What should we do with the waste?

It’s time to declare that the default argument against nuclear energy has been proven invalid. We know how to effectively store and protect used nuclear fuel. We do it routinely. It is not unusually costly or a burden on future generations. They should be free to make their own decisions about how to make the best use of the valuable material assets that current nuclear energy production is creating and storing in distributed vaults on industrial sites around the country.

In August 2014, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission approved NUREG-2157, Generic Environmental Impact Statement for Continued Storage of Spent Nuclear Fuel. That action was the end result of several years worth of detailed analysis of the known and uncertain impacts of storing used nuclear fuel on the earth’s surface in licensed and monitored facilities.

As summarized in section 8 of the document, the staff determined that the environmental impact under expected conditions is small and acceptable even for an indefinite period of time. The analysis included consideration of a complete societal breakdown and loss of institutional control and determined that this situation would have an uncertain effect on the safety and security of used nuclear fuel, but determined that there is little likelihood that society will falter that much.

NUREG-2157 both eliminates the hold that was placed on issuing new or renewed nuclear facility licenses and it provides the technical basis supporting a decision to stop working on a geologic repository. Since storing used material on the surface is acceptably safe, environmentally sound, and cost-effective for the foreseeable future, it would be a waste of resources to attempt to develop a facility using today’s technology. It is likely that technology will improve in the future. It is inevitable that the material of interest will become easier to handle as the shorter-lived, more active components decay at a rate established by physical laws.

Aside: In recent years, many people have pointed to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) as an example of a successful deep underground repository sited with the kind of political process and community acceptance required for such a facility. I’d like to encourage people to take the time to find out more about the cost and schedule that was required to create that success and then learn about the fragility of access to that facility. One mistake shut it down for at least two years and interrupted processes at several shipping facilities. End Aside.

NRC Chairman Allison Macfarlane wrote the following perceptive statement in her comments about her vote on the rule:

In essence, the GEIS concludes that unavoidable adverse environmental impacts are “small” for the short-term, long-term, and indefinite time frames for storage of spent nuclear fuel. The proverbial “elephant in the room” is this: if the environmental impacts of storing waste indefinitely on the surface are essentially small, then is it necessary to have a deep geologic disposal option?

Almost exactly right! We should ask hard questions of those who maintain that “deep geologic disposal is necessary” because “a majority of the public industry, academia, and regulators” say it is. Here are some questions worth asking:

  • Why do you think a mined deep geologic repository is required?
  • What makes it so important?
  • Where is the recorded vote on which you base your claim that it is the majority opinion?
  • If there was a vote, when was that vote taken?
  • Have there been any changes in circumstances that challenge the validity of that determination?
  • Should options besides a mined deep geologic repository be reconsidered?
  • How much will it cost each year to simply defer action into the indeterminate future?
  • From an accounting perspective, aren’t costs that are deferred far into the future worth less, not more, if they are recalculated into today’s dollars?

Those who have read Macfarlane’s full comment should recognize that she is not only the source of the “elephant in the room” statement above, but she is also the source of the assertions that the United States must continue pursuing a mined geologic repository because we have a “long-established responsibility to site a repository for the permanent disposal of spent nuclear fuel,” and she wants to make sure that the NRC’s determination that continued surface storage represents a small environmental impact for the indefinite future does not enable “avoiding this necessary task.”

Last week, I had the opportunity to ask Chairman Macfarlane if she thought that the NRC had a role in deciding U.S. policy on long-term nuclear waste storage. She explained that the only role for the NRC would be to review the license application submitted for any specific facility. The responsibility for planning and developing that facility and obtaining the funds necessary would be under the purview of a different agency.

I asked what the NRC’s role should be if no organization submits an application for a facility. She admitted that its only role in that case would be to continue monitoring existing facilities and approving license renewals or new licenses.

Congress can, and should, make a determination that the plan for nuclear waste for the indefinite future is to continue safely storing used material. It should remove the responsibility for permanent disposal of nuclear waste from the Department of Energy and allow a competitive free market to devise solutions. Of course, all proposed solutions will remain under the watchful eye of the already established federal regulator using existing procedures and processes that are continually being refined. It should make use of existing products and services, continue improving those offerings and should consider the potential benefits of facility consolidation where it makes economic sense.

