We Need a New Plan for Spent Nuclear Fuel

Barack Obama campaigned on a promise to end work on a high-level nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain, Nevada. Now, as president, he has followed through on that promise and directed the Department of Energy (DOE) to halt work on Yucca Mountain. This means that all of the spent nuclear fuel generated at each of the 60 different sites around the United States legally must remain onsite indefinitely. Because utilities have paid a tax to the government to take possession of spent nuclear fuel, this also means that the federal government has become legally liable for the costs of storing that spent fuel, either in a pool or in dry casks.

In an article written for Technology Review in December 2004, Matthew Wald argues that sometimes procrastination, especially when it applies to spent nuclear fuel, might be a good thing. The reason procrastination might benefit it has to do with the decay of radioactive isotopes in the spent fuel—the longer we wait, the less radioactivity and heat is emitted by the spent fuel, and the “tighter” you can fit it in an eventual repository. Time also could mean improvements in reactor design and fuel reprocessing. Future reactors might make far less waste, and future reprocessing systems might be more economically attractive than the approaches considered today.

But there is the issue of federal liability. Right now, even if it’s in a dry cask, spent fuel legally can’t be moved off of the reactor site. This is where Wald argues for a change in federal policy—essentially a revisiting of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982, which mandated Yucca Mountain as the only site that could be considered and the only federally-approved approach to spent nuclear fuel management. Wald argues that the federal government must take possession of spent nuclear fuel and should emplace it on a single site. This site would be little more than concrete slab on a secure facility with dry casks free-standing. They would quietly decay and their heat load would go down and down, making future reprocessing of the spent fuel even easier. A single site would be far easier to protect than scores of sites, some of which have now been completely decommissioned except for the spent fuel storage. But to do this would require political initiative and a willing site. The Skull Valley Band of the Goshute Indians in Utah attempted to do such a thing several years ago but was swiftly defeated by the Utah State Legislature. Perhaps another site would be more willing, especially if hosting dry casks of spent nuclear fuel meant economic advantage to the region.

What we’re doing now is not good for utilities or the government.

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