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Bulletin 233: Please take action: Congress, White House, nuclear industry renew effort to store, process, and dispose of various nuclear wastes in New Mexico and Nevada

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July 29, 2017

Dear friends –

This is one of those occasions when your calls, letters, and meetings with our congressional delegation and their staffs could be very important. (Handy contact information is here.) We have had to interrupt our other work to deal with this urgent matter over the last few days and we hope you will as well. Your engagement could make a decisive difference. Call or write all of them, please.

Specifically and urgently, ask them to stop the push in this year’s appropriations bills to open a consolidated "interim" nuclear waste storage facility, an idea which is premature, dangerous, and grossly inequitable in its current form – and permanent. Especially if opened in a remote and politically-weak location, any such "interim" facility could well be permanent.

New Mexico, the only place now under consideration for centralized interim storage, would never recover from such a designation.

Introduction

We know from conversations with their staffs that our congressional delegation has not quite “connected the dots” on the suddenly-looming issue of bringing vast quantities of spent nuclear reactor fuel (SNF) and high-level defense waste (HLW, the highly-radioactive residues left when plutonium is extracted from SNF) to New Mexico.

The following may shock you. You might want to sit down. Further details are provided farther below.

Legislation – S.1609, the Senate Energy and Water Development (SEWD) Appropriations bill – has been reported out of Subcommittee and now the full Senate Appropriations Committee with Senator Udall’s apparent blessing (see: glowing press release) that authorizes, funds, and requires the Department of Energy (DOE) to issue a request for proposals (RFP) to create one or more consolidated interim storage facilities for SNF and HLW within 120 days of enactment, when certain conditions are met (see Section 307 of the bill above). One of those conditions is approval of the state(s) governor(s).

The corresponding House legislation – included in H.R. 3219, the “Make America Secure Appropriations Act, 2018” – bars investment in consolidated interim nuclear waste storage and focuses entirely on re-opening the Yucca Mountain disposal site. This, we believe, is a different bad idea.

These two appropriations bills are “normally” reconciled and passed by September 30 of each year to provide funding to the DOE and other agencies for the following fiscal year. The White House Statement of Administration Policy (SAP) on the House bill expresses the Trump Administration’s preference for funding consolidated interim storage of nuclear waste in addition to restarting the Yucca Mountain licensing process. 

Much more far-reaching legislation – H.R. 3053, the Nuclear Waste Policy Amendments Act of 2017 – has been reported out of the House Energy and Commerce Committee with a vote of 49 to 4, with Rep. Ben Ray Lujan among the noes. Among other features, this bill would allow the U.S. to accept title to commercial SNF prior to transportation from its current location (Section 301) and prior to the opening of any final disposal site, a transfer of cost and liability to taxpayers worth hundreds of billions of dollars. Of the three bills, this is the worst.

Michelle Lujan Grisham has not had the opportunity to vote on this bill, but it will likely pass the House with or without her if it is brought to the floor. The point is to raise a ruckus now, and get the senators to kill this bill and the consolidated interim storage section in the Senate Energy and Water appropriations bill.

The only active application for a consolidated interim storage facility in the U.S. is that of the Holtec Corporation, on behalf of the Eddy-Lea Energy Alliance (ELEA). The Holtec application is to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), which must license any such facility.

ELEA seeks to store (and repackage for disposal, though they may not realize that) 140,000 metric tons (MT) of SNF, twice the legislated capacity of the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear disposal site. This is basically all the SNF in the U.S., including all the fuel currently in all U.S. reactors (which will all be SNF soon enough).

The transuranic (TRU) waste being sent to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), the nuclear waste with which many New Mexicans may reflexively or unconsciously use as a hazard benchmark, is practically benign in comparison to SNF and HLW.

Take a look: as of 2013, the nation’s commercial SNF consisted of 244,005 individual fuel assemblies containing:

  • 23 billion curies (8.51E+20 Becquerels, Bq) of long-lived radioactivity (>30 times more than generated by the U.S. nuclear weapons program);
  • About 9.2 billion curies (3.4E+20Bq) of cesium-137 (350 times more than released by all atmospheric nuclear weapons tests); and
  • About 700 metric tons of plutonium (about 3 times more than used for weapons throughout the world). 

