-up type.

While webinars are well-understood mechanisms in the high-tech industry, this was the NRC’s first experience with the process. There were a fair number of questions facing the organizations sponsoring the event. For instance, would nuclear bloggers agree to send in questions ahead of time? Would enough people sign up for the webinar to make it worthwhile?

The NRC chairman has been a lightning rod for controversy over his actions regarding Yucca Mountain. It was thought that some people who disagreed with the chairman’s actions might ask questions that went beyond the boundaries of civil discourse.

In the end, the print-out of questions submitted in advance was more than five pages long. Several overlapping questions were combined to make effective use of limited time.

While many of the questions were asked, and answered, many others—some highly technical—will be answered on the NRC blog. In addition, the NRC has posted a podcast of the webinar, a video, and a complete transcript (see links below).

Jaczko was pleasant, conversational, and well prepared for the session. He invested a lot of time in the event both before it and during the a 90-minute live, unscripted session. The result “exceeded all expectations,” the NRC’s Eliot Brenner told the New York Times.

Question highlights

In particular, Jaczko was asked about his congressional testimony on March 16 that Fukushima’s spent fuel pool at reactor #4 had lost much of  its water and was a major source of high levels of radiation being released into the environment.

In response, he said, “The lesson we take from this is that we need adequate instrumentation to monitor the pools.”

In response to another series of questions about management of spent fuel, he said that dry cask storage is good for at least 60 years. He dismissed the idea of creating a single interim storage site for spent fuel, saying that it was safe to continue to store at reactor sites until a permanent solution could be found. Asked if the NRC could license a spent fuel processing facility today, Jaczko said technically that the NRC isn’t ready to review that kind of application.

On the subject of small modular reactors, Jaczko said that the NRC is comfortable reviewing designs based on conventional light water reactor technology.

Asked what keeps him awake at night, Jaczko said the fear is that there is some unknown factor that is being missed in the agency’s safety analysis of a situation at a reactor or in a license application.

The webinar questions were moderated by Dan Yurman, a nuclear energy blogger. He is a member of ANS and serves on the ANS Public Information Committee.

Links to NRC Video, Audio, and Transcript

  • Transcript – large PDF file
  • Audio –
    MP3 file format
  • Video –
    MPEG4 file format

# # #

NRC terminates Yucca Mountain proceeding

Next stop, federal court!

By Cornelius Milmoe

In June 2010, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s Atomic Safety and Licensing Board (ASLB) determined that the Department of Energy’s attempted “withdrawal” of the Yucca Mountain license application could not relieve the NRC of its duty to make a decision approving or disapproving the application. A year after the ASLB decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled in the Aiken County case that the Nuclear Waste Policy Act (NWPA) requires the NRC to review and act on the Yucca application, and that the court would order the NRC to make a decision if it refused to do its duty.

Despite the ASLB and court rulings, the NRC has suspended all agency action on the application and refused to release the Safety Evaluation Report (SER) prepared by NRC staff. The decision to suspend work and close out the license process was made unilaterally by Chairman Gregory Jaczko, not by the full commission.

On Friday, September 9—the NWPA due date for the NRC final decision, and 14 months after the ASLB decision—the NRC issued a two-part order in the licensing proceeding. First the order stated “the Commission finds itself evenly divided on whether to take the affirmative action of overturning or upholding the Board’s decision.” It would seem that with the divided vote, the ASLB decision denying the motion to withdraw would stand. But, the second part of the order stated, “we hereby exercise our inherent supervisory authority to direct the Board to, by the close of the current fiscal year [September 30], complete all necessary and appropriate case management activities, including disposal of all matters currently pending before it and comprehensively documenting the full history of the adjudicatory proceeding.”

The order is difficult to parse. On one hand, it indicates that there were not enough votes to terminate the case as the DOE requested, but on the other hand, it appears to direct the ASLB to terminate the case by the end of this month because of “budgetary limitations”. What is clear is that the NRC has thrown down the gauntlet to the court of appeals.

