New start for US nuclear disposal

14 January 2013

America will begin again this year on a program to store its used reactor fuel and military wastes. This time the siting process will be based on attaining the consent of a host community.

A new waste disposal strategy was announced on 10 January by Stephen Chu, head of the Department of Energy (DoE). He underlined the importance of nuclear energy to the US power system which counts 104 operating nuclear reactors. Safe management and disposal of highly radioactive used reactor fuel as well as similar military wastes "must remain a national priority" in order to "ensure that nuclear power remains part of our diversified clean-energy portfolio," he said.

America's new strategy would see a 'pilot interim store' being in operation in 2021, with a focus on taking used nuclear fuel from current shut down power plant sites. By 2025 a larger 'full-scale interim store' would open, and by 2048 an underground disposal facility should be in place to permanently store and dispose of the material. The facilities could be co-located in any combination or sited separately - all depending on the expressed will of American people. There could even be more than one underground disposal site.

The schedule is meant to reduce the growth of the federal government's liabilities under the 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act, under which it was meant to begin taking used reactor fuel from power companies in 1998. As it is, some 68,000 tonnes of used reactor fuel reside at 72 different power plant sites across the country, with the DoE repeatedly reimbursing power companies for the cost of this. The two interim facilities will accept used reactor fuel at a rate faster than the 2000 tonnes per year being produced by the power industry in order to gradually draw down the backlog, said the DoE. "The sooner that legislation enables progress on implementing this strategy, the lower the ultimate cost will be to taxpayers," it said.

A new organisation is required to manage the siting, development and operation of the future waste stores, to be established with "an appropriate balance between independence... and the need for oversight by Congress and the executive branch," said the DoE. It may take the form of a federal government corporation or an independent government agency - two arrangements suggested by a RAND Corporation study. Above all, the body must have, "adequate authority and leadership to execute its mission," said DoE. This includes suitable access to the Nuclear Waste Fund, into which power companies have paid $28 billion since 1982.

Over the next ten years this organisation will search for suitable sites for these facilities by "encouraging communities to volunteer to be considered" as well as perhaps approaching some communities it believes may have suitable geology. The communities may do so "in expectation of the economic activity that would result from the siting, construction, and operation of such a facility."

This approach has been successful in both Sweden and Finland, where geologic disposal sites are now in the licensing stage. A similar approach has been taken in Canada and the UK for their high-level wastes, and in Australia for low-level wastes. In Texas, a low-level waste disposal site operates in Andrews County that was developed on the intiative of local leaders looking to diversify income streams.

One area of activity ruled out for the new body was anything to do with reactor fuel reprocessing and recycling. US policy is against this and can be expected to remain so for the practically foreseeable future, said the DoE.

Some initial areas of research will concern geologic disposal options: whether existing storage containers used at power plant sites could be directly disposed of in suitable geology; a review of backfilled engineered barrier systems; evaluating geologic media; establishing cooperative agreements with other countries already working on the same issues.

The new start comes three years after Chu worked with President Barack Obama to scrap the previous project - centred on Yucca Mountain - which went down a dead end after Congress mandated that site to the anger of leaders in the state of Nevada, notably state Senator Harry Reid. Chu and Obama used the intervening time to gather recommendations from a Blue Ribbon Commission, feeding these into the new strategy. It comes at a crucial time when the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission is reviewing its assessment of 'waste confidence', which currently prevents approval of new reactor projects absent a clear route for long-term management of wastes.

Researched and written
by World Nuclear News