Macfarlane and I also agree about when we would begin to believe that the United States can site, license, build, and operate a mined deep geologic repository, as she said:

I will have confidence in the timing when a renewed national consensus emerges on a repository for spent nuclear fuel.

(Emphasis added.)

There is no reason to suspect that a sufficiently bulletproof consensus will ever exist. Recent history has proven that it takes just a handful of people elected or appointed into the right positions to derail even the best laid plans made with strong support throughout the rest of the country.

Though Macfarlane seems concerned about the potential impact if there is a “loss of institutional control,” the controls required to ensure continued safety and environmental protection from used nuclear fuel are simple and easily implemented. As long as we do not believe that future generations will forget how to read, we can be sure enough that they will remember how to keep used nuclear fuel safely isolated.

Many people in Chairman Macfarlane’s generation—which is also my generation—probably have been influenced by science fiction stories about a future dystopia. Those fictional predictions of the future might have made for good reading or viewing, but they are as useful a decision tool as any other wild fiction. Even if their fanciful societal breakdown becomes reality, used nuclear fuel will be low on the prioritized lists of risks.

Macfarlane has expressed some concerns about the financial responsibility associated with continued storage of used nuclear fuel. Establishing bonds or other forms of continued financial surety is a common business practice. Radioactive materials are not uniquely hazardous or even uniquely long-lived compared to other elements and compounds in common industrial service. We have learned to live with them. We have proven that we know how to protect the public from any harm. There is no reason to expect that society will forget the lessons it has already learned.

A simple financial solution would be to have nuclear plant owners establish a used fuel fund that would be as isolated from their normal finances as their decommissioning funds. The experience that we have with the current Nuclear Waste Fund shows that a small fee on each unit of nuclear electricity will grow into a very sizable fund if undisturbed over time.

We should stop raiding the capital accumulated by such a fee to pay for other continuing government expenses and we should not fritter it away by conducting geologic studies of the depths under any region that has the proven potential to produce politically powerful majority leaders. (Nearly every state in the union has that potential given the longevity of any proposed repository program.)

In the conclusion of her seven page comment, Macfarlane included the following statement:

Finally, I note that at least one commenter has suggested that development of a repository in the U.S. has developed into a Sisyphean task. I agree that much in the national management of spent fuel and development of a geologic repository over the past decades fits this analogy.

Once again, I agree with Macfarlane’s description of the current situation associated with attempting to site a federally owned and operated geologic repository in the United States.

Americans must remember that we are not subjects of Greek gods condemned to continue the frustratingly impossible task of pushing a rock uphill every day just to have it roll back down at the end of the day. We are free members of a society that has the ability to make choices and to change its mind to adapt to new situations or when new information is revealed. We don’t have to reach unanimous consensus in order to move forward. The cancellation of Yucca Mountain through actions of a tiny group of people shows that successfully siting a repository in the United States, with its multiple interest groups and arcane procedural rules, is not possible.

The good news is that we don’t need a repository in order to operate nuclear power plants safely and to store the created residues in a way that produces negligible environmental impacts. We don’t need a government program that can be milked for assets and jobs for decades before being derailed. We don’t need to have the federal government—which means us, as taxpayers—pay the costs of continued storage; the costs are predictable and can be paid with a small fee on each unit of power generation.

Making the choice to quit now and spend our limited resources on something more useful must not be judged as unfair to future generations. Used nuclear fuel is a valuable material resource, and we can create savings accounts now that can enable a different long-term solution in the distant future when there is more general agreement that constipating nuclear energy would be a suicidal course of action for society.

As technology improves, assets build up in the coffers of responsible parties, nuclear power plant sites continue to be developed, nuclear power plant sites occasionally become repurposed, and the demand for nuclear fuel changes, future societies can change their mind. They can even implement a variety of solutions to avoid the risk of single point failures. Nothing in the above plan precludes any choices for the future; the key action needed today is to stop digging the hole that currently seems to provide no possibility for escape.

Note: A version of this post first appeared on ANS Nuclear Cafe on September 16, 2014 as Surface storage of used nuclear fuel – safe, cost-effective, and flexible.

