There is a current sense of urgency that “something” must be done about spent nuclear fuel. The Nuclear Energy Institute, which represents the interests of the nuclear utilities and the nuclear plant vendors, has placed the issue of the front page of its bimonthly newsletter no fewer than six times in the past year.
On one level the NEI’s position is terribly short sighted. By making nuclear waste into an issue requiring immediate and expensive action by the federal government, the NEI has helped the anti-nuclear movement make its case that the nuclear industry should be phased out.
In the current political climate it is difficult for a group of large companies to win supporters by arguing that the federal government should continue spending large sums of money to solve a problem that has little impact or natural visibility outside the industry.
Recently, a legislative attempt was made to codify the notion that a revival in nuclear construction should be prohibited until such time as the repository is licensed, constructed and in operation. That requirement could kill any opportunity for a revival nuclear construction to sometime in the very distant future. Fortunately the bill was not passed.
The NEI’s predictions of early reactor plant closures caused by a lack of space in spent fuel pools has strengthened the resolve of the anti-nuclear movement. Like an aggressive dog that has treed its prey, the movement senses that they have found an issue that will help them meet their ultimate goal. In addition, the petroleum and coal industry trade press is buzzing about the coming market opportunity for increased sales and pricing flexibility (aka price hikes) as nuclear plants shutdown, altering the energy supply and demand balance in their favor.
Not in My Budget!
On another level, the nuclear industry’s push to get moving on Yucca Mountain is quite rational. It is based on ensuring that utilities do not get stuck with paying three times for waste storage. They have been storing waste on site for many years, much longer than they anticipated at the time that their plants and storage facilities were planned.
Most nuclear utilities have made some modifications to their facilities in order to provide sufficient room to handle the spent fuel that they have already produced. For many, these modifications were limited to “reracking” their spent fuel pool to move fuel assemblies closer together. This process costs several million dollars and can sometimes provide a quadrupling of capacity in the pool.
Other plant owners have added dry storage container capacity to their site in order to extend their on site storage capabilities. This option has been granted a generic license approval by the NRC as long as certified containers are used. Though some utilities have built their dry storage facilities with few complaints from outsiders, others have endured time consuming legal battles to obtain required permission from their state regulators.
In some states, the acceptability of dry storage has been conditioned on making payments to interest groups that support investments in renewable energy programs or to Native American groups who claim a negative impact on near-by tribal lands.
Though dry storage facilities can be completed for a reasonably low cost compared to replacing nuclear generation with fossil fuels, the utilities have a point. They have paid an outsider to take custody of their waste; they do not want to be required to make multi-million dollar investments in temporary on site storage capacity while they wait for their chosen contractor to meet its obligations. Their point of view can be easily understood by imagining the impact of a government refusing to conduct trash pickup despite its unwillingness to allow a commercial contractor into the business.
The fact that the government’s plan for disposal is unworkable and extremely expensive does not seem to matter. Money that is spent by the federal government is not especially important to the utility decision makers as long as it does not come out of their budget. For some members of the NEI, unnecessary government spending has paid their bills for many years. They are actually anxious for the infrastructure and container supply contracts to be awarded.
If nuclear utilities were committed to continuing their nuclear programs, storing used nuclear fuel would simply be a continuing cost of doing business. Accepting delays in the shipping of used nuclear fuel would be easier if a crew was already employed locally to build and operate new plants.
However, none of the nuclear utilities have firm plans for a second generation of nuclear plants on existing sites, even though nuclear stations represent a huge investment in transmission lines, transformers, cooling systems and, most importantly, a trained group of talented workers. All existing sites have plenty of land available.
Almost without exception, nuclear stations have a supportive local population that would be very happy to know that their plant would continue to be a generator of jobs, electricity, and taxes. Unfortunately, there is nothing but uncertainty regarding the type of facilities that will be built to replace the capacity of the existing nukes when they reach the end of their operating lives. Since nuclear plants were built without regard to high capacity fuel transportation networks, there is even some uncertainty as to whether or not the site could be used for electrical generation without nuclear energy. Fossil fuel plants require massive deliveries of fuel on a continuous basis.
Without a continuing commitment to nuclear energy production, storing spent fuel can be an endless expense item with no associated revenue. Monitoring and maintaining a used fuel storage site can cost several million dollars per year in salaries and fees for security, licensing and maintenance even if the employees are not very busy. The option of continuing business as usual is not appealing if the assumption is made that the nuclear power enterprise is over except for the clean-up. That assumption, however, is not necessarily accurate or optimal.