Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Responses to the Problem of Nuclear Waste Management

The University of Pennsylvania’s Kleinman Center for Energy Policy has recently published a report, entitled “Nuclear Decommissioning: Paying More For Greater, Uncompensated Risks,” that aims to address the enhanced risks and costs associated with waste disposal as nuclear plants face premature retirement. While the author, Christina Simeone, is correct in pointing out the federal government’s failure to permanently dispose of spent nuclear fuel, the report’s recommendations fall short of providing any viable alternatives. In addition, Simeone ignores all the progress—albeit slow—that has been made with regard to spent fuel management, both through traditional geologic repositories and advanced reactors.

The requirements are relatively straightforward: the Department of Energy (DOE) needs to transfer existing spent fuel from commercial power plant sites into interim storage facilities as soon as possible, ultimately moving spent fuel to a permanent geologic repository (or repositories) or reprocessing sites. Most policy makers, local communities, and the nuclear industry would agree. Even DOE agrees. That’s why they’ve already started moving forward with the recommendations of the President’s Blue Ribbon Commission. In 2015, DOE launched a consent-based siting initiative to start the process for selecting a future site or sites for waste storage. Throughout 2016 they held public meetings around the country.

This recommendation, in other words, is nothing new, and much of the rest of the report remains ambiguous. The title of the report tells us we’ll be paying more for greater risk, a claim repeated throughout, but the baseline or comparative scenario isn’t specified. Will communities be paying more than they are now, more than they should be, or more than they would be if DOE took control of the waste? It’s not clear, and none of these scenarios are quantified or compared.

The same goes with risk. How does the risk increase as plants close? Most of these plants are already storing spent fuel in dry casks on-site, and will continue to do so while they decommission, a process that takes decades. Is this riskier than transporting spent fuel around the country? Rather than evaluate the relative risks associated with any alternatives, the report simply stokes fears that these communities will find themselves at greater risk in the future. While local communities and utilities should be aware of the impacts of long-term on-site dry spent fuel storage, other impacts of premature plant closures remain an order of magnitude greater and more immediate, such as the loss of reliable, clean, and affordable power, as well as of tax revenue (often a large proportion of city budgets) and hundreds to thousands of jobs.

Ultimately, managing spent fuel is a long-term problem, and ensuring that the process is democratic and the solutions equitable is going to take longer. As the report states, “U.S. and international experts agree that permanent geologic (i.e. underground) disposal of highly radioactive spent nuclear fuel is the safest and most secure way to manage this waste,” but the process preceding disposal, and for building a geological repository, remains up for continued debate. DOE, for instance, conducted a study from 2011 to 2014 that evaluated over 4,000 different fuel cycles across a range of risk and benefit metrics. In the end, their top three choices all relied on continuous fuel recycling with fast reactors, something very different than what we’re doing today.

Yet another question: How should local governments and utilities use the information provided by the report to improve their decision-making, when ultimately the decision is by nature a federal concern? Utilities could lobby the DOE to move faster on a temporary solution for interim waste storage, but DOE is already considering this option, and is simply hindered by the slow-moving democratic site-selection process. Unless utilities move to set up a private waste storage facility (which would also require NRC licensing), it will be difficult to expedite such a complex process that involves a hodge-podge of municipal, state, and federal policies and dozens of different utilities, as well as a muddle of historical precedent.

Finally, the report mentions several times that fuel reprocessing was banned in 1977, but not that the ban was lifted in 1981. Reprocessing could serve as a short-term solution for managing spent fuel, as the first step would involve moving fuel to a central facility or regional facilities. In the longer term, there has been a resurgence of interest in advanced reactor designs that can burn waste as fuel, produce radically less waste, and reduce the lifetime of remaining wastes. We summarize the potential of these reactors in our report, “How to Make Nuclear Cheap,” and there’s been progress in Congress on this front as well.

Overall, the report would have benefited from a more thorough assessment of these and other proposed solutions to the multiplex problem of nuclear waste management.