H.R. 3053 concerns all this waste and more. The SEWD bill, by contrast, requires a “pilot program” involving “only” DOE-owned and DOE–contracted HLW and SNF, another huge universe of nuclear wastes.

In a separate development, the Trump Administration has initiated a study by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) of the suitability of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) for HLW and other highly-radioactive wastes.

If SNF and HLW are brought to a central “interim” storage facility – which would have to be a large-scale waste repackaging and processing facility as well as a surface-to-shallow-buried de facto nuclear waste dump – these wastes may never leave, especially if this huge wasteplex is built in a relatively-unpopulated, politically-weak location. Even in the best case, “interim” means a century or so.

Study Group board member Robert Alvarez has updated his terrific background briefing on pre-disposal commercial SNF issues. We commend it to you.

Beyond Nuclear and the Nuclear Information and Resource Service (NIRS) have long worked on the SNF issue and have valuable, current information on the pages linked as well as history, which there is no need to repeat here.

In April, the New Mexican covered part of this story, in a story mostly focused on the (successful) fight against deep borehole disposal of HLW in New Mexico and elsewhere (Rebecca Moss, “Storing nuclear waste offers economic potential, environmental risks,” April 8). We are pleased to have been of some use to the outstanding local organizers in the borehole battle.

Meanwhile…

Before continuing the “New Mexico True” story about “Our Friend the Atom and His Deadly Radioactive Outhouse,” we have made it very easy for you to help us foment some serious community conversations about climate and energy. You can do this while promoting solar photovoltaic power and, in the process, help raise a dime or two for the Study Group.

This was the subject of Bulletin 232: Nuclear power for your home and business (July 19) and also of this July 25 letter to local members.

(Dear Taosenos and others outside central New Mexico: we will be adding more towns to the active list next week, so stay tuned. We will write and/or call you.)

There is more to this little program than meets the eye. We hope the postcards (and bulletin board tear-sheets) can help serve as conversation-starters in your social networks. Use them how you please.

We must deepen our understanding of our converging crises and our ties to one another quickly. There is not a moment to waste. None of the proposed policies being discussed by our environmental groups are adequate. There are more opportunities, and more dangers, than are generally allowed. The Overton Window is so narrow it has become an echo chamber.

We remain very eager to speak with churches and community groups. The full dimensions of the present climate crisis, which is also an energy crisis and much more, are simply not being discussed in this state. Very great political and indeed spiritual openings are possible.

Another topic of great interest in our state is the recent adoption at the United Nations of the Nuclear Weapons Prohibition Treaty. Among our other work, we have contributed to this outcome for several years, along with only a tiny handful of U.S. organizations and against widespread criticism (until the very end, when lots of people suddenly got on board). The Treaty will open for signature in September and could enter into force in the months thereafter.

The Obama-Trump push for new nuclear weapons continues (details in reports at the link; see also this summary among many others on our web site), including a push for new underground workshops for plutonium pits in Los Alamos. With your help we have fought this last development successfully for many years. The current (and entirely counterfactual) anti-Russian madness does not help. (Just now, the New York Times published an editorial bearing on possible U.S. nuclear policy changes. Like almost everything that paper writes about foreign affairs, it is misleading.)

Now, back to the nuclear waste storage-and-disposal push

The 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act (Wikipedia; text of NWPA as amended) envisioned commingled defense HLW waste and commercial SNF in the same repositories. Originally, there were to be two repositories - one in the west and one in the eastern U.S., which was why the first was to be capped at 70,000 MT.

In 2015, President Obama accepted DOE Secretary Moniz’s recommendation to create separate disposal sites for these two kinds of wastes, one of which (HLW, along with DOE’s own SNF) is owned by the federal government. The other (commercial SNF) is currently not. GAO strongly critiqued the cost assumptions and (lack of) analysis in the new separate-sites approach.