Continuing conversation with NRC Chairman Macfarlane

On September 11, 2014, the American Nuclear Society hosted a roundtable discussion for nuclear bloggers with Allison Macfarlane, the Chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The meeting was broadcast as a webinar, but there were also seats available in the conference room from which Dr. Macfarlane and Margaret Harding (the ANS moderator) were running the event.

As a full time writer who doesn’t live too far from Washington, DC, I decided it was worth the trip to attend in person. It is often far more interesting to be able to ask direct questions with the opportunity to follow up on the answer than to submit a written question that the person in power can evade or redirect.


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Though there were other good questions and topics discussed at the meeting, there was more opportunity than I expected to engage in what turned out to be a pretty decent conversation with Dr. Macfarlane. It wasn’t a conclusive conversation, but one that I hope leads to more thought and open discussion. In that light, I’m going to expand on some of the topics on which we touched. (ANS Nuclear Cafe posted a brief text summary of the meeting and a link to the audio recording of the webinar at ANS Webinar with NRC Chairman Allison Macfarlane)

Understanding basis for LNT as a way to move past ALARA principle

With perhaps too much preamble, I asked Chairman Macfarlane if the NRC would seriously consider a petition for rulemaking that suggested revising the ALARA (As Low As Reasonably Achievable) principle that is used to encourage all NRC licensees to invest an almost unlimited amount of resources into efforts to reduce radiation exposure. She told me that all petitions are reviewed and taken seriously, but that meeting was not the proper forum for providing more of the detailed information behind my question.

This blog post provides a better opportunity for that detailed discussion, especially for people who read some of the related posts listed at the bottom of the article.

The underlying basis for the ALARA principle is an almost unquestioning acceptance of the mantra that “there is no safe dose of radiation,” a philosophy that grows out of the 1956 National Academies of Science Biological Effects of Atomic Radiation (BEAR) committee’s adoption of the Linear-No-Threshold dose model. Less ideologically driven observers, including most nuclear professionals, phrase it as “all radiation includes some amount of risk” and then accept that the benefits often outweigh the risks.

Reality seems to indicate that there are doses that carry no risk; in fact, there seems to be a band of doses that might be more optimal than zero. In other words, for a range of doses, there appears to be a net benefit to living organisms.

The root cause that led the genetics subcommittee of the BEAR committee to adopt LNT was the theoretical model postulating that any ionizing radiation event that impacted cellular DNA carried a probability that the cell’s genetic material would be damaged. That model was, at one time, known as the “hit theory,” and it was based on a purely physics and mathematical construct with no understanding of biological processes that repair or react favorably to ionizing radiation. There was no hint in the “hit theory” of the chance that ionizing radiation might as readily stimulate beneficial responses as result in damage to molecular structures.

At the time that the hit theory formed the basis for proposing a zero threshold theory into radiation protection regulation, the only data available were from experiments on fruit flies. Effects were recorded by observing offspring and making qualitative assessments of the characteristics of that offspring. This method was fraught with potential experimental errors if not performed by highly experienced researchers using rigid protocols.

Despite the paucity of data and the leap in faith required to assume that humans would react to radiation in a similar way to short-lived fruit flies, the BEAR committee issued strong, definitive statements about radiation risk that overturned the long-established, threshold dose safety regime. A June 13, 1956 New York Times article illustrates the reaction that the genetics panel’s report stimulated.

From front page of June 13, 1956 New York Times. Right column headline.

From front page of June 13, 1956 New York Times. Right column headline.

Since that 1956 genetics committee made its assertions, there has been a revolution in biology and a vast improvement in our ability to sense DNA structures and to measure effects, both in vitro (cell cultures outside of living organisms) and in vivo (cells taken from living organisms). The hit theory ignores the biological response processes of apoptosis, necrosis, phagocytosis, cell differentiation-senescence, immune responses, or up-regulation of response mechanisms that can now be observed in the laboratory with the proper equipment. (Feinendegen et. al. 2012)

The most recently constituted National Academies of Science Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiation (BIER VII) published its final report in 2006 and identified a number of research activities that needed to be completed. In the intervening years, enough of those activities have been completed to suggest the need for a comprehensive review of the science. Many recently completed studies contradict the LNT hypothesis.

