Nuclear, Waste Management & Decommissioning

A Wasted Opportunity

Issue 2 and Volume 7.

By Sharryn Dotson, Editor

Safely managing spent nuclear fuel and other radioactive wastes is an important issue wherever there are nuclear power plants or research facilities in operation. Though other countries with nuclear facilities face a similar problem of where to store large amounts of radioactive waste, it seems the U.S. is the only one in the news for what has not been done. The U.S. has attempted to license and site a geologic repository to store all of the high-level waste produced at nuclear power plants at Yucca Mountain, to no avail. However, it is not the only country in the world looking to put a repository in place to store the waste long-term and finding some opposition.

In the U.S., four governmental entities regulate radioactive materials: The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Food and Drug Administration, state governments and the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). The NRC licenses and regulates the civilian uses of source material, such as uranium and thorium; special nuclear material, like enriched uranium and plutonium; and byproduct material, such as what becomes radioactive in a reactor, according to the NRC’s website.

In June 2008, the NRC received a license application from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to construct and operate a repository for high-level waste at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. The DOE was approved to build and operate the repository, while the NRC’s focus was to regulate the disposal of the waste into the geological formation. Unfortunately, push back from lawmakers and court challenges have led to a standstill in the process to issue a Safety Evaluation Report for the site.

Nuclear plant owners have paid more than $30 billion into the Nuclear Waste Fund since the 1980s – with $750 million paid into it in 2012 – for a nuclear waste repository. A judge with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ordered the DOE in November 2013 to ask Congress to end the collection of the one-tenth of a cent per kilowatt-hour surcharge since plant owners do not know if they are paying enough or for how long they are supposed to pay into it.

Canisters at the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant in California are used to store radioactive materials on site. All photos courtesy: NRC
Canisters at the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant in California are used to store radioactive materials on site. All photos courtesy: NRC

Waste storage: A non-issue?

Many U.S.-based nuclear power plant operators and industry groups, particularly the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), say that the storage of nuclear waste is not a major problem because they are maintaining the waste properly and safely. All utilities and plant operators use a combination of spent fuel pools and dry cask storage to store the spent fuel until the pools are emptied and the waste is transported offsite.

Southern Co. uses multiple methods to safely store the waste from six operating nuclear units at three plants: Plants Vogtle and Hatch, both in Georgia; and Plant Farley in Alabama. The six operating units generate more than 6,000-MW of electricity.

“We have safe, reliable on-site options to store the used fuel at our nuclear plants,” said Michelle Tims, spokesperson with Southern Nuclear. “All of our units have individual underwater spent fuel pools for wet storage of used fuel. These pools are located in the power plant structures within the security-protected area of the plant that requires special security measures to access.”

Tims said all of Southern Nuclear’s power plants have the ability to store the waste on site through the expected lifecycle of each plant. At Plant Hatch, there are approximately 5,000 fuel assemblies stored in the spent fuel pools and approximately 3,600 assemblies stored in dry casks. Plant Farley has 2,300 assemblies stored in pools and 680 in dry casks and Plant Vogtle has 2,600 assemblies stored in pools and 192 in dry casks, Tims said.

Many U.S.-based plant operators and industry groups have been very vocal about the need for a repository in the U.S.

“Since the NRC’s review of the Yucca Mountain repository program was suspended in 2010, the federal government has not had a viable program for the management of used nuclear fuel from commercial nuclear energy facilities and high-level radioactive waste from government defense and research activities,” Tims said. “The U.S. government has an obligation to remove spent fuel from nuclear plants, and Yucca Mountain is the way to solve the issue of a permanent repository. Southern Company continues to support the Yucca Mountain project and understands that the government must resolve the waste issue for the future of nuclear energy.”

The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) also supports developing a storage site.

“Along with the rest of the U.S. nuclear industry, TVA supports the development of a national solution to the long-term disposition of these materials,” said Jim Hopson, public relations & corporate information with TVA. “Until that option is available, TVA has the knowledge and experience to continue to safely manage spent nuclear fuel at our facilities for the foreseeable future.”

