Thursday, December 15, 2005

Troubled by "Take Title"

I've mentioned in a previous post my interest and background working in used fuel management. So it was with rising concern that I read yesterday an article in the Las Vegas Sun about a bill that was expected to be introduced in Congress regarding the future of Yucca Mountain. Benjamin Grove reported

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid and Sen. John Ensign are expected today to unveil long-anticipated legislation that formally proposes their alternative to Yucca Mountain -- leaving waste at the nuclear power plants that produced it.
Now that the bill has been introduced, more information was released today in this article for the Las Vegas Review Journal. The "take-title" scenario would mean that the Department of Energy would take ownership of used nuclear fuel but would leave at the power plant sites rather than continue with the plan of moving it to a repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada.

I'm disappointed by this proposal.

First, as an engineer, I'm dismayed because it doesn't make sense. The consensus in the international scientific community is that the best option for high level waste is placement in a deep geologic repository. Yucca Mountain has undergone 20 years of exhaustive study to prove its suitability. And while I'm optimistic that the US will develop advanced recycling technologies that will optimize the fuel cycle and reduce the volume of high level waste, recyclying will not obviate the need for a repository. Therefore, there is no logical reason to delay opening Yucca Mountain and abdicate our responsibility to our children and grandchildren.

Second, I'm frustrated as a ratepayer and taxpayer. The 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act stipulated that nuclear operators pay into the Nuclear Waste Fund at a rate of $0.001 per kW-hr produced. In return, the federal government would use that money to begin removing fuel from the sites by 1998. Since the government has defaulted on that requirement, utilities are forced to pay for continued storage on site. Of course, that cost shows up in my electric bill as well.

In reality, we ratepayers are already paying twice. And now, according to this article in the Las Vegas Review Journal, money for this proposal would come from the Nuclear Waste Fund. So, not only would this proposal not meet the requirements of the law, it would mean that we will continue to pay twice for the foreseeable future.

The problem with solving the used fuel issue isn't technical and it isn't economics. It's purely political.

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13 comments:

Anonymous said...

As someone who has worked with fuel management issues, you should be ashamed for promulgating the bad science that we should *permanently* dispose of waste in Yucca Mt.

Monitored Retrievable Storage (MRS) is the solution for the next ~10-100 years. By that time, hopefully we as a society will have progressed enough to sanely use this "waste."

You are merely parroting the NEI and industry line (of which I work in)

Rod Adams said...

Lisa:

There are few people that are bigger fans of nuclear energy than I am, but I have to disagree with you and NEI with regard to storage of used nuclear fuel.

It seems to me that nearly every part of the by product stream has potential uses that can best be explored if the material remains somewhat accessible.

Spending tons of money and political capital to implement a program of moving the material seems like an enormous waste of money, especially since it would be hard to find any location in the United States that is more difficult (translate that as expensive) to reach from the average nuclear power plant.

The main example of this is the planned rail spur that will be the final leg to the mountain. 370 miles of winding track costing more than $1 BILLION and carrying no cargo other than used fuel casks. That makes a "bridge to nowhere" look like a good investment.

I read the news article about the Reid proposal; it is still not optimal in that it requires the DOE to take title and manage used fuel even though it remains at a utility owned site.

It seems to me that the operating utilities have proven that they know how to safely watch over the used fuel under the regulation of the NRC.

They should be allowed to retain their one mill per kilowatt hour. Whatever needs to be spent to remain in compliance should be spent, while the leftover amounts should go to shareholders and ratepayers.

Since it looks like the industry is going to do the smart thing with current sites and build new reactors there, setting aside a small amount of space for fuel storage will not be too difficult or impose much of a cost burden.

If a creative company comes along with a good plan for recycling the material, the utility should be allowed to negotiate the best possible deal that they can. Some might want to get rid of the obligation enough that they will pay for the removal, others will be able to obtain a better price for what is valuable material in the right hands. (Of course, this transaction will be regulated as is everything in the nuclear business.)

The government's best role is as an umpire and rule setter. The actual implementation work is best done by private industry with creative thinkers that have long term profit motives.

Lisa Stiles-Shell said...