In its Aiken County opinion last July, the court deferred review of the NRC’s action in the Yucca Mountain proceeding until there was a final NRC decision. The court flatly stated that “the NWPA requires the Commission to issue a final decision approving or disapproving the issuance” of a license within three years of the application. It warned the NRC that it would issue an order compelling action if the NRC decision was “unreasonably delayed” or if the court found a “transparent violation of a clear duty to act”.

Judge Janice Rogers Brown wrote a separate concurring opinion that referenced Jaczko’s plan to provide no money for licensing activities and closing out review of the license application so that “unresolved legal questions, … would stay unresolved legal questions.” Even last June, Brown wrote, “It is arguable the NRC has abdicated its statutory responsibility under the NWPA.” Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s opinion recognized that President Obama has decided not to use Yucca Mountain, but concluded that the president does not have the final word about whether to terminate the Yucca Mountain project. Kavanaugh said, “[T]he ball in this case rests … with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.”

The petitioners in the Aiken County case have filed a new motion for an order requiring the NRC to proceed with the licensing process as required by the NWPA. They argue that the NRC had the DOE appeal of the ASLB decision under consideration for 10 times longer than the 45 days it gave the ASLB to get briefs, hold hearings, and make the original decision. The petitioners also pointed to evidence in congressional testimony and a report by the NRC’s inspector general that Jaczko acted unilaterally, without a commission majority, to stop staff work on the license, withhold the staff SER, and delay the commission’s decision on the DOE motion. With that evidence, and the NRC’s failure to meet the NWPA deadline for its final decision, it seems likely that the court will conclude that the NRC is guilty of unreasonable delay and that it may be a transparent violation of a clear duty to act.

In any event, the court has given the NRC its chance to do its duty on the Yucca Mountain application, and the NRC has declined. The next episode will be in the court of appeals, as the NRC tries to defend its failure to act on the license application.

Note: A detailed analysis by C.J. Milmoe of the NRC actions is available via Nuclear Townhall.

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Milmoe

C.J. Milmoe has been involved in waste management and nuclear power development for more than 30 years, both in government and in the private sector. He is active in ANS and in nuclear industry advocacy groups.

Blue Ribbon Commission report focuses on process

By Steve Skutnik

Last month, the Blue Ribbon Commission (BRC) on America’s Nuclear Energy Future released its long-awaited full draft report to Secretary Chu, based upon the findings of each of its subcommittees. Several nuclear bloggers offered their thoughts on the draft summary of the BRC recommendations when they were posted back in May. Since that time, the release of the full draft report expands upon earlier BRC recommendations, which largely focused upon centralized interim storage for spent nuclear fuel until a new permanent geological repository can be sited.

While centralized interim storage remains at the heart of its recommendations, a major focus of the full report has been on the process of nuclear waste management policy, including issues of site selection, regulations, and access to funding. Concerns over spent fuel in light of Fukushima also permeate the full report, underscoring the need for an integrated fuel management strategy.

 Some Background

The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 laid the foundation for nuclear waste management policy in the United States, making it the official policy of the U.S. to develop two permanent geologic repositories along with a additional sites for monitored retrievable storage (MRS) of used nuclear fuel. To pay for the cost of disposal, nuclear electricity operators were assessed a 1-mil ($0.001) per kilowatt-hour tax on production, held in the Nuclear Waste Fund (NWF). In 1987, Congress amended the NWPA, eliminating the requirement for a second repository and an MRS site while designating Yucca Mountain as the sole geologic repository of the United States.

Pushing the “Reset Button”

Some of the most withering criticisms in the BRC report pertain to the site selection process that resulted in Yucca Mountain being the sole geologic repository for the United States. Of particular emphasis is a consent-based repository siting process, compared to the top-down approach which has been employed to date. To this end, the Commission draws heavily on the examples of community-supported projects such as the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in Carlsbad, New Mexico and the SKB repository in Forsmark, Sweden.