The interim storage provisions in the SEWD bill (which refer to DOE-owned SNF and HLW, and which the current White House supports) are an expression of this same poorly thought-out policy.

Commercial SNF has been dramatically mismanaged for decades. The environmental, public health, and financial liability represented by this enormous stock of deadly material is staggering, and still growing.

Some of these wastes are “stranded,” i.e. stored at reactors which have closed (e.g. San Onofre, Rancho Seco). There is no income stream at these reactors. Whereever it is, these wastes will need to be repackaged on site, meaning the facilities and staff to do this must be maintained or reconstituted. We have mentioned California examples, because the huge California congressional delegation is eager to provide a path to remove these wastes, with Senator Feinstein in the lead. They want these wastes out of California, sooner or later. As you will see below, we don’t.

Meanwhile, there are many serious safety issues with current storage, more at some sites than others.

Apparently, little or no SNF anywhere is being stored in casks that could be shipped to a disposal or interim storage facility (if any such existed), or which would be appropriate to use for disposal. Disposal casks cannot even be designed without specific disposal sites in mind. (Note our use of the plural noun.)

In many cases rail lines to reactors have been closed, raising the specter of hundreds of ultra-heavy truckloads of highly-radioactive, terrorist-vulnerable waste crawling to the nearest rail line over shored-up bridges and overpasses, where it could be transferred to train cars (that are hardly perfectly safe either).

Once at an interim storage facility (see Holtec’s design), SNF would eventually need to be re-packed into containers tailored for a specific disposal site. There will need to be a large industrial infrastructure at any such storage site. New wastes (solid, gaseous, and aqueous, all requiring treatment and disposal) will be generated in the repackaging process. Some of the fuel received will be broken and loose, or will get that way while in temporary storage.

I (Mello) happened to be present at the Holtec-ELEA press conference in Washington in April 2017 announcing Holtec's application to the NRC for a consolidated interim storage facility. As came out in questioning, their full vision actually involves reprocessing SNF to reclaim and reuse unburned fissile material. This was the original mission of the Hanford and Savannah River sites, now more or less the most radioactively-contaminated places in the country. Tellingly, the ELEA logo is built from a recycling symbol.

These people are true believers, not sober engineers. But this is the nuclear industry.

High-burnup fuel (more U-235, less reactor refueling, more radioactivity and heat in the resulting waste) presents its own special problems (see the Alvarez presentation for a summary of these). Will, or rather when and how much will, the fuel cladding break under the increased internal pressure and prolonged higher temperatures? No one knows, actually. High burnup fuel must be kept in pools, and then at reactor sites in casks, far longer than the lower-burnup fuel which was once standard, prolonging the entire tragedy.

Spent fuel pools, necessary to cool the waste when it is first removed from reactor cores, are in many cases being operated far beyond their initial design capacity. A loss of coolant fire in such a pool could spread deadly fallout across a wide area, potentially encompassing multiple states, dwarfing the impact of the Fukushima accident.

Thin-walled dry cask storage – the kind most used in the U.S., and the least used in Europe – is problematic. Cracks can neither be reliably detected nor fixed, should they occur. Temperatures of these casks can be, by design, up to 400 degrees C. Unfortunate things (like corrosion) can happen quickly at such temperatures, especially in salty air.

Half of U.S. nuclear power plants are bleeding cash, despite their shortcuts and deferrals in a) managing SNF, b) in using what are basically experimental high-burnup fuels, as well as c) safety compromises in many other aspects of their operations. In no small part this is due to competition from a cheaper fuel (natural gas) and from power sources which have no fuel cost at all, namely the wind and the sun.

Nuclear plant operators are therefore seeking (and in some cases getting) subsidies, beyond those they already have (e.g. via the Price-Anderson Act). These new subsidies are being in part justified by these plants’ relative lack of greenhouse gas emissions.