Whoa! Call off the dogs!

First, I never said "permanently disposed" or called used fuel "waste" in my post. To my knowledge, all repository designs currently being considered worldwide allow for retrievability of fuel for many decades, if not centuries. And the current DOE plan utilizes aboveground "aging pads" for fuel storage so that the fuel placement can be optimized for heat load considerations. So if and when there is a technological breakthrough, the used fuel is available in centralized storage.

And as I *did* mention in my post, I am all in favor of developing recycling technologies to get the most energy out of the fuel as possible. Recycling technologies also have the benefit of significantly reducing the volume of high level waste.

However, it is my technical opinion that we will never completely eliminate highly toxic waste from the fuel cycle. Regardless of whether that is in the form of long-lived fission products or hazardous by-products of recycling, there will be *something* left that requires careful disposal. And a deep geologic repository is the best option for that.

And, lest someone twist my meaning, I'd like to say that I don't think this is a valid argument against nuclear power. As I mentioned in a previous post, use of solar panels generates hazardous waste that *never* decays. Similarly, coal, wind, natural gas, hydropower, all have their pros and cons, but none of these should be eliminated as options. It's a matter of deploying the appropriate technology for a particular area.

Kevin McCoy said...

Hey, Lisa, I'm with you. The nuclear industry needs a place to dispose of its relatively small volume of high-level waste. I can't think of another industry that is not allowed to dispose of its waste. Can you? Whether we dispose of waste more efficiently (fission products only) or less efficiently (entire fuel assemblies) is secondary.

The idea that DOE might take title to used fuel without moving from the reactor sites is actually not a new one. As I recall, DOE suggested it eight or nine years ago. Utilities did not like the idea, and it was dropped.

Maybe the Nevada senators are just eight or nine years behind the times, and 2013 or 2014 they will support the Yucca Mountain Project...

Rod Adams said...

Lisa:

I am sorry you think I was attacking; that was certainly not my intention.

My concern about Yucca is that it is a really, really expensive proposition. Drilling holes in mountains located dozens of miles away from anything is a waste of money.

As you point out, there are toxic materials produced in a number of different industries. Why should the nuclear industry have to build such an expensive and isolated storage area when no one else does? What harm or risk is there to people from perhaps turning the recycling refuse into glass logs and keeping them above ground while they decay?

If we recycle all of the material that can be used for fission, we have essentially recycled all of the material that lasts more than a few hundred years. Actually, the vast majority of fission products will have decayed away within the first 150 years - which is five half lives of the cesium. Only fission products with very low yields have a longer half life than that isotope.

Transportation to Nevada is hugely expensive - the only reason that the industry accepts the idea is they think that the bill is already paid. Us taxpayers, however, know that the checks have not even started to be written.

Elvis said...

Elvis...

I agree Yucca Mountain is a political issue as anything else that comes Mr. Reids way. I suggest Nuclear Waste Program as a National Policy not a politcal one. How about a referendum? We need to solve the problem now. Passing the buck to the next generation is procrastinating at their expense..Nobody knows what could happen in the next 100 years. I see optimism but what about the pessimistics sometimes they can be right.

Anonymous said...

Either Congress should return the $24 billion dollars it took from the nuclear utilities and allow the utilities to solve their own waste problem, or Congree should direct DOE (as contract) to go forward with a national geological repository. Senator Harry Reid is welching out on the deal and has NO intention of returning the $24 billion dollars.

Furthermore, the length of time that high level waste stays radioactive above that of coal ash can with the Carlo Rubbia Energy Amplifier be reduced from tens of millennia to a mere 500 years:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Energy_amplifier

This issue of waste disposal is technically resolvable. While I basically agree with Rod Adams in principle, obstructionism by the likes of Senator Harry Reid is completely unwarranted. The utilities have already paid and in typical fashion government screws up the deal because of politics.

Why not store spent fuel at Yucca Mountain with the $24 billion already paid to do so? It doesn't have to be there forever, contrary to the mis-information and propaganda from the Senate Minority Leader.

Regards,

PWP

Kelly L. Taylor said...

