New legislation could clear the path toward a sustainable strategy for storing spent nuclear fuel. Complexities and disagreements, however, might scuttle the effort.
The Blue Ribbon Commission’s best answer for the nuclear waste dilemma.
For America’s nuclear power operators, the future looks more uncertain than it has for almost 30 years.
Among all the complex political, financial and technical issues affecting the country’s nuclear future, the spent-fuel dilemma has proved to be one of the most difficult. However, just as the Department of Energy’s Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future (BRC) prepares to issue its recommendations for a new approach to spent-fuel management, the Fukushima disaster has focused tremendous public attention on nuclear risks—adding pressure to a problem that already was nearing critical mass.
With the insistent media focus on details of the Fukushima-Daiichi failure, American citizens have learned that spent nuclear fuel pools aren’t protected by containment, and that many such pools have exceeded their designed capacity. This awareness has increased fear of radiation exposure, and fueled growing opposition to nuclear power. Recent polls show support for nuclear power has diminished drastically since before the Fukushima disaster. (See “Nuclear Power in US: public support plummets in wake of Fukushima crisis,” Christian Science Monitor, March 22, 2010) .
This change in support arrives just one year after President Barack Obama abruptly canceled the Yucca Mountain project, leaving DOE without a credible long-term plan for the permanent disposal of U.S. spent nuclear fuel, pursuant to its obligations under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act (NWPA) of 1982. Lawsuits filed by nuclear operators claim damages now reaching $1.8 billion, with the federal government’s legal exposure to such litigation projected to balloon to more than $13 billion over the next decade. According to Kim Cawley with the Congressional Budget Office, each year of delay adds between $300 and $400 million in liabilities to the budget deficit, at a time when Congress is paying intense attention to deficits.
In this context, public trust and confidence in nuclear power seems unlikely to be restored unless, among other things, the federal government defines a credible path forward for developing a repository for spent nuclear fuel. Tasked with finding this path forward, the BRC has been engaged in hearings and technical investigations for more than a year, with draft recommendations expected to be released this summer. Sources tell Fortnightly the BRC likely will advise the federal government to create a new entity to manage disposal of spent nuclear fuel—probably a federal corporation (fedcorp) modeled on TVA.
A spent-fuel fedcorp could remove the constraints of the annual congressional budget cycle, allowing predictable annual financial support and improving the odds that a safe and effective future can be crafted for long-term management of depleted fuel rods and other radioactive materials. Similar approaches in Sweden and Finland have succeeded in moving their spent-fuel storage projects toward construction. And such a fedcorp—the Nuclear Fuels Management Corp.—was proposed in Congress by Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio, now retired), first in 2008 ((S.3661), The United States Nuclear