Need to Know: Energy

A Nuclear Halfway House?

With a long-term solution for nuclear waste proving elusive, policymakers are looking at creating interim-storage facilities.

Coral Davenport
July 7, 2011, 12:45 p.m.

The na­tion’s nuc­le­ar waste is trapped between a rock and a hard place.

The long-fought plans to build a fed­er­al nuc­le­ar-waste dump be­neath Nevada’s Yucca Moun­tain have ground to a halt. More than 100 nuc­le­ar-power plants around the coun­try keep pil­ing up spent fuel rods on-site, a back­log of up to 50 years of ra­dio­act­ive waste. The sim­mer­ing un­ease over that situ­ation erup­ted when densely packed spent-fuel rods ig­nited a ra­dio­act­ive in­ferno at Ja­pan’s Fukushi­ma Daii­chi plant. Amer­ic­an nuc­le­ar-safety ad­voc­ates quickly poin­ted out that such rods are packed even more densely and dan­ger­ously at many U.S. plants, a situ­ation that will only in­tensi­fy with no place to per­man­ently de­pos­it the spent fuel.

Now, a White House-ap­poin­ted com­mis­sion, a bi­par­tis­an pair of sen­at­ors, and the nuc­le­ar-power in­dustry, along with some cash-strapped com­munit­ies, have re­vived the idea of haul­ing the na­tion’s nuc­le­ar waste away from power plants in pop­u­lated areas and stash­ing it in a “halfway house”””a gov­ern­ment-owned in­ter­im-stor­age space where the deadly spent fuel could sit for up to a cen­tury, await­ing a fi­nal des­tin­a­tion.

The idea has been around for dec­ades, but it’s nev­er got­ten off the ground, chiefly be­cause state of­fi­cials feared that any tem­por­ary nuc­le­ar-stor­age fa­cil­ity would in­ev­it­ably be­come a de facto per­man­ent re­pos­it­ory. The two types of sites are com­pletely dif­fer­ent. An in­ter­im fa­cil­ity would be a steel-and-con­crete build­ing that could keep the waste se­cure for many dec­ades. Only a deep geo­lo­gic un­der­ground form­a­tion, however, can safe­guard the waste for the mil­lions of years it will take be­fore its ra­dio­act­ive pois­on dis­sip­ates. States have feared that if they agree to host a nuc­le­ar-waste-in­ter­im stor­age site, they will saddle their next gen­er­a­tions with the night­mare of host­ing all of the na­tion’s nuc­le­ar waste””without a fi­nal solu­tion in sight.

But now, the dim pro­spects for Yucca Moun­tain, the in­creased con­cern about stor­ing the waste at power plants, and the rising cost to the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment of keep­ing it there, have some ex­perts say­ing that a new fed­er­al in­ter­im site may be the only, if not the best, op­tion.

The Yucca Moun­tain pro­ject has been plagued by delays and protests ever since a 1987 law (known in Yucca’s home state as the “Screw Nevada” Act) des­ig­nated the site as the fi­nal rest­ing place for the na­tion’s ra­dio­act­ive waste. Soon after tak­ing of­fice, Pres­id­ent Obama de­clared that stor­ing nuc­le­ar waste at Yucca Moun­tain was “not an op­tion” and slashed fed­er­al fund­ing for the pro­gram. Re­pub­lic­ans have slammed the move as polit­ic­al kow­tow­ing to Nevada law­makers, par­tic­u­larly Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id””but for now, they have no way to re­sur­rect the pro­ject.

The ad­min­is­tra­tion last year con­vened a blue-rib­bon com­mis­sion of ex­perts to find an­oth­er solu­tion. In May, a study sponsored by the pan­el con­cluded that in­ter­im stor­age “is an old idea worthy of fresh con­sid­er­a­tion.”

That re­com­mend­a­tion got a boost on Ju­ly 1, when Sens. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, rank­ing mem­ber on the En­ergy and Nat­ur­al Re­sources Com­mit­tee, and Mary Landrieu, D-La., in­tro­duced a bill that would pay no more than two loc­al en­tit­ies””towns, cit­ies, or counties””up to $25 mil­lion a year to store the waste, with an­oth­er $25 mil­lion paid an­nu­ally in­to the cof­fers of the host state.

Their pro­pos­al could ap­peal to many states that once would have re­jec­ted such an idea but are now suf­fer­ing pain­ful budget short­falls. It also holds ap­peal for the spend­ing hawks who are driv­ing the fed­er­al budget de­bate. That’s be­cause, by law, the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment should have taken leg­al title to all of the na­tion’s nuc­le­ar waste in 1998””pre­sum­ably at Yucca Moun­tain. For each year that private com­pan­ies hold the waste on-site, they sue the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment. To date, Wash­ing­ton has paid $1.2 bil­lion to settle the law­suits, but giv­en the freeze at the Yucca Moun­tain site, some util­it­ies es­tim­ate that the gov­ern­ment’s ul­ti­mate cost could rise as high as $50 bil­lion to $100 bil­lion in the com­ing dec­ades.

The in­ter­im-stor­age idea is already mov­ing off the draw­ing board. Near Carls­bad, N.M., the eco­nom­ic-de­vel­op­ment coun­cils of Lea and Eddy counties are talk­ing to sev­er­al com­pan­ies about the pro­spect of build­ing the na­tion’s first nuc­le­ar-waste stop­over site in the desert. Carls­bad already has ex­per­i­ence host­ing nuc­le­ar waste: Eddy County is home to the En­ergy De­part­ment’s Waste Isol­a­tion Pi­lot Plant, an un­der­ground salt form­a­tion where the gov­ern­ment has been bury­ing waste from nuc­le­ar weapons since 1999.

John Heaton, the en­ergy co­ordin­at­or for the city of Carls­bad, says that the site has brought south­east­ern New Mex­ico jobs and eco­nom­ic op­por­tun­it­ies””and that people are ready for more.

“We have be­gun to de­vel­op what we think of as a nuc­le­ar cor­ridor. We think there are eco­nom­ic-de­vel­op­ment pro­spects that “¦ cre­ate a fu­ture. From an in­ter­im-stor­age fa­cil­ity, we could get in­to [nuc­le­ar-waste] re­cyc­ling, and there are a num­ber of pro­spect­ive in­dus­tries that could grow from that,” Heaton told Na­tion­al Journ­al.

New Mex­ico Gov. Susana Mar­tinez has ex­pressed cau­tious sup­port””al­though all sides con­cede that any move to bring nuc­le­ar waste to the state will en­counter polit­ic­al push­back. Also likely to fight a deal: all of the states through which the waste would have to travel by train to reach this or any oth­er in­ter­im site.

“There are huge polit­ic­al prob­lems with sit­ing an in­ter­im fa­cil­ity,” con­cedes eco­nom­ist Cliff Hamal, chief au­thor of the study sponsored by the fed­er­al pan­el. “But the Fukushi­ma ac­ci­dent, the blue-rib­bon com­mis­sion, the tre­mend­ous amount of fo­cus on spent fuel, the pro­spects for jobs, and oth­er in­cent­ives””these factors add up strongly in fa­vor of in­ter­im stor­age. Those are mov­ing this for­ward.”

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