Against the backdrop of this year's unprecedented spate of reactor shutdowns and cancellations, attention in the US is turning this Fall to the complete breakdown of radioactive waste policy.
Featured will be 12 public meetings across the country over the next 45 days to discuss the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's "waste confidence" policy, and likely action in the Senate on legislation that might − or might not − set a new path on radioactive waste.
Last summer, a federal court threw out the NRC's "waste confidence" policy, which forced the agency to institute a moratorium on licensing new reactors and relicensing old ones. The policy was established in the 1980s, after Congress decided that the federal government would be responsible for disposal of high-level nuclear waste.
At the time, Congress also decided that the government would begin accepting the waste for disposal in 1998 and directed the Department of Energy to sign contracts to do so. So much for bad ideas and poor prognostication. More than 25 years since the legislation was passed, the government has been unable to make good on any of those contracts − and is therefore being sued by nuclear utilities − and is also no closer to a radioactive waste solution than it was in the 1980s.
At the core of the "waste confidence" policy was the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's (NRC) assertion that it was confident high-level radioactive waste would always be stored or disposed of safely, no matter where it was and that, in any case, a permanent waste disposal site was just around the corner. This assertion allowed the NRC to license and relicense reactors which otherwise would have been prohibited (as it is today).
But the court ruled that the utter lack of progress toward establishing a permanent site and the Obama Administration's efforts to end the Yucca Mountain, Nevada project meant there is no reason to assume a permanent site ever will be established. Further, the court said the NRC had provided no technical basis whatsoever to assume that waste would, or even could, be stored indefinitely onsite. Thus, the "waste confidence" policy was merely an assertion without foundation.
The NRC vowed to provide a basis for its waste confidence policy and resume licensing within two years − even though the agency's own experts said doing the job properly likely would take seven years. The result is a new proposed rule that asserts that radioactive waste can be stored indefinitely − as in essentially forever − in dry casks and even in fuel pools even without a permanent disposal site. The rule is backed by a 600-page "Generic Draft Environment Impact Statement" (DEIS) that conveniently understates, downplays and just plain ignores most of the possible, some would say likely, pitfalls and problems posed by long-term storage at both casks and pools.
For example, the DEIS determined that the risks of a fuel pool fire are "inconsequential". That's not because a fuel pool fire itself would be inconsequential − in fact, it would be calamitous. But the NRC says the odds of such a fire are so low the agency doesn't have to worry about it. The NRC put the odds at 1 in 60,000 per reactor year. Multiply that by 99 reactors over the next hundred or so years, and the odds grow scarily close to inevitable. And before March 11, 2011, most experts would have put the odds of three simultaneous meltdowns and four endangered fuel pools at well below 1 in 60,000.
Nor does the DEIS attempt to determine the relative value of dry cask versus fuel pool storage, apparently assuming both are equally safe − a view not shared by most outside experts. And while dry casks are the preferred technology for most concerned with nuclear safety issues at this time, few believe they are a permanent solution and the DEIS fails to consider any of the potential dangers they might pose in the future. For example, the NRC believes dry casks should last 100 years; then the fuel would have to be transferred to new dry casks − but unloading a cask full of extraordinarily radioactive fuel roads and re-loading them into a new cask is a job that never has been done. The potential effects of climate change-related sea-level and other water-level rise on dry casks also has been sloughed off, among other issues.
On October 1, the NRC will hold a public meeting (although industry and anti-nuclear groups already have been briefed by the agency) at its Rockville, Maryland headquarters to begin trying to sell its DEIS and proposed rule to the public. The next week it takes its show on the road, starting with a meeting in Denver, Colorado on October 3 and ending back in Rockville on November 14. In between, there will be meetings in California, Ohio, Minnesota, Illinois, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina and Florida.
Activists across the country have vowed to pack the meetings to challenge both the technical details of the DEIS as well as to protest the very notion that new radioactive waste should be generated at all. The Nuclear Information and Resource Service has a new webpage with location and schedule information, talking points, and more: www.nirs.org/radwaste/wasteconfidence.htm
Note, however, that Tea Party interests seem intent on forcing a government shutdown over President Obama's attempt to ensure that most Americans are able to obtain some sort of health care. If a shutdown occurs, some or all of the meeting dates may be changed.
New independent agency?
Meanwhile, in the Senate momentum seems to have slipped from Energy Committee efforts to pass a bill (S.1240) to establish a new independent agency to take over the Department of Energy's (DOE) radioactive waste program. That bill, which is based on the recommendations of the DOE's Blue Ribbon Commission on waste (brc.gov), would also set up a new consent-based process for finding a permanent waste disposal site. In addition, it would allow creation of one or more new "consolidated interim storage" sites − a gift to the nuclear industry so that it could begin shipping high-level waste off its property and let the federal government take responsibility for it.
But the bill hasn't received the kind of support its backers had hoped. Environmentalists oppose it because the idea of "interim" storage would lead to massive transport of high-level waste across the country ("Mobile Chernobyl") to an unsuitable site from where it would have to be transported again. The Nuclear Information and Resource Service has collected about 40,000 signatures on petitions opposing the bill for that reason.
The program also would take a lot of the impetus away from the search for a scientifically-defensible permanent site since the industry's only real interest is in getting the stuff off its property and into government hands. Moreover, the bill fails to ensure that fuel pools would be emptied as quickly as feasible into dry casks, which environmentalists believe are much safer than the overcrowded pools.
And some Republicans don't want to see the establishment of a new federal agency of any kind for any reason, and don't really care that a new agency might be able to begin making up for the myriad of mistakes the DOE has made on waste policy over the years; thus they are at best lukewarm toward that idea. What they really want − especially in the House of Representatives, which would also have to approve radioactive waste legislation for it to become law − is a return to the discredited and failed Yucca Mountain project.
Republicans have seized on a recent federal court decision that ruled the NRC improperly ended its licensing review of Yucca Mountain; the NRC has said it will comply with the decision and is now working on how to restart its review. In the US, the DOE currently is responsible for finding a permanent disposal site and submitting an application for it to the NRC, which has final approval to license the site. But the NRC only has about $11 million left in its fund for the license review, and it will cost about half that just to re-establish the computer system to provide access to the literally millions of pages of documents involved in the licensing process.
As long as Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is Senate Majority Leader, Congress won't approve any more money for the NRC to complete the process (nor will it approve any legislation to mandate Yucca Mountain), so it's unlikely that either the court decision or legislative efforts to bolster the Yucca site will have any actual practical effect.
But despite the relatively poor outlook for radioactive waste legislation, sources indicate that S.1240's sponsors in the Senate Energy Committee are still hoping to hold a mark-up session and committee vote on the bill in mid-October. Whether any changes to the bill, one way or the other, will be sufficient to move it beyond the Committee level remains to be seen.
Author: Michael Mariotte − Executive Director of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service.