Those studies suggest that the LNT exaggerates the risk of doses below 100 mSv, completely misunderstands the cumulative effects of chronic low dose exposure, and causes incorrect computations of the impact of events in which large numbers of people are exposed to small doses. Doses in the repairable range do not add to the risk of a later dose; there are numerous studies that indicate a priming effect where an initial dose makes a living organism less susceptible to a later dose. A large resulting man-Sv number from a radioactive material release to a very large population of people is likely to have no health effects as long as all members of the population receive small doses.

If this truth is recognized by regulators, it would have a significantly positive effect on easing an exaggerated fear of radiation as something so uniquely dangerous that all possible efforts should be undertaken to avoid human exposures – even to the point of eliminating the only reliable, geographically independent source of carbon-free energy available. It would vastly reduce the potential cost of an event by reducing the need to evacuate people and reducing the terribly unfair consequences of being forced by the government to give up access to private property that has been contaminated to a non-harmful level.

Aside: Historical research indicates that there are also some suspicious circumstances associated with the way that the 1956 NAS-NRC BEAR genetics committee arrived at its conclusions in the first place, but I’ll share what I have found on that topic in a different post sometime soon. End Aside.

Continued Storage of Used Nuclear Fuel

As a safety and security regulator, the NRC has established that surface storage of used nuclear fuel in approved used fuel pools or dry casks is safe and secure for an indefinite period of time. I asked Chairman Macfarlane what role she thought the NRC should play in setting the country’s course in the future. She said that the NRC would review the license application for any facility that might be proposed. I interjected that it is possible that the country will decide that there is no need to build a facility at this time and there might not be any application submitted.

She acknowledged that possibility existed and then agreed that the NRC had no role in pushing any other kind of decision as long as the existing structures and systems were safe and secure.

I’m not sure if Chairman Macfarlane realized that statement slightly contradicted her comment on the continued storage rule, but I liked that answer. The NRC and its chairman have no role in pushing for a geologic repository; continued surface storage is well understood, well-regulated, and not prohibitively expensive. The Congress is free to revise the Nuclear Waste Policy Act to acknowledge the reality and to defer the expense of planning a facility into the distant future.

As any good budget analyst should know there is no sense paying someone today for a service you can procure more cheaply and more safely sometime in the distant future.

Research Reactor License Renewals

I asked Chairman Macfarlane why it takes so long to license or renew the licenses of research reactors. In the question, I acknowledged that renewals have come at times when the NRC is distracted by other priorities.

She did not think that NRC distraction was part of the cause; she stated that the process is often delayed by the need to ask a lot of questions when an application is not complete or not of the expected high standard of quality.

I followed up by pointing out the difference in resources available to an academic institution operating a research reactor compared to a commercial enterprise operating a power reactor and the vast difference in the safety implications of a large power reactor compared to an inherently safe academic reactor like a TRIGA.

Chairman Macfarlane responded that she thought “the public” would want the NRC to apply the same expectations to all and that it was not just safety that concerned the agency, but security as well.

To explain the issue further, the problem is that the NRC used the standard review plan developed for power reactors as the basis for reviewing research reactors. That standard review plan has numerous sections and statements that are not applicable to non-power producing research reactors, but using that plan requires a tremendous amount of effort on the part of both the submitter and the reviewer to determine exactly which parts are applicable and to, in some cases, justify the decision that the section is not applicable.

With regard to the ill defined quality of the application, the NRC needs to be more of a pass-fail grader of its licensees rather than one that tries to judge the quality and continuously improve performance as measured by the skill the organization has in producing a license application that meets the reviewer’s expectations. In academic terms, applications that have all of the required features should be given a passing C rather than being delayed by months to years in an effort to refine descriptions and provide the supporting documentation needed to achieve an A+.

That is especially true when there is no specifically defined standard for an A+ and the grade rides on the judgement and mood of individual regulators.

Mission of the NRC

Throughout the conversation, Dr. Macfarlane emphasized her opinion that the NRC has no role in promoting the nuclear industry or in seeking to make it easier and less costly to use radioactive materials. She stated that the role of the NRC is to protect the public from radiation and to ensure the security of radioactive materials. I told her I thought she was misunderstanding the NRC’s assigned mission and the direction given the organization by the duly passed laws governing its existence.

