(Reprint. Originally published September 17, 2013. During the 4.5 years since the original appeared, the licensing moratorium mentioned has been lifted, and the confidence rule has been replaced by Continued Storage of Spent Nuclear Fuel [NRC–2012–0246] but stubborn opposition arises in response to any proposed solutions.)
During the 1970s, the antinuclear movement made a collective decision to use “the waste issue” as a weapon to help force the eventual shutdown of the industry. Though the strategy has not succeeded in forcing any plants in the US to shut down, it has prevented a number of plants from being built. Ralph Nader, one of the most visible organizers of the movement, often referred to the waste issue as the Achilles heel of the nuclear industry. He described his movement’s strategy for taking advantage of the perceived weakness in some detail during a 1997 interview as part of a PBS Frontline show titled Nuclear Reactions. The issue continues to be used to slow nuclear energy development.
One of the repercussions of the illegal actions of the Secretary of Energy and the Chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to halt the licensing process for the Yucca Mountain waste repository was to cause a court to declare that it no longer had any confidence in the NRC’s Waste Confidence Rule. That court logically declared that the generic determination on the environmental impacts of used nuclear fuel storage depended on the notion that eventually a permanent repository would be available.
Aside: For more background on the Waste Confidence debacle, please see two excellent guest posts by Paul Dickman Waste Confidence: A Classic Case of Failed Leadership (Part 1 of 2) and Waste Confidence – A Classic Case of Failed Leadership (Part 2 of 2) End Aside.
When the Yucca Mountain license application review was forcibly halted, the only remaining action being taken by the federal government to take responsibility for used nuclear fuel was a “Blue Ribbon Commission” that was starting the whole process from scratch. When the court made its determination of no confidence in Waste Confidence, the country’s nuclear waste situation had been reset to the same position as the one established in 1977.
That was the year when Jimmy Carter put the used fuel recycling industry out of business and declared that the US would try to convince the world to forgo recycling by setting an example in the United States. The only real difference was that the inventory had increased in size by 1,000 to 2,000 tons per year for 35 years.
After the court made its determination, the NRC placed a moratorium on the issuance of both new reactor operating licenses and license extension decisions. It has diverted substantial resources into an effort to draft a new generic environmental impact statement. That draft is now complete — after about a year’s worth of effort by an unknown number of regulators — and the Commission has announced a resource-intensive series of hearings around the country along with a public comment period that is scheduled to run until November 27, 2013. Under the currently promised schedule, the draft will be ready for final approval in about a year.
In a discussion about this frustrating situation and its impact on the development of nuclear energy — due to the uncertainty it adds to the investment decision process — Jerry Cuttler provided the following perceptive comment.
This has always been the antinuclear strategy to phase out nuclear energy, which is:
1. Define (slightly) used nuclear fuel to be “nuclear waste.” (If you do not intend, or are prevented, to recycle once-through nuclear fuel, then it is waste.)
2. Create a the idea that managing used nuclear fuel is an enormous “problem” or burden for future generations of humanity, instead of this fuel being an enormous resource of energy for them.
3. The reasons given by the antinuclear movement for the “problem” are:
a) Used fuel is radioactive forever, and any dose of (human-made) radiation leads to a risk of cancer in exposed people and harmful genetic mutations in unborn children (LNT model of radiation-induced mutations).
b) Used NPP fuel contains plutonium, which could be extracted and made into nuclear weapons (discounting the easier route of separating U-235 from natural uranium or the use chemical or biological weapons).
4. Advocate that no new nuclear power plants be built (or no plant life extension) until we “solve the problem of nuclear waste.” Technical acceptability is not sufficient; we must “demonstrate social acceptance” of any proposed solution to the “problem.”
5. Intervene and oppose all plans or projects that would isolate (human-made) radioactivity or used fuel. Use the LNT model to calculate health risks to nearby residents from minute amounts (becquerels) of radioactivity that could reach underground drinking water or the surface by any hypothetical means. Create social concerns and social opposition to any transport or disposal of radioactivity or used fuel anywhere.
The world nuclear societies must recognize that this antinuclear strategy is a political problem, and there are no technical solutions to this political problem.
Nuclear societies have to change the rules of this game to regain social acceptance, or witness the phase-out of nuclear energy due to fear of attributed adverse health effects.
The key step to solve this political problem is for the nuclear societies to denounce the invalid LNT concept/model that predicts adverse health effects from low radiation. We have the biological and historical evidence to do this. The ICRP must be persuaded to revert to its 1934 standard that was based on the tolerance dose concept.
My take on the issue includes a emphasizing a slightly different aspect of the situation. I believe that the industry bears much of the blame because it keeps insisting that power plant owners signed a contract with the government to take charge of the used fuel material. The industry regularly criticizes the government for failing to abide by its contracted obligations.
In my opinion, a far more successful strategy for nuclear plant operators would be to reverse course and declare the used material to be valuable private property. Nuclear plant owners should tell the government that they no longer desire any assistance to remove the material. They should inform the government that they want to recycle the material to recover its valuable components. They should stop telling the pubic that they want government assistance in handling a potentially dangerous material; instead they should tell the public that the material is a valuable energy source that also contains additional materials with other useful properties.
The beauty of that reversal is that every statement is true. Making them will alter the conversation and remove the blockage caused by the current misunderstanding about the enormous stored value contained in slightly used nuclear fuel. It is not a burden for future generations; it is a rich resource legacy.
Energy Collective (April 5, 2011) by David Lewis – Dysfunctional Anti Nuke Waste Strategy Increases Nuclear Risk
(HT to Atomikrabbit)
PBS Frontline – Nuclear Reaction (1997) Interview of Ralph Nader : “A consumer advocate and founder of Public Citizen, a consumer rights advocacy group in Washington”