Tag Archives: nuclear waste United States

Maybe Someday: what to do with nuclear waste

Nuclear Plant Locations in the US. Image from wikipedia

The problem now, however, is civilian waste from power plants that came online in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. Nuclear power generates a fifth of America’s electricity; its 99 reactors account for almost a third of all nuclear power generated worldwide. Five more are under construction—the first to be approved since the 1970s—partly thanks to federal loan guarantees intended to boost clean energy production. The waste they generate has been stored safely, but it will stay dangerously radioactive for tens of thousands of years. That requires a longer-term plan than leaving it outside, however well encased in concrete.
Under the 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act, the federal government pledged to dispose of nuclear waste—both civilian and military—permanently. Several possible plans were drawn up, many involving burying the waste in salt deposits deep under ground. To pay for this eventual cost, a levy was added to the bills of consumers of nuclear power.

But politics got in the way. In 1987 Congress determined that only one place, Yucca Mountain in Nevada, would be considered. This, says Richard Stewart of New York University Law School, was the result of a stich-up between two congressmen who did not want their states to host waste dumps. Tom Foley, the then House majority leader, and Jim Wright, the Speaker, blocked proposals for sites in their home states of Washington and Texas.

Nevadans nickname the 1987 amendment the “screw Nevada” bill, and they have fiercely resisted implementation. Some $15 billion has been spent on building the repository at Yucca Mountain, but no waste has been moved there. Nevadans are quick to point to the damage done to their state by nuclear-weapons tests. Since 2010, the Department of Energy has formally ruled the facility out. In a lawsuit in 2013, the government was forced to stop collecting the levy on nuclear power until a plan exists for a permanent site. It has also been forced to pay utility companies for the costs of storing waste temporarily, since it did not start collecting waste fuel in 1998, as the original law dictated.

Some hope Yucca Mountain might be reopened by a new president. “The only aspect of used fuel in this country that has been problematic is the politics”, says John Keeley of the Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry lobby group. In January the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the regulator, concluded that the site is safe for the disposal of waste. But the worries of Nevadans—that moving spent fuel on railways might lead to spills, or that radioactivity could leak into the environment—remain.

Recent experience doesn’t help. America already operates one of the world’s few deep storage sites for radioactive waste—near Carlsbad, in New Mexico. It stores waste mostly from nuclear-weapons production. In February 2014 the facility suffered two crippling accidents. One was apparently caused by workers packaging waste with the wrong sort of cat litter. The plant-based “Swheat Scoop” brand they used, unlike the mineral-based kind they were meant to, did not absorb radioactivity very well. The facility has not accepted any new waste since.

Excerpts from Nuclear Waste: Faff and fallout, Economist, August 29, 2015, at 23

A Leaking Atom Bomb: Hanford, United States

Hanford in 1960 Image from wikipedia

There are “significant construction flaws” in some newer, double-walled storage tanks at Washington state’s Hanford nuclear waste complex, which could lead to additional leaks, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press.  Those tanks hold some of the worst radioactive waste at the nation’s most contaminated nuclear site.

One of the 28 giant underground tanks was found to be leaking in 2013. But subsequent surveys of other double-walled tanks performed for the U.S. Department of Energy by one of its Hanford contractors found at least six shared defects with the leaking tank that could lead to future leaks, the documents said. Thirteen additional tanks also might be compromised, according to the documents.  Questions about the storage tanks jeopardize efforts to clean up radioactive waste at the southeastern Washington site. Those efforts already cost taxpayers about $2 billion a year.  “It is time for the Department (of Energy) to stop hiding the ball and pretending that the situation at Hanford is being effectively managed,” Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., wrote this week in a letter to Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz…

Hanford contains some 53 million gallons of high-level radioactive wastes from the production of plutonium for nuclear weapons. They are stored in 177 underground storage tanks, many of which date back to World War II and are single-walled models that have leaked. The 28 double-walled tanks were built from the 1960s to the 1980s.