The NRC licenses and regulates the Nation’s civilian use of radioactive materials to protect public health and safety, promote the common defense and security, and protect the environment.

Here is the more complete statement made in the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 that declares the intent of Congress regarding the use of atomic energy and radioactive materials.

SECTION 1. DECLARATION. — Atomic energy is capable of application for peaceful as well as military purposes. It is therefore declared to be the policy of the United States that —

a. the development, use, and control of atomic energy shall be directed so as to make the maximum contribution to the general welfare, subject at all times to the paramount objective of making the maximum contribution to the common defense and security; and

b. the development, use, and control of atomic energy shall be directed so as to promote world peace, improve the general welfare, increase the standard of living, and strengthen free competition in private enterprise.

SECTION 2. FINDINGS. — The Congress of the United States hereby makes the following findings concerning the development, use, and control of atomic energy:

a. The development, utilization, and control of atomic energy for military and for all other purposes are vital to the common defense and security.

b. Repealed Aug 26, 1964.

c. The processing and utilization of source, byproduct, and special nuclear material affect interstate and foreign commerce and must be regulated in the national interest.

That declaration and those findings have never been altered. The duly elected government has continued to stand behind its 60-year old decision that using atomic energy is beneficial, but that it must be regulated to keep it safe and to ensure that it benefits the national interest, strengthens competition in free enterprise, increases the standard of living, and improves the general welfare.

We have decided as a people to use the beneficial characteristics of atomic energy and radioactive materials, but we need to use them in intelligent ways. We also need to take action to ensure that no entities dominate the technology or appropriate it for uses that benefit only a select few instead of for the common benefit under a free enterprise system.

The changes made in 1974 when the NRC was split from the Atomic Energy Commission did not tell the NRC to suddenly become agnostic about the use of atomic energy, those changes separated the “development” role from “control” role. The development role was given to the Energy Research and Development Agency and then to the Department of Energy, but the control role was still supposed to follow the declaration and the finding of the Atomic Energy Act indicating that atomic energy is a good and useful technology that should be enabled through the use of rules that keep it safe.

The NRC’s legally assigned mission is similar to the mission of the Food and Drug Administration — we all agree that humans need to eat food and sometimes need to take medicines, but we also realize that there are certain commercial incentives that might result in dangerous food or drugs being put into general commerce. The FDA role is to regulate food and drug safety to limit the potential negative impact on public health that could be caused by a completely unregulated food and drug marketplace.

There is no doubt that people who are fundamentally opposed to using atomic energy or who believe that nuclear energy can never be safe enough will disagree with my interpretation of the carefully composed rules. There is also no doubt that certain “tribes” within the US, including the Princeton/Harvard-based non-proliferation tribe that nurtured Dr. Macfarlane through her academic career, believes that the NRC must maintain an agnostic attitude about atomic energy.

It’s time to ask the Chairman and her fellow NRC Commissioners to reread the law and to recognize that the determination that the technology is useful and should provide maximum benefits was made a long time ago. The NRC does not have role in creating new technology or funding its development, but it has an assigned mission to enable atomic energy to provide “the maximum contribution to the general welfare.”

The NRC can enable the use of the technology to grow and provide ever greater quantities of clean energy, useful isotopes, and amazing imaging technology by making itself as efficient as possible in the act of ensuring safety. It should become the world’s leading expert in the health effects of low level radiation and actively teach the public how to deal responsibly with radiation to limit health risks. It should help the public understand that atomic energy can be used safely and that radiation is only a risk in the case of excessive doses.

Unreasonable costs and the schedule uncertainty that over-regulation or tight administrative controls on harmless amounts of radiation impose on its licensees has a detrimental effect on the competitive position of atomic energy compared to other technologies that do not carry the same burden.

Many of those technologies are less safe and subject us to greater risk of insecurity by depending on countries or entities that might not have the best interests of the United States at the top of their priority list.

Footnote:

Feinendegen L. E., Pollycove, M, and Neuman, R. D., Hormesis by Low Dose Radiation Effects: Low-Dose Cancer Risk Modeling Must Recognize Up-Regulation of Protection, Therapeutic Nuclear Medicine, Springer 2012 ISBN 978-3-540-36718-5

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