A complex situation

“This application is one of the most complex ever considered,” NRC spokesman Neil Sheehan said in regards to Yucca Mountain.

The NRC must still issue volumes 2 through 5 of the Safety Evaluation Report (SER) for the DOE’s Yucca Mountain application. Volume 1 has already been published. Completion of the SER is expected to take about 12 months and be completed in January 2015, assuming there are no unforeseen issues. The cost to complete the SERs is approximately $9.6 million, Sheehan said. Total unobligated Nuclear Waste Funds remaining for work in this area was just over $13 million as of December 31, 2013.

The DOE turned in a license application to build and operate a geologic repository for high-level nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain in June 2008, Sheehan said.

“Receipt of the application initiated the NRC review along two concurrent processes,” Sheehan said. “The first process was the technical licensing review by the NRC staff, to assess the technical merits of the repository design and formulate a position on whether to issue a construction authorization for the repository.

“The second process was adjudicatory hearings before one or more of the NRC’s Atomic Safety and Licensing Boards, which was to hear challenges by a number of parties to the technical and legal aspects of the DOE application.”

The NRC staff was ordered to close out the technical review of the license application by Sept. 30, 2011, but the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board suspended its adjudicatory hearing on the application. Lawsuits were filed, and the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in August 2013 that the NRC needed to “promptly continue with the legally mandated licensing process for Yucca Mountain,” Sheehan said.

Besides the lawsuits, the sheer complexity of the application is another reason the process has slowed, along with political backlash against the proposed repository. “In addition, there have been legal challenges filed against the proposal and there has been political and environmental organization opposition,” Sheehan said. “This includes opposition from elected officials representing Nevada;” namely Sen. Harry Reid, who has been a very vocal opponent of Yucca Mountain.

Sheehan said that, even though the NRC staff resumed its safety review, they do not have sufficient funding to complete all of the required reviews.

“That will require action by Congress to allocate further funding,” Sheehan said.

No request for additional funding has been made as the NRC focuses on how to spend the available funds as ordered by the court, Sheehan said.

Nuclear waste around the world

The United Kingdom’s Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) is responsible for civil nuclear liabilities, including nuclear waste in the UK. The wastes come from a variety of sources ranging from research and development programs, the manufacture of nuclear fuel, reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel, nuclear power plants and decommissioning activities, according to the NDA’s website. The NDA owns 17 sites, including Sellafield and all of the first generation Magnox reactors.

The NDA currently has the Radioactive Waste Management Directorate (RWMD) to implement geological disposal of higher activity wastes, with the prospect of RWMD evolving into an organization that oversees the building and operation of a facility.

The Committee on Radioactive Waste Management Directorate (CoWRM) was asked by the UK government in 2003 to make recommendations for the long-term management of the UK’s higher activity wastes. CoWRM published their report in 2006 after lengthy consultation and consideration. Their work combined a technical assessment of options with ethical considerations, examination of overseas experience and a wide-ranging program aimed at public engagement. This report was the basis of the UK government’s whitepaper, which forms the basis of the current policy for managing radioactive waste safely.

The situation in the UK is similar to that in the U.S., but with some subtle differences. Waste is classified as material that has no further use, so uranic materials, plutonium and spent fuels are not classified as waste in the UK. That will remain the case for spent fuel as long as there is a reprocessing option, the NDA said.

A horizontal dry cask storage system under construction.
A horizontal dry cask storage system under construction.

The NDA said that the UK – with the exception of Scotland, where this is a devolved issue – needs a waste repository for higher activity wastes, including high-level waste (HLW) and most intermediate-level waste (ILW). The UK government’s policy is geological disposal and it is developing a site selection process for a geological disposal facility (GDF) for its higher level wastes. It seeks to do this through volunteerism and partnership with a local community. The Scottish government takes a different view, NDA said. Their policy is long-term storage in a near-surface facility close to the source of production.

