Nuclear energy has become one of the most complicated and important policy issues today. Although there are certain political concerns over what to do after the unfortunate events of the Fukushima disaster in Japan, a more fundamental issue needs to be resolved if the US is to determine a comprehensive nuclear energy policy. What should the government do with the nuclear waste?
The Nuclear Waste Policy Act (NWPA) of 1982 established a federal program for the management of high-level nuclear waste, which placed the Department of Energy (DOE) as the implementing agency. The Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management (OCRWM) from the NWPA was meant to ensure the project’s timely completion. Congress allowed the agency 15 years to establish a working high-level radioactive waste (HLW) management, transportation, and storage system.
OCRWM was subject to Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) oversight and regulation, and the NWPA required OCRWM to study three separate sites in at least two different rock types, ensuring diversity for a comparative assessment. Another major provision of the Act was requiring the DOE to examine a second repository site that could be ready by 2003. The NWPA also provided for extensive interaction with affected States and Tribes through timely consultation, grants to support independent research of proposed sites, financial and technical assistance, and public hearing requirements. In addition, costs associated with the NWPA were to be paid with a fee added to the cost of nuclear-generated energy.
After five years, the DOE HLW program was behind schedule. Poor implementation decisions hindered what was originally a solid piece of legislation. The implementing agency ran into problems based on schedule, lack of control over technical experts and contractors, and concerns that political needs of Republicans came before scientific accuracy. Congress passed the Nuclear Waste Policy Amendment Act of 1987 as a result of those failures. The NWPAA of December 1987 made DOE provisions for the sole site selection of Yucca Mountain, Nevada. The amendment changed the Monitored Retrievable Storage (MRS) requirements, which voided previous requirements laid out for Tennessee and listed none for Nevada. An additional layer of bureaucracy was developed through the creation of the Office of Nuclear Negotiator and 11 Presidential appointees to the Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board. The Blue Ribbon Commission, set up by President Obama, issued its Final Report in January 2012, which addressed the policy issues surrounding the President’s decision to stop the work at Yucca Mountain. The DOE’s January 2013 strategy provided an updated policy recommendation regarding HLW to the Obama Administration. It provides a way ahead for the Administration, Congress, and other stakeholders to create a sustainable way to deal with HLW.
There are a few policy options that would allow the US to move forward on dealing with nuclear waste. The first policy option is a short term solution because permanent surface storage is not currently viable. Nuclear waste can be stored on site safely for up to 100 years in pools and dry casks; scientific and technological capabilities of storage beyond 100 years are uncertain because models cannot extrapolate data beyond that. However, if the spent nuclear fuel is transmuted in a fast reactor, the material will only need storage for less than 1,000 years due to it reaching the levels similar to natural uranium. If a long term repository cannot be found, though, new legislation will be necessary to resolve the problem of on-site storage 50-60 years after the reactor has closed.
The second option is to utilize an interim storage facility until a long term repository is found. Currently under Sections 145 and 148 of the NWPA interim sites can only store 15,000 metric tons of spent fuel. This option is promising, though, because private companies could deal with the spent fuel instead of a government site. In Utah the company Private Fuel Storage is licensed by the NRC to handle nuclear waste. It could accept waste from decommissioned nuclear reactor sites, which would reduce the costs associated with only on-site storage and no other activity, and could store spent fuel for up to 40 years. New legislation would be required to pursue this option because the Department of Interior is blocking spent fuel going to the Utah site, which is on a Native American reservation.
Finally, the government could seek a different repository, most likely in New Mexico. Although there are scientific and technical reasons Yucca Mountain was chosen, this is not the only site available. Salt repositories in New Mexico offer a viable alternative. The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico currently stores transuranic waste from defense operations, but it could be re-licensed to accept civilian waste. Like in Yucca Mountain, there is local support for the repository, but the state government opposes bringing in high-level waste.
The United States is on the verge of an energy revolution. The amount of shale oil and natural gas, available from fracking, will make the United States of America a net exporter of carbon-based fuels in the near future. However, nuclear energy offers a cleaner alternative to fossil fuels, and new methods now allow the recycling of spent fuel rods (reducing waste and storage needs). Reprocessing technology has the ability to decrease the volume of waste by 75% while reducing the storage time to less than a thousand years. Nuclear energy is about 6 to 13 percent more expensive to generate than conventional coal or gas electricity, but it gains the advantage in reducing emissions. It is significantly cheaper and more available than wind or solar energy.
The best way forward is to combine policy options one and two. Because it is not currently politically feasible to seek a permanent repository site, either in Nevada or New Mexico, the best options are to seek increasing on-site storage capabilities and looking for interim sites. Both of these options are economically viable and will promote jobs within the industry while offering a short term solution to the problem. During the interim it might be possible to establish a permanent site in Nevada, New Mexico, or another state. On-site and interim storage are both scientifically and technically sound options for several decades till a practical political solution can happen.