Tuesday, February 7, 2012

BRC on America's Nuclear Future - Part Two

Blue Ribbon Commission report can be downloaded by going to Final Report January 2012 . . 


Spent fuel and HLW (high level waste) began back in the 1940's, first as a byproduct of our nation's nuclear weapon program and then as a byproduct of civilian (commercial) nuclear power industry.

From the 1940's to 1982 national security took precedent over all else and plutonium production for nuclear weaponry was emphasized. The management and disposal of these byproducts is long and complicated but what was know was that disposal of spent fuel and HLW could not be accomplished in the underground tanks that were being used for storage. In 1949 the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC)that "better means of isolating, concentrating, immobilizing, and controlling wastes will ultimately be required."

A 1957 report from the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) looked specifically at the issues of waste disposal and concluded that "radioactive waste can be disposed of safely in a variety of ways and at a large number of sites in the United States" and that geologic disposal in salt deposits represents "the most promising method of disposal." It was further concluded that the solidification of liquid waste for transport and disposal would be "advantages" and that transportation issues would need to be considered in the location of waste disposal facilities.

In the late 1950's the AEC began investigating mined geologic disposal options and potential salt bed repository sites. Early efforts included experiments with solids and liquids in salt mines and exploratory work on methods for solidifying liquid wastes.

The 1970's:

In June 1970 the AEC announced plans to investigate an abandoned salt mine in Lyons, Kansas as a potential demonstration site for HLW and LLW (low level waste) The AEC anticipated that acceptance of LLW could begin by 1974 and HLW could begin in 1975.

However by early 1971 state opposition to this plan was growing and in 1972 after several technical program the AEC announced it would seek an alternate site. During this same time period the AEC had been exploring an area of deep salt beds near Carlsbad, New Mexico as a potential site for HLW.

Disposal at the site, which became known as the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant or WIPP, subsequently was limited to defense-related TRU (transuranic) waste. In1979 Congress authorized WIPP to begin receiving waste but it took twenty years, until 1999, for the shipments to begin arriving.

The search for a suitable site for long-term geologic disposal of spent fuel and HLW continued throughout the 1970's. Sites being considered were bedded salt formations in Michigan, Texas and Utah; salt domes in Louisiana and Mississippi; basalt formations at Hanford; and welded volcanic tuff at Yucca Mountain in Nevada.

The Late 1970's produces a shift in policy changes: 

President Ford responding to weapons proliferation concerns issued a presidential directive in 1976 deferring commercial reprocessing and recycling of plutonium in the U.S. In 1977 President Carter extended this deferral indefinitely and directed the relevant federal agencies to focus on alternative fuel cycles and re-assess future spent fuel storage needs.

President Reagan reversed the Carter policy but for a variety of reasons, including cost, commercial reprocessing was never resumed.

A DOE-led Interagency Review Group in 1979 recommended that a number of potential repository sites for spent fuel and HLW be identified.

Nuclear Waste Policy Act (1982-PRESENT)

In 1982 Congress passed the Nuclear Waste Policy Act after four years of Congressional debate on the issue. The act provided for the selection of two repository sites, though these sites were not stipulation in the legislation itself, it was assumed one would be in the west and one in the east. To further ensure that the end result would not be a single, national repository, Congress included the explicit provision that would limit the first repository to 70,000 metric tons until a second repository was opened.

In May of 1986 Energy Secretary John Herrington recommended the Hanford site in Washington State, Deaf Smith County in Texas and Nevada's Yucca Mountain as leading candidates for the nation's first permanent high-level geologic waste repository.

In the same month, citing rising costs and lower projections for nuclear waste production in the future, Secretary Herrington announced the DOE was suspending efforts to identify and develop a second permanent geologic repository.

One short year later, 1987, Congress faced with a deteriorating political situation, amended and revised the NWPA by: halted the ongoing research in crystalline rock of the type found in the Midwest and along the Atlantic coast, cancelled the second repository program, nullified the selection of Oak Ridge, Tennessee as a potential MRS site, and designated Yucca Mountain as the sole site to be considered for a permanent geologic repository.

The decision was widely viewed as political and it provoked strong opposition in Nevada, where the 1987 legislation came to be known as the "Screw Nevada" bill.

Congress decided to try a slightly different approach under the 1987 amendment by offering states up to $20 million a year to host a repository and up to $10 million a year for hosting an MRS site, in the end it was taken even further where a United States Nuclear Waste Negotiator with a presidentially appointed head could negotiate with states and Indian tribes to host nuclear facilities under any "reasonable and appropriate terms."

This hope was short-lived with the closing of The Office of the Nuclear Waste Negotiator in 1995. The first appointed head was made by President George H. W. Bush, followed by a successor appointed by President Clinton. Neither were successful in reaching an agreement. The closest they came to securing a site was in 1992 when five Indian tribes and two communities gave notice of interest in being considered. In no case was a host state supportive of having the process go forward.

1998 Deadline comes and goes

A 1998 deadline that had been set by which the government would find a suitable site to accept commercial nuclear waste under NWPA passed and in 2002, four years past the deadline, Yucca Mountain remained the sole repository and in 2008 the DOE completed the world's first license application for a HLW repository.  The license application was submitted to the NRC in June 2008 and three months later the application was deemed suitable for review.

Within a year the new Obama Administration declared its intent to suspend further work on Yucca Mountain and later moved to withdraw the application for a construction license to the NRC.

Currently key decisions by the courts and the NRC are still pending and the future of the Yucca Mountain project remains uncertain.

Political versus Scientific Decisions

As the political game of how and where to handle long-term disposal of nuclear waste plays out, we continue each day to produce spent fuel and add to the waste pile that at some point in time will have to be addressed.

Under the amended Standard Contract, DOE is not required to accept spent fuel until 20 years after the expiration of the reactor's operating license and any extensions thereto. This I offer up is unacceptable.

In the nearer term, laws in several states have put a moratorium on new nuclear planed construction until certain waste management conditions have been met. States with some form of moratoria are California, Connecticut, Illinois, Kentucky, Maine, New Jersey, Oregon, West Virginia and Wisconsin. Recent years have seen efforts to repeal those laws in some states, although none have succeeded so far.

Source for the above information comes solely from the Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future: Report to the Secretary of Energy - January 2012

Upcoming Part Three will cover the need for geologic disposal.

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