The GDF is expected to cost around £12 billion ($20.1 billion), but that could vary depending on factors such as the amount of waste placed in the GDF, the geology and the requirements of the local community. Typically, this cost will be from concept through operation to closure in about the year 2100, NDA said.

Alastair Evans, spokesperson for the Nuclear Industry Association (NIA), said the UK’s nuclear power plants keep high-level waste on site until it is cooled and then it is transported to the Sellafield site in Cumbria before it is reprocessed at Thorp.

“The only exception is the Sizewell PWR (pressurized water reactor), where irradiated fuel is stored on site until a geological disposal facility is built,” Evans said.

Waste is stored at Sellafield pending final disposal in a geological disposal facility when it is built.

“The disposal facility that we are working toward is a geological facility that will store all high-level waste,” Evans said. “In about 50 years time, a site will be built. We still have to do geologic site studies.”

The disposal site will also have to account for waste from the planned Hinkley Point C plant in England. If reprocessing the fuel is not available, then it can be consigned as waste, the NDA said. The decision to reprocess the spent fuel is up to the owners. The current assumption, NDA said, is that spent nuclear fuel will not be reprocessed. The geologic disposal facility will have to accommodate legacy waste as well as waste from new builds. Some 19 GWe of new generation is expected online by 2023, and operators of new power plants would be charged a fixed unit price for disposal of intermediate-level wastes and spent fuel in the geological disposal facility.

Sweden is currently undergoing the licensing process for a spent nuclear fuel storage site in the country. Sweden is home to 10 operating nuclear reactors that generate a total of 9,408-MW of electricity. Nuclear waste management company SKB applied for permission to build a repository in 2011 for spent nuclear fuel in Forsmark and an encapsulation plant in Oskarshamn. The application is currently in the review process. According to SKB’s website, the copper storage canisters that will be built deep within basement rock are expected to last for more than one million years.

Canada’s Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) is in the siting phase for a nuclear waste repository, a project that has been in the works since 2002, said Michael Krizanc, communication manager with NWMO. Krizanc said getting to this point took a lot of cooperation between the public and the government.

“First, we asked Canadians, ‘What questions need to be asked and answered?’ We then reported back and asked, ‘This is what we heard from you. Is this correct?'” Krizanc said.

There were a number of things identified by the respondents that were necessary to make the site socially acceptable. Mostly, the public just wanted to know that their voices were heard.

“They want to be involved in the decision making every step of the way,” Krizanc said. “They want to know how can they be involved and they want to hold our feet to the fire.”

NWMO then did an assessment of different options to store nuclear waste, including a geologic repository, a centralized storage site or leaving the waste stored on-site at power plants. The respondents said they wanted the plan implemented in an adaptive and phased manner, but there were still some issues with the choices given.

“When we talked to Canadians about the advantages and limitations of the different approaches, we learned that none of them perfectly met the important values and objectives Canadians said needed to be addressed,” Krizanc said. “From that dialogue, a fourth option emerged. We call it Adaptive Phase Management.”

The Adaptive Phase Management plan calls for a deep geologic repository that also allows for the used fuel to be retrievable to appease the concerns of environmentalists and communities, Krizanc said.

“You can’t walk away from it once you build it,” Krizanc said. “It has to be monitored before future generations decide to backfill it or do something else with it.”

The organization is committed to utilizing the best available technology and will make sure the repository is sited in a willing and informed community, Krizanc said.

After the government approved the plan in 2007, the NWMO took more than a year to consult with interested and potentially affected Canadians to collaboratively design implementation plans, including having experts available to answer questions and hear concerns.

“We did not target communities to site a repository. We went to municipal associations in each province, and to conferences where community leaders meet, and provided information about the plan,” Krizanc said. “Then we waited for the phone to ring, and a number of communities came forward to express an interest in learning.”

Krizanc said the NWMO expects a Canadian repository will not be operational until at least 2035.

“There is no fixed deadline; we will take the necessary time to do it right,” he said.

More Nuclear Power Internaional Issue Articles
Nuclear Power Internaional Issue Archives
View Power Generation Articles on