Here's what I don't like about it: it introduces another player into each of these localities. Suddenly each county with a nuclear power station, that they've known and worked with for years, now has a DOE facility in the neighborhood. Any concerns or hard feelings that develop through dealing with federal bureaucracy, and the utility and power station will get painted with that same brush - even if they have no control or authority over the root problem with the feds.

Going forward, anyone in favor of new nuclear power stations as beneficial to the air, water, wildlife and children of the area suddenly also must contend with the idea that building new nuclear sites means inviting new DOE sites. For some with long memories, that might make a coal station look like an attractive alternative.

I would much rather see a central storage location, just in the interest of pursuit of a central recycling facility.

Anonymous said...

By all means, let the industry pay for it's own disposal sites, manage it's own waste, and buy the insurance to cover all of these operations to boot. I'd love to see if you can do it at $.001/kWh, and how capital markets would respond knowing you are always on the hook for any little problems that crop up with your waste stream.

I'm sure that if you tell the investors all about the Carlo Rubbia Energy Amplifier (per an earlier post), all your problems will be solved...

Starvid from Sweden said...

No matter how much reprocessing or transmutation you do there will always be a need for some sort of deep repository.

I will have one 100 km from my home just outside Forsmark NPP.

People are not scared if they are educated and bribed and proud. How do you achieve this?

1) Educate people. Let them visit nuclear plants and repositories, bring the school kids, be very nice and helpful to the locals.

2) Make sure a certain amount of the waste fund is given as grants to the locals who live close to the repository. Local communities will compete to get it.

3) Rename the site from "Ultra Dangerous Waste Cave Where Poison Will Be stored For Ever And Ever" to "Strategic Breeder Fuel Reserve".

Anonymous said...

Nobody likes waste repositories, but no matter what is done (direct disposal, reprocessing, transmutation) some residual nuclear wastes from defense and civilian nuclear programs require long-term isolation. Deep geologic environments change extremely slowly, so by studying their past behavior we can predict their future behavior. The Draft EIS for Yucca Mountain identified 4200 acres with characteristics suitable for repository use. If this were sulfur or carbon dioxide emissions, we'd place a reasonable cap on the amount that we want, issue permits, and let industry figure out how to work inside that cap. A space cap of 4200 acres would very easily be enough to support government and industry in making the technological transition to a closed fuel cycle, which would actually need far less space in the future.

When we had the gold standard for currency, we kept the gold at Fort Knox rather than actually minting lots of gold coins. The same should apply to Yucca Mountain. We should license the repository, but there is no need to rush to send a lot of spent fuel there. Yucca Mountain's real role is to provide physical proof that government plans for managing spent fuel--hopefully by reprocessing and recycle to future fast-spectrum reactors--are backed by enough repository space to safety dispose of whatever residual wastes might remain.

Rod Adams said...

I can buy the argument that Yucca Mountain should be licensed to receive waste. It is certainly safe to send material there.

The cost of the facility, however, should be kept under control.

The $1 billion dollar specialized rail line, for example, would only be necessary if the facility has to receive 100 plus ton casks of used fuel; it would not be required if the material being buried is the residue of recycling activities, since the glass logs can be carried by truck.

I would also hope that the industry stops trying to tell people that there is something not safe about having material stored in a number of controlled locations. They might admit that they would prefer to contract the responsibility to someone else, but there is nothing unsafe about the way that we are currently handling used fuel.

For those people that wail and nash their teeth about the burden being left for future generations, think about this - we expect those future generations to feed themselves and do not spend much time figuring out how they will do that.

We should expect that they can handle the far less complex task of not eating, drinking or breathing the residue of nuclear power plant operations.

naivengineer said...

One of the contributors to this dialogue asked, "why not have a referendum?" on nuclear waste disposition.

Well, if you believe in representative government, we did have a referendum in 1982 when Congress passed the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, selecting geologic repository as the "solution." In 1987, whether everyone liked it or not, Congress also chose Yucca Mountain as the site for the repository. Then in 2002, the President proposed Yucca Mountain as "suitable" for the repository licensing process to begin, the Governor of Nevada "disapproved" that decision (as allowed for in the NWPA) and Congress overrode the governor's veto. Federal courts have upheld that process.