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Used Fuel and Angry Yankees

Way Down East What to do, what to do? We’d be remiss to say that Yucca Mountain is completely, absolutely dead, because it really isn’t, but the decision to slow the pace on the used fuel repository has led to consequences that could easily have been foreseen:

Several legislatures of states with nuclear power plants are considering stopping or reducing payments to the federal government for nuclear waste management until the proposed Yucca Mountain, Nev., repository opens or another solution to the waste problem emerges.

We’ve mentioned before that the administration seems to have taken this cake out of the oven way too early, as the slow pace of Yucca Mountain at least forestalled this kind of action. Way down east, Mainers are moving even further with their demands:

Maine lawmakers passed a resolution yesterday asking the federal government to immediately reduce fees paid by electricity customers for managing spent nuclear fuel.


The resolution also urges the expedited establishment of two federally licensed interim storage facilities that would take possession of the waste and create an independent panel to assess the long-term prospects for handling military and civilian nuclear wastes.

We should note that the law requires the federal government to take the fuel. So if there is even a clue this won’t happen soon, trouble. Does industry think Maine is throwing a spanner into the works? Why, not at all:

"We were pleased to see this resolution adopted by the Maine Legislature. It clearly recognizes the important issues now facing the country in light of the situation with the Yucca Mountain repository," said John Keeley, an NEI spokesman.

Energy Secretary Chu needs to get that blue ribbon commission cracking. Without a solution, which may well remain Yucca Mountain – part of the commission’s brief will be to review the brown mound – the federal-state relationship will continue to deteriorate.

We don’t really think the administration is looking for a bus to throw the nuclear industry under, because there’s no plausible way to reach ambitious carbon emission reduction goals without nuclear energy. But we do think public policy has been badly warped – what Maine has done is being taken up, with variations, by Minnesota, Michigan and South Carolina, with no doubt many others to follow. It’s just what you don’t want to have happen.

Lillian Gish on the ice in Way Down East (1923), a D.W. Griffith film that, shall we say, owes a bit to Hardy’s Tess of The D’Urburvilles. It concerns a Maine girl betrayed by a rotter, taken in by a kind family, and eventually ejected onto the winter ice to meet her fate. Miss Gish had (I think) the longest starring career of any American movie actor, stretching from 1912 to 1987.


The Federal government needs to use the Nuclear Waste Fund to relocate all spent fuel from commercial nuclear reactors to-- temporary-- Federal repositories located within every State that is currently producing spent fuel.

Such Federally managed State repositories could easily store spent fuel in dry cask for over century giving the Federal government plenty of time to decide how spent fuel could be ultimately utilized.
Anonymous said…
The United States is blessed with a huge number of capabilities that could contribute to managing spent fuel.

There's deeply bedded salt around the current WIPP site, and a skilled workforce, that's ideal for permanent disposal of uneconomic residues.

There are multiple DOE sites that have long histories of working with nuclear materials (think for example of the Savannah River Site and Idaho National Laboratory) that are great places for interim management and processing of materials.

Yucca Mountain's pretty good too--in the end, Yucca still may come out on top--because being above the water table Yucca can be ventilated to remove heat and anything that goes into Yucca can be easily retrieved later if future generations decide they want it back.

And there is plenty of time to work to further improve fuel cycle technologies, because there are robust, well demonstrated technologies for storing spent fuel from today's reactors safely and securely.

All of the pieces that the U.S. needs to manage spent fuel are sitting around the country today waiting to be put together in the right way. We need the Blue Ribbon Commission to put together a plan to use these capabilities, and Congress to act on this plan.
Matthew66 said…
The "fee" is actually a tax. This is evident because to spend any of the money in the "trust fund" the Department of Energy needs to get an appropriation from Congress.

In my view, to make it a fee would require Congress to set up a government owned corporation that has a monopoly on used fuel management, kind of like British Nuclear Fuels Limited, or Japan Nuclear Fuels Limited. The fee would then be paid to the company, which would manage the used fuel for the government.