In addition, recommendations included the need for site-neutral performance requirements in the regulation, drafted before site selection as to avoid the appearance of regulations being drafted to fit the repository site (rather than the reverse). Overall, the Commission emphasizes a staged, flexible, and open process for waste management, one capable of responding to changing events, scientific knowledge, and technological options. Specifically, the report is harshly critical of the current process, which they describe as inflexible and overly prescriptive, with the process following the 1987 amendments to the NWPA lacking any contingencies should Yucca Mountain prove untenable.

Ultimately, regardless of potential waste management options such as advanced reactor systems and reprocessing to recover usable materials from spent fuel, the BRC’s recommendations rest upon the resumed search for a permanent geologic repository (necessary for the long-term isolation of radioactive wastes, even with reprocessing) along with a centralized interim storage site for used nuclear fuel. In order to avoid the inevitable contention that any interim storage site becomes a de facto permanent repository, the report emphasizes the necessary coupling between any consolidated storage site with a credible process for establishing a permanent repository.

In as much, the BRC’s recommendations essentially amount to pushing the “reset button” on the waste management process prior to the 1987 amendments to the NWPA, restarting the process of locating a repository while taking some of the lessons from the past thirty years into mind.

Under New Management

Perhaps the most radical of the BRC’s suggestions is in the implementation of waste management under the direction of a federally-chartered corporation, similar to the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA).  Such a move is designed to produce a single-focus organization for the task of waste management which can act with a relatively greater degree of political independence while still operating under Congressional oversight.

An additional problem identified by the BRC is access to funds in the NWF. Despite its original intent, appropriations from the NWF are subject to yearly Congressional appropriations – essentially making funding for waste management subject to the vagaries of yearly budget politics. The BRC’s recommendations include placing such funds into a trust under Congressional oversight, such that funds can be used as necessary to support waste management operations.

Hedging Bets on Waste Disposal Options

One key point of contention for nuclear advocates in the report’s recommendations is its relative lack of ambition; despite evaluating several fuel cycle scenarios (including conventional and advanced light water reactors, along with partial or full recycle of long-lived actinides), the BRC specifically eschewed endorsing any advanced reprocessing or fuel cycle technologies as an alternative to direct disposal, preferring to keep its options open.

Also left unsaid is any evaluation of the viability of Yucca Mountain as a geologic repository; such a topic was specifically identified as “beyond the scope” of the Commission’s analysis.

In particular, the emphasis upon consolidated interim storage indicates the BRC prefers to hedge its bets on technology, taking a “wait-and-see” approach afforded by such an approach while leaving geologic disposal in place as the default final solution, stressing the need for flexibility and cautioning against “irreversible” spent fuel management choices.

In many ways the Commission appears to be waiting for a technological intervention to solve their problem for them, either through more advances in more economical spent fuel reprocessing or in radical breakthroughs in reactor technology.

Looking Forward

So where does this leave us? While much of the report contains useful insights about the process of establishing a geologic repository, it provides little in the way of direct solutions for the current impasse. Its proposal for centralized interim storage for spent fuel is admittedly a temporary solution designed to buy some breathing room for the federal government, but in no way does it represent a permanent solution. In essence, the recommendations leave us back where we started nearly 30 years ago – perhaps wiser for the journey, but little closer to a permanent solution.

Steve Skutnik recently obtained his Ph.D. in Nuclear Engineering from North Carolina State University. He blogs at The Neutron Economy.

ANS urges NRC to take action on Yucca Mountain

ANS President Eric Loewen sends letter to Chairman Jaczko and NRC commissioners to stress the importance and obligation to complete licensing application

Eric Loewen, president, American Nuclear Society

The American Nuclear Society has delivered an August 22 letter to Nuclear Regulatory Commission chairman Gregory Jaczko and the NRC commissioners to urge the agency to complete the consideration of the licensing application for the Yucca Mountain used fuel repository, ANS President Eric P. Loewen announced.

