Nuclear, Reactors, Waste Management & Decommissioning

Options in Nuclear Waste Storage

Issue 3 and Volume 8.

The day Nevada Senator Harry Reid announced he would not seek re-election when his term is up in 2016, many in the nuclear industry speculated that the Yucca Mountain nuclear repository would now come to fruition. While Sen. Reid was one of several critics of the project, he is seen as the biggest ro/adblock to moving the project forward.

There are nine Nevada counties that support building a repository in Yucca Mountain, but Sen. Reid, Governor Brian Sandoval and U.S. Energy Department (DOE) Secretary Ernie Moniz have all spoken out against the project, saying it will never be built or that it is not a workable solution. According to the Nuclear Energy Institute, the Nevada State Legislature in 1975 passed a resolution “strongly urging” the DOE’s predecessor agency to choose the test site where Yucca Mountain is located for the disposal of nuclear wastes. In 2012, Nye County sent a letter to the Energy secretary agreeing to host the repository in line with recommendations of the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future, NEI said.

Waste Control Specialists' facility in Andrews, Texas, is licensed to process and store several classes of nuclear waste. Courtesy: Waste Control Specialists
Waste Control Specialists’ facility in Andrews, Texas, is licensed to process and store several classes of nuclear waste. Courtesy: Waste Control Specialists

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission completed its safety evaluation of the repository and said that, before construction can begin, DOE must meet certain land and water rights requirements. However, NRC also said the site could safely store nuclear waste for one million years. There are still many years and many steps in the process before a national waste storage site is operational, but there are options available now that plant operators can use in the interim.

Areva TN is one of the biggest names in nuclear waste storage solutions. Its NUHOMS solution is typically used for horizontal or vertical dry storage. Storing it horizontally avoids significant temperature difference between the two canister ends of a vertical system, and reduces radiation emissions by storing the canisters side-by-side in a horizontal configuration. (http://us.areva.com/EN/home-3138/areva-inc-areva-tn-nuhoms-used-fuel-storage.html)

Areva has also partnered with Waste Control Specialists (WCS) on developing a license application for an interim storage facility at WCS’ facility in Andrews County, Texas. Rod Baltzer, president of WCS, said the company already has licenses in place that will make the process faster and smoother, including a license with the state of Texas as an agreement state through the NRC.

“We are currently designed to dispose of low-level radioactive waste, and we’ve got the capabilities to handle A, B, and C-class waste,” Baltzer said. “We can store but not dispose of any waste higher than C class.”

The new facility will be licensed to process 40,000 metric tons of waste in eight phases of 5,000 metric tons each. The facility will use updated NUHOMS storage canisters from Areva, which are already licensed for use through the NRC.

WCS must update surveys in order to file the license application in April 2016, Baltzer said. “We think the NRC will take three years to review. When they’re done, we will immediately break ground,” he said. The facility is scheduled to begin accepting spent nuclear fuel in December 2020.

Construction on the repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada has halted as regulators and policymakers debate the next steps.
Construction on the repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada has halted as regulators and policymakers debate the next steps.

Baltzer said the Andrews facility is designed to be a one-stop shop for nuclear power plants and site clean up companies. “We have federal facilities that would take all waste all the way up to storing spent nuclear fuel up to our capabilities that we are licensed,” he said.

The facility could also save ratepayers and taxpayers in the long run by allowing shutdown nuclear power plants to store the spent fuel at the Andrews site instead of onsite at the plant, which requires at least ten different licenses and security forces.

“That way, they only have to deal with one license through us,” Baltzer said.

Holtec International is another company offering many options in spent fuel and waste storage. Holtech supplies the HI-STORM, HI-STAR, HI-SAFE and other dry cask storage canisters, as well as wet fuel storage canisters. Holtec’s HI-STORM Underground Maximum Capacity (HI-STORM UMAX) canisters are slated for use at an interim used fuel storage facility in New Mexico. The canisters can store high-level radioactive waste in steel and concrete containers underground in a vertical configuration. A consortium called the Eddy-Lea Energy Alliance in New Mexico informed the NRC of its plans to file an application to design, license, construct and operate the facility. The state of New Mexico is a willing host state, meaning it has no objections to hosting the facility.

Despite the available options, Katrina McMurrian, executive director of the Nuclear Waste Storage Coalition (NWSC), said that while the industry waits for the interim storage facilities to open, plant operators will continue to store their spent fuel on-site.

“Unless something comes to fruition, everyone who is storing their waste on-site will continue to do so,” McMurrian said.

While the proposed interim storage facilities are encouraging, McMurrian said, there is still a need for a large, national repository for spent fuel — even if some is eventually reprocessed.

“Having these interim facilities may take some of the pressure off, but you still need permanent disposal regardless,” McMurrian said. “That’s what electric consumers have paid for and they deserve to see it be built.”

McMurrian was referring to the Nuclear Waste Fund (NWF), in which nuclear plant operators had contributed more than $750 million per year through a surcharge to electric consumers since the 1970s, totaling around $42 billion (including interest and outstanding fees) in 2014. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled in November 2013  that the U.S. Department of Energy could not continue to collect the fee until either a new law was passed or a national repository was licensed and built. The DOE adjusted the fee to zero the following May. In a separate ruling, the NRC was ordered to use some of its prior appropriations from the NWF that remained available  to resume the Yucca licensing process, a decision that led to the NRC’s January 2015 completion of the aforementioned safety evaluation of the Yucca repository.

“The public and policy makers need to be educated about the issue,” McMurrian said. “Based on a series of votes in the House, the Yucca Mountain license application review has strong bi-partisan support there, and on the Senate side, leaders  like Sens. Lamar Alexander,  Lisa Murkowski, and Patty Murray have expressed similar support.”