No good news about nuclear waste, says GAO

The U.S. has a huge and growing nuclear-waste problem, and after years of study, multiple proposals and large expenditures, there’s still no workable solution, says a report issued by the General Accounting Office [GAO] on June 1, 2011.

In “Nuclear Waste: Disposal Challenges and Lessons Learned from Yucca Mountain,” the GAO reports that since the 1940s, the United States has generated over 75,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel and high-level nuclear waste at 80 sites in 35 states. That’s enough to fill a football field about 15 feet deep. And nuclear waste is expected to increase by about 2,000 metric tons per year, more than doubling to 153,000 metric tons by 2055.

And exactly where is that extremely hazardous stuff, anyway? Most of it is stored on-site at commercial power plants, immersed in pools of water designed to cool it and isolate it from the environment, says GAO, whose report includes the map displayed here. There’s currently no alternative method for storing spent nuclear fuel, so some sites are rearranging their cooling pools to allow for more dense storage of the waste, and many are reaching their capacities. Viewed in light of the ongoing nuclear disaster in Japan, the map is not very reassuring—unless you live in Montana, Wyoming, South Dakota, North Dakota , New Mexico or Oregon, where there are no nuclear-waste storage sites.

The reason that there’s nuclear waste cooling in pools in most states is because—despite the fact that nuclear energy generates 20 percent of America’s electricity and has been a major component of our national energy strategy for decades—the U.S. has never figured out a plan for disposing of it. And reading the GAO report doesn’t inspire much confidence that a viable policy is going to emerge in the near future.

The long and futile history of Yucca Mountain

The closest we’ve come to a nuclear-waste-storage policy has been Yucca Mountain—a site about 100 miles Northwest of Las Vegas. According to GAO, in 1957, the National Academy of Sciences issued a report recommending that nuclear waste could be safely stored in a “geological repository,” meaning an underground cave constructed specifically for that purpose. In the 1960s and 1970s, government agencies looked for appropriate sites, but didn’t find any. In 1987, the Department of Energy began focusing its efforts on Yucca Mountain. Twenty years later, after spending $15 billion, the Department of Energy applied to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission [NRC] for a license to build a nuclear-waste repository in Yucca Mountain. Originally, it was supposed to open in 2017, but was later delayed until 2020.

By the way, existing nuclear waste already exceeds the 70,000 metric-ton capacity of the proposed Yucca Mountain repository, says the GAO report in a footnote.  And in 2009, DOE announced plans to terminate the Yucca Mountain repository program and instead study other options. The president’s FY 2011 budget went a step further, proposing to eliminate all funding for the program, including the DOE office that managed it. The problem with the Yucca Mountain idea, says DOE, is not that it’s unsafe. The problem is that people in Nevada don’t want it. But as of May 2011, Yucca Mountain remains in administrative, budgetary, judicial and political limbo as agencies, licensing boards, researchers and litigants wrangle over its feasibility, safety, popularity and costs.

Nuclear options

Meanwhile, nuclear waste continues to pile up, and the answer to the best way to store or dispose of it remains elusive. Three options are on the table, but each has pros and cons, says GAO.

First, there’s continued, on-site storage. On the plus side, it’s the current practice, so it requires little effort. Keeping nuclear waste where it’s generated means no immediate transportation costs [until someone figures out a long-term disposal site], and also allows the waste to become cooler and less radioactive over time. Recent advances in “dry-cask” storage systems allow spent nuclear fuel to be stored above ground for as long as 300 years. But this approach is not a forever solution: Commercially produced nuclear waste stored on-site is expected to be “safe” for 60 years beyond the life of a reactor, but after that, it would have to be “repackaged,” at an estimated cost of $20 billion to $97 billion. Waste stored in dry casks would also probably have to be repackaged after 100 years, at a potential cost of $180 billion to $500 billion.

Second, there’s interim storage at a centralized facility. Proponents of this option say that consolidating nuclear waste would make monitoring less complex and could ease reuse of land around decommissioned nuclear plants. Also, commercial operators could end the practice of making their nuclear cooling pools more dense, which could reduce risk. The downside is that interim storage could take years to construct, says GAO, adding that a federalized central storage option with two locations would take about 19 years to implement and would cost $23 billion to $81 billion. Centralized facilities would also face intense state and/or local opposition. Safety would be a concern, too, because you’d have to transport nuclear waste twice: first to the centralized interim site and then to a permanent facility.

Third is permanent disposal in a geologic repository. This option has repeatedly been endorsed as the only safe and secure permanent solution for nuclear waste disposal. But as the saga of Yucca Mountain has shown, the time and cost of developing such a site is daunting, and public acceptance has been a tough sell.

Now what?

Even if the U.S. immediately decommissioned every currently operational nuclear power plant and banned future projects, the problem of nuclear waste would not go away. If the Yucca Mountain option permanently disappears—another site will need to be identified, says GAO, and that process could take several decades. To get it right this time, we’ll need a long-term commitment that transcends politics and presidential administrations, a consistent funding stream, and a willingness to engage and listen to the public in decision-making.