“As a professional and scientific society, ANS has chosen not to take a position on the suitability of Yucca Mountain as a repository site,” he said. “However, we have become increasingly concerned that NRC has not defined a clear pathway to complete the licensing process. Failure of the NRC to judge the Yucca application on its merits would be a triumph of shortsighted politics over science. That’s why ANS has come off the sidelines.”

The letter noted that the NRC’s Atomic Safety and Licensing Board has determined that the motion to “withdraw” the license application by the Department of Energy does not relieve the commission of its duty to review the application and make a determination on its technical merits.

Loewen added that the United States Court of Appeals, as recently as July 1, 2011, ruled that the NRC is required by the Nuclear Waste Policy Act to review the application. Nevertheless, the letter continues, “the NRC, without an open formal decision of its own, has suspended . . . review of the application and . . . refused to release . . . the Safety Evaluation Report.”

Loewen stated, “Our members are concerned that if the commission does not act, the court will order it to do so, thereby inflicting indelible harm to the commission’s reputation for scientific professionalism and independence. We urge the commission to protect its traditions of openness, objectivity, and excellence by completing the scientific review of this matter.”

The Las Vegas Review Journal has coverage of the ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals on July 1, 2011.

Click here for the text of the letter from Loewen to the NRC.

Newsweek interviews Loewen

Loewen was interviewed by the online edition of Newsweek magazine  (The Daily Beast) this week about the letter. In the interview, Loewen pointed out that the DOE had studied Yucca since the late 1970s before handing it off to the NRC in 2008. When the funding from Washington ended, the NRC ended its review of the site.

ANS officers, many of them former industry leaders and academics, argue that the licensing process should be finished regardless of the project’s prospect of actually operating.

“We try to stay out of the politics and argue from a technical standpoint, but we’re just so frustrated as a technical community we want to come off the sidelines,” said Loewen.

Yet, the decision to shutter Yucca has long been considered political in nature. President Obama ordered the action under pressure from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.).

All five commissioners, including Jaczko, declined to discuss the ANS letter and the NRC’s stalled progress on Yucca with the Daily Beast. But some have taken public stances against Jaczko’s decision to halt the project. William Ostendorff, who sits on the commission until 2016, told Congress last fall that he agreed that the NRC still had an obligation to investigate Yucca and other potential repository sites.

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Nuclear News’ 17th annual vendor/contractor issue

The August issue of Nuclear News is available in hard copy and electronically for American Nuclear Society members (click here—log-in required).

The issue contains a 122-page special section containing advertisements and “advertorial” information about products and services provided by various companies serving the nuclear industry.

In addition, the August issue contains the following feature articles:

  • The Advanced Test Reactor National Scientific User Facility
  • 2011 ATR Users Week—Meeting the Needs of the Nuclear Community
  • A report on the International Atomic Energy Agency’s Ministerial Conference on Nuclear Safety
  • A perspective by former Sen. George Voinovich on enabling nuclear energy and the prospects for new nuclear

Additional news items of note in the August issue: Appeals court rejects lawsuit to stop the Department of Energy from ending the Yucca Mountain project, but leaves the door open; Xcel Energy and the federal government settle on used fuel lawsuits; tests show that commercial off-the-shelf computer components can withstand the space environment; the Interior Secretary withdraws 1 million acres of federal land near the Grand Canyon from new uranium mining claims; universities and national laboratories to collaborate on nuclear security; the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office tests new technology at Belmont Stakes; major concrete repair extends Crystal River-3’s outage to 2014; the Nuclear Regulatory Commission approves license renewal for Prairie Island and Salem-1 and -2; poll shows that residents living near nuclear plants continue to favor nuclear power; the Jordan Atomic Energy Commission receives three bids to build first nuclear power plant; referendum ends plans to reintroduce nuclear power in Italy; and much more.

Past issues of Nuclear News are available here.

This post first appeared on the ANS Nuclear Cafe.