If anyone honestly thinks that Congress is going to let all those billions of dollars go, they're in cloud cuckoo land. They probably will set up USNFL, but they'll impose an additional fee, and keep the current tax.
Ioannes said…

Why can't NEI work with the Obama Administration on a different approach to spent fuel management than Yucca Mountain? You have criticized Senator John McCain for not being willing to work with the Democrat Administration. What's wrong with telling the federal government that the utilities will take charge of their own spent fuel and reprocess it and use it in fats burners to remove all the long lived actinides? Tell the government that the utilities want their 22 billion dollars back, and that the government needs to streamline the regulatory process to license innovative reactors like GE-Hitachi's PRISM. If Obama is serious about protecting the environment from green house gas emissions, and in finding a spent fuel solution, then this is it. Don't appoint any more Jackzo's to the NRC, streamline the regs, and let the industry be responsible for its own "wastes" (which are really a wonderful resource).

PS, I am pessimistic that Obama would ever go for this because I think he feels that he owes his anti-nuke left wingers too much. But maybe I am wrong - let's hope!
Anonymous said…
"Tell the government that the utilities want their 22 billion dollars back"

everyone keeps saying this is the utilities' money. the utilities charged the fee to the ratepayers, so if it were refunded, it should be returned to them.

"What's wrong with telling the federal government that the utilities will take charge of their own spent fuel and reprocess it and use it in fats burners to remove all the long lived actinides?"

Maybe that such a reactor has never been built and operated successfully?
Autarky said…
What concerns me is degree to which the nuclear industry is regulated and the powerful vested interests involved. To the independent observer the regulations seem to relate to the distant past.
We have seen what light touch regulation has done to the banking industry.
Spent nuclear fuel stored at power stations or in transit is a major hazard.
If one has any doubts as to what might happen I suggest a read of the recently published "Latent Hazard".
The downside risks and the potential costs of making good the hazards of nuclear power need to be weighed against the cost of stimulating research and development of renewables and carbon friendly energy.
Nuclear power and the banking industry have much in common - both look good when things are going well.
Anonymous said…
I hate hearing the term "streamline the regulations." The main thing that the NRC wants is a complete and well thought out design. "Streamlining" usually means starting construction with an incomplete and half-baked design and trying to fix it on the fly. This has not worked well in the past, and is unlikely to work well in the future. The NRC is doing the vendors a favor by forcing them to know what they are doing before they start spending money to pour concrete.
Anonymous said…
Spent nuclear fuel stored at power stations or in transit is a major hazard.

Really? If it's really a "major hazard", one would have expected some measurable detrimental effects by now. How many people have been killed by transport of nuclear fuel? How many have been killed or injured by fuel stored at plant sites? What is the incremental risk to a member of the public from these activities? How does that compare to other commonly-accepted risks in a modern society, things like automobile accidents, household chemicals, falls from ladders, natural gas explosions, airliner crashes, railroad accidents, or accidental electrocutions?
Autarky said…
Spent fuel a major hazard?

I agree. So far the safety record of nuclear plants has been good and long may it stay that way.
But is there a potential disaster of massive proportions waiting to happen?
In terms of nuclear power as an industrial process the risks are thankfully very very small but the question raised in "Latent Hazard" is - are the safety regulations fit for purpose given the resources of modern day terrorists?

I sincerely hope they are, but in the UK we have recently seen government funding for security of our key energy installations reduced. What message does this send out?
Anonymous said…
So-called "spent" nuclear fuel has been stored at plant sites for years and never harmed a single person. So-called "spent" nuclear fuel has also been transported for years, from one plant site to another with more on-site storage, and never harmed a single person. Based on that experience, for a so-called "major hazard", it sure seems pretty benign to me. Then again, I'm just one of those old-fashioned, logical, clear-thinking engineer types, and not up on the latest fear mongering hype. Guess that makes me pretty "square", but at least sensible.

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