Current plans call for transferring wastes from leaking single-walled tanks to the newer and bigger double-walled tanks, where the waste will be stored while a $13 billion plant for treating the waste is constructed. But the treatment plant is plagued with design problems and construction has stalled.  The situation did not appear dire until the news in October 2012 that the oldest of the double-walled tanks, called AY-102, had leaked, becoming the first of those 28 tanks to do so.

At the time, the Energy Department blamed construction problems with this particular tank for the leak and said it “seems unlikely” that the other double-walled tanks would leak.  However, Wyden said engineering reviews of six other double-walled tanks “found significant construction flaws in those six tanks essentially similar to those at the leaking tank.” Those six tanks contain about 5 million gallons of radioactive wastes, wrote Wyden, who is chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee….

Hanford, located near the city of Richland, stores about two-thirds of the nation’s high-level radioactive waste.  Officials have said the leaking materials pose no immediate risk to public safety or the environment because it would take perhaps years for the chemicals to reach groundwater.  The federal government built Hanford at the height of World War II as part of the Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb.

Excerpts from Drew Vattiat, Hanford’s worst radioactive waste vulnerable to leaks from flaws in newer storage tanks, Associated Press, Feb. 28, 2014

On Fault Lines: Nuclear Waste Storage in the United States

Yucca Mountain, image wikipedia

A bipartisan quartet of senators dropped a draft of a long-awaited bill on April 25, 2013 that would change how the United States stores nuclear waste.  The draft bill would enable the transfer of spent nuclear fuel currently housed at commercial nuclear facilities to intermediate storage sites. It also would allow states and local governments to apply to host the nation’s long-term waste repository.It also proposes creating a new federal agency to manage nuclear waste, taking that responsibility from the Energy Department (DOE). The president would appoint the head of that agency, which would be subject to Senate confirmation…The bill largely implements findings by the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future, an expert panel convened by President Obama in 2010. Some of the suggestions that made it into the draft bill will likely run into opposition.

Chiefly, Republicans will not be keen on moving nuclear waste to interim storage sites before a permanent repository has been identified.  The draft legislation calls for a pilot project to take in waste from high-risk areas — such as waste stored near fault lines — by 2021. After that, any nuclear waste could be sent to interim storage units so long as “substantial progress” is being made to site and select a permanent repository.  An alternative proposal by Feinstein and Alexander would require proposals for the pilot program to be submitted no later than six months after the bill becomes law.  But GOP lawmakers worry that interim storage sites would turn into de facto permanent ones without identifying a permanent facility.  They point to the recent flap regarding the Yucca Mountain site as a cautionary tale.  Obama pulled the plug on Nuclear Regulatory Commission reviews of DOE’s application to use the Nevada site in 2009.

Republicans viewed it as a political move — Obama campaigned on shuttering Yucca, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) opposes the site. They also said it was illegal because federal law identifies Yucca as the nation’s lone permanent repository.  Republicans, therefore, want to ensure a permanent site is selected before transporting waste to interim facilities to avoid a similar political kerfuffle.  GOP lawmakers might also oppose the draft bill’s call for a “consent-based” process that lets states and local governments apply to host the nation’s permanent repository.  Again, they say it’s a legal issue. Since a 1982 federal law fingers Yucca as the nation’s sole permanent nuclear waste dump, some Republicans argue there can be no others.  That’s the line House Republicans have taken.  They say any legislation coming over from the Senate that doesn’t identify Yucca as the nation’s permanent repository won’t move. And Senate legislation has almost no chance of including such a component considering Reid’s virulent opposition to Yucca.

Murkowski and the bill’s other backers have tried to minimize the Yucca issue by contending that more than one permanent storage site is likely necessary to handle the nation’s volume of nuclear waste.  The Alaska Republican has said she doesn’t want to give up on Yucca, but that she wants to do something about nuclear waste. She said the matter is urgent, pointing to leaking nuclear waste containers at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington state….

Zack Colman, Senators float nuclear waste storage draft bill, The Hill, April 25,  2013