Report pushes for American interim store

14 August 2012

Industry is ready and money could be available to set up an interim store for US used nuclear fuel according to a report by the Brattle Group which points out the advantages of dry storage and the costs of further political delay.

The USA is at a low point in its radioactive waste policy, with the shelving of a disposal scheme legislated since 1982 and no new program on the horizon. The government has failed in its self-imposed obligation to take ownership of the wastes from 1998 and store it underground at Yucca Mountain. As a result it is liable for the significant extra storage cost bourne by industry and has paid hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation so far. The government's liability continues to grow by $250-300 million each year. 

"The knowledge and technology to produce a safe and successful program at a reasonable cost already exist, without any uncertainties in areas that should pose a barrier to action."

Frank Graves
The Brattle Group

Much of this money has been spent on dry storage solutions where used fuel that has cooled sufficiently in ponds is placed in large, heavy concrete and steel capsules and placed outside on a concrete pad. With 63 such facilites across the country, power companies and engineers therefore have plenty of experience in this mode of storage.

This experience and capability represents a 'silver lining' to the US waste issue, said Brattle, which estimated that using dry storage technology for all America's used nuclear fuel to 2030 would require only 107 acres (43 hectares) of desert and cost just $757 million. That amount of money is roughly equivalent to the fees the nuclear industry still pays each year into a ringfenced fund for the former stalled project. 

Should the US government set up one or more large interim dry storage sites, it would benefit from a period of several decades while policy could be developed and implemented. Brattle proposed that a new facility, perhaps built alongside the WIPP store for military and research wastes in New Mexico, could accept 6000 tonnes of used fuel per year. Between 2020 and 2030 this could "effectively end unneccessary at-reactor storage costs, clear out fuel from all decommissioned sites, and reduce the density of fuel in wet pools." The latter represents a gain in safety inspired by the Fukushima accident which saw serious concern over the potential for storage pools to slowly evaporate after several days without power, said Brattle, although this had not been an issue at Fukushima Daiichi's larger shared pond.

One or more interim stores, at least for used fuel from decommissioned nuclear power plants were recommended by the Blue Ribbon Commission report, which was intigated by President Barack Obama after he declared Yucca Mountain was 'not an option'.

"Delaying a program much beyond 2020 would have adverse engineering and economic consequences in the USA," said one of the report's authors, Frank Graves. "The knowledge and technology to produce a safe and successful program at a reasonable cost already exist, without any uncertainties in areas that should pose a barrier to action."

Waste Confidence Decision

Before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) can issue licenses for companies to build, operate or extend the lifespans of nuclear reactors, it must have sufficient confidence that there is a long term management and disposal route for radioactive waste. In 2010 as a response to the shelving of the previous waste program the NRC amended its rules to allow the storage of nuclear fuel at a reactor site for up to 60 years after the plant's operation license expires.

However, this amended 'waste confidence decision' has been undermined by an 8 June decision by the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, which considered the NRC's approval of dry storage at multiple reactor sites in violation of the National Environmental Policy Act. The court also said the NRC had failed "to properly examine the future dangers and key consequences" of extended fuel storage at reactor sites.

The NRC has said it will seek to address the court's requirements and that it would continue to work on licenses - although it would not be able to issue final decisions that require waste confidence until the matter is resolved.

Researched and written
by World Nuclear News