But on the basis of spent fuel alone, not to mention other needed safety upgrades – if indeed adequate upgrades are possible for those plants that are basically aging out, or were mis-designed in the beginning, or were in hindsight wrongly-sited given new seismic or flood risk information – these plants are becoming fiscal black holes. Only bad accounting keeps them open.

The longer they operate, the deeper the ultimate financial hole these plants are digging. Cash needed for SNF management is going to shareholders and executives. Repackaging waste for long-term safe storage, or even for transport, would cost hundreds of millions of dollars, financially breaking many if not most plant owners. These reactors need financial lifelines, ways to pass the liabilities for pre-disposal waste management (and for plant dismantlement and disposal) to the public, either the rate-paying public or even better (for them) the tax-paying public.

All this is part of the background to the current push to quickly open a consolidated SNF storage facility, or via H.R. 3053, to give this waste away to taxpayers long prior to opening any disposal site. Reactor owners don’t want to wait for a disposal site to open, which could require decades, and maybe they can’t wait, under current rate structures.

Given their historic mismanagement, and the irresponsibly low electricity rates set by state regulatory bodies for nuclear electricity for all these years (important – see below!), it is possible that many reactor owners can’t manage their facilities and their wastes properly without drastically raising rates to cover what are now, or will soon be, stranded costs. To actually have price discovery, at this point, could be a death-knell to the whole industry.

Given the necessarily long lead time for disposal, the near-term prospect of a consolidated SNF storage facility, and especially a situation in which DOE could take title to the waste prior to transportation to such a site, let alone disposal, would instantly improve the nuclear industry outlook, (which is currently and deservedly dismal).

Every possible disposal site will have “issues.” No disposal site will be perfect. Alvarez tells us that disposal at Yucca Mountain, which “features” oxidizing conditions and dripping water, would require at full capacity some 11,500 titanium drip shields weighing 5 MT each. This and other problems make this site untenable, in his expert view. In our view at the time, that site was selected politically from the get-go. Geology was a distant second consideration.

So what is the answer?

There are no really good answers. Nuclear waste is essentially “forever.” Alvarez and others who advise us in the background are experts in these matters, we are not. Nonetheless we offer these views, for which only we are responsible:

  1. Disposal sites (plural) are needed and science-based efforts should be mounted to open them as soon as is feasible. Nuclear waste is not safe above ground. Society is not stable. There is no time to waste.

  2. Nuclear power is basically a failed technology that should never have been pursued. But “we” did. Now, many nuclear generating stations should be closed sooner rather than later because they are unsafe, uneconomic, or both. Some should be closed immediately.

  3. The high-burnup fuel "experiment" should be discontinued for the reasons Alvarez lists. This will make even more reactors uneconomic.

  4. Spent fuel pools should be thinned out where possible in favor of strong, transportable cask storage, if possible using casks suitable for chosen or generic disposal geologies.

  5. Since, like it or not, some SNF will remain at many if not all reactor sites for decades to come, these sites should be hardened and protected as well as possible.

  6. Nuclear waste should stay in the region, and perhaps even in the states, in which it was generated. Sufficiently favorable geologies can be found in many places, perhaps everywhere at sufficient depth.

  7. In addition to continued ratepayer ownership, there is also a case for state ownership of SNF, since it was state regulatory authority that was and is responsible for allowing nuclear generation and setting electricity rates for all these years. Federal assumption of SNF costs and liability is grossly inequitable and sends the exact wrong market signals (i.e. has huge moral hazard).

  8. Transportation should be minimized. If it is necessary to create consolidated interim storage sites, this should be done in the states or regions where the waste is now. Without the political compromise engineered by the late Sen. Morris Udall, which was based on the creation of a second (eastern) disposal site to complement the western site, the 1982 legislation could never have passed.

  9. Building distributed renewable energy infrastructure, with broad and democratic ownership, should proceed on an emergency basis. For reasons we will discuss on another occasion, overall energy use in the U.S. should decline, as prices rise to more completely include the externalities involved in producing electricity.

Thank you, and please call or write them,

Greg and Trish, for the Study Group


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