Nuclear, Waste Management & Decommissioning

NUCLEAR Industry needs spent-fuel storage

Issue 5 and Volume 100.

NUCLEAR Industry needs spent-fuel storage

TERESA HANSEN

U.S. nuclear power plants are becoming more competitive, more reliable and safer. Operating and maintenance costs have declined since the late 1980s. According to the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), 1995 capacity factors were higher than ever–78.2 percent, compared with 75.1 percent in 1994 and 72.5 percent in 1993. Performance of plant safety systems began surpassing 1995 goals in 1992. These statistics show that, so far, it has been a bang-up decade for nuclear power. However, spent-fuel storage, or more precisely the lack of it, could ruin a good thing.

The U.S. Department of Energy`s (DOE) spent-fuel storage program has been plagued with missed deadlines and budget cuts. In 1995, both the House and Senate proposed legislation reaffirming the DOE`s responsibility to start accepting fuel in 1998. The legislation calls for the DOE to build an interim storage facility near Yucca Mountain, Nev., and construct a rail spur to move fuel to the facility. Work to determine whether spent fuel can be permanently buried at Yucca Mountain would continue. Unfortunately, the legislation is not approved. Congress did appropriate $85 million in 1995 for interim storage facility work. It cannot spend the money until the nuclear waste legislation passes.

A Senate panel voted in March to require the DOE to construct the interim storage facility. The new bill requires the government to begin building storage near Yucca Mountain in October 1998 and to start taking spent fuel at the end of November 1999. President Clinton has threatened to veto the bill, opposing any move that specifies Nevada as the storage site. Energy Secretary Hazel O`Leary said the administration feels it is too early to name Nevada as an interim storage site. She said a decision on Yucca Mountain`s suitability is required first.

Daniel Dreyfus, the DOE`s Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management director, told the Senate Energy Committee that there is no reason to believe Yucca Mountain cannot be used as a permanent repository. There is a “very, very high probability” that the site can be used, he said. His statements were backed up by a Dec. 13 letter from John Cantlon, the Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board (NWTRB) chairman. In the letter Cantlon said the rock at the Yucca Mountain site looks very good. No significant water has been found at the repository level.

The NWTRB was created to evaluate the technical and scientific validity of the DOE`s nuclear waste program activities. It recently issued a report, “Disposal and Storage of Spent Fuel–Finding the Right Balance,” recommending not moving spent fuel into interim storage for the next several years. Many in the industry, including Joe Colvin, NEI president and CEO, feel the board was out of line in making such a recommendation. “The NWTRB has undermined its own credibility and clearly overstepped its legal charter by becoming an advocate of policy instead of a defender of science,” Colvin said.

While Washington lawmakers debate nuclear waste-storage issues, nuclear plant owners struggle to find spent-fuel storage space. By 2015, the date the DOE claims it will have the permanent repository ready, 93 nuclear plants will be out of space to store used fuel. According to the NEI, utilities could end up spending more than $7.7 billion to build, operate or expand on-site storage. Some utilities, like Wisconsin Electric Power Co. (WEPCO), may not have on-site storage options. Citizens and environmental groups are trying to delay construction of on-site spent fuel casks. WEPCO officials said that without timely construction its Point Beach plant will have to be closed. It is likely that other plants will face similar dilemmas. z