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Two nuclear-waste-disposal reports raise doubts this problem can be solved

monticello plant
Xcel Energy has paid more than $400 million into the federal Nuclear Waste Fund to cover the Monticello (pictured above) and Prairie Island nuclear plants.

Two enterprising views of America’s nuclear waste problem turned up in recent days, and may put to rest any lingering notions that solutions are near — or even likely.

And this matters — a lot — because without disposal, the accelerating campaigns for a “nuclear renaissance” as replacement for our globe-warming, fossil-fuel-consuming energy systems are just so many smoke rings.

To hear the new-nukes advocates talk about it, waste disposal is merely another technical problem and thus susceptible to technical solution. But reports from Politico.com on Saturday and the Los Angeles Times on Friday suggest precisely the opposite:

Even where technical solutions have been more or less agreed upon, political and other barriers have proved insurmountable and are showing no signs of erosion.

Also, that this is true not only in the electric power sector but also at a former nuclear-weapons facility, where the federal government is in charge of all parts of the process, and money presumably is no object.

Politico’s report is focused on the civilian side and the decades-long effort to create a national repository for spent fuel assemblies from the nation’s power plants, now stored in holding pools and dry casks across 38 states, including Minnesota.

Arguably, the Obama administration’s decision to abandon the Yucca Mountain site in Nevada means essentially no progress has been made toward creation of a national repository, because Yucca was not only the first choice of successive administrations but also, in practical terms, the only choice.

Ratepayers and taxpayers alike have financed this fruitless pursuit to the tune of $15 billion in direct project costs, but that’s only the beginning of what Politico terms “The $38 billion nuclear waste fiasco.”

Ratepayers pay; taxpayers, too

According to Department of Energy figures, an additional $23 billion will be returned to electric utilities that were forced to pay into the national Nuclear Waste Fund, which would provide operating funds for a repository. This money was collected from customers at a rate of one-tenth cent per kilowatt hour.

Since 1998, which the government set and then missed as the deadline for taking waste off their hands, utility after utility has brought legal action for damages — essentially, reimbursement of their outlays for extended onsite storage and waste management arising from this broken pledge. If that’s not bad enough:

  • The official $23 billion estimate could be low by more than half, according to “industry experts” who told Politico’s Darius Dixon that the real figure is more like $50 billion.
  • Damages paid to utilities don’t come out of the Nuclear Waste Fund but out of general Treasury revenues — meaning that taxpayers who happen to also be ratepayers of a utility with a nuclear plant are paying for these problems twice. Furthermore:

The costs of inaction don’t just include dollars. The lack of a final resting place for the waste means that each nuclear plant has to stockpile its own. Thousands of tons of waste are stranded at sites around the country, including at plants that have shut down.

“I’m trying to think of some fancy words, but at the end of the day it’s just a massive consumer rip-off,” said Greg White, a regulator on the Michigan Public Service Commission who also heads the nuclear waste panel for the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners. NARUC, which represents state-level regulators, won a legal victory this month when the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals ordered DOE to stop collecting the fee.

Salo Zelermyer, a former George W. Bush-era DOE attorney who works at the law firm Bracewell & Giuliani, said the waste program has “plainly broken down” and that the government had made “no discernible progress towards its commitments.”

Xcel’s payments and recoveries

Curious about how Xcel Energy and its customers fit into this picture, I called Mary Sandok, media relations manager. Her response:

Xcel Energy customers in the Upper Midwest, who are served by Prairie Island and Monticello nuclear generating plants, have paid more than $400 million into the federal Nuclear Waste Fund.

Regarding our settlement with the federal government: to date Xcel Energy has collected approximately $182 million under a settlement agreement reached in mid-2011 stemming from claims the company filed against the federal government due to its failure to begin removing used nuclear fuel from our nuclear plant sites by a 1998 deadline. These payments reflect reimbursement to Northern States Power Co. for costs associated with the storage of used nuclear fuel through 2012. The current settlement agreement is set to expire at the end of 2013, and we are in discussions with the government to extend it.

The settlement money has been returned directly to customers in our Upper Midwest service territory via bill credits, has been earmarked for future nuclear plant decommissioning costs and/or has been or is proposed to be used to help limit the impact of proposed rate increases.

Meanwhile, on the military side of the nuclear waste problem, the L.A. Times’s Ralph Vartabedian reports that solutions are still not in place for leaking underground storage tanks at the Hanford nuclear weapons complex in Washington State.

As a result, plutonium “and other material so toxic it could deliver a lethal dose of radiation to a nearby person in minutes” continues to move into soil and water.

Building a disposal ‘city’

And though DOE has confidently proclaimed its ability to take care of the nation’s worst single collection of nuclear waste, doubters abound. So do setbacks.

An industrial city has been under development here for 24 years, designed to transform the sludge into solid glass and prepare it for permanent burial.

But with $13 billion already spent, there are serious doubts that the highly complex technology will even work or that the current plan can clean up all the waste. Alarmed at warnings raised by outside experts and some of the project’s own engineers, Department of Energy officials last year ordered a halt to construction on the most important parts of the waste treatment plant.

“They are missing one important target after another,” said Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. “It feels like we are going around in circles.”

Over the last two years, technical problems on the project have multiplied. Concern has grown that explosive hydrogen gas could build up inside the treatment plant’s pipes and tanks. Clumps of plutonium could form inside the plant’s mixing tanks, some engineers now say, potentially causing a spontaneous nuclear reaction.

A federal oversight board found that employee safety concerns had been discounted, while the Energy Department’s inspector general reported an estimate that more than a third of the plant’s nuclear safety reviews — required on every pipe, valve and device — were never conducted.

Earlier this month, Vartabedian writes, the DOE notified state officials that it would be missing as many as 14 of 19 current deadlines in the cleanup and containment program, some of them court-imposed.

Meanwhile, a million gallons of radioactive sludge has leaked out of storage tanks; some of it has reached aquifers beneath the Hanford plateau; and the Columbia River, which lies just seven miles distant, might be reached by the drainage plumes in as little as 50 years.

Hurry-up decisions at Hanford

Unlike the Yucca Mountain, the problems at Hanford seem rooted not so much in gridlock as in haste — hurry-up decisions to take steps that later proved unsound, in some cases because they relied on untested technology.

Just the approach you want when the project’s goal is to erase the nation’s single worst nuclear waste dump.

Many Americans decided long ago to be, irreversibly, in favor of nuclear power or against. I have tried to hold it as an open question, one to be resolved by an honest cost/benefit analysis against alternatives, informed by progress on safety and security issues.

Frankly, I assumed — with many others — that the disposal problem would be solved simply because it had to be solved, whether the nation’s reactor fleet grows larger or not.

Now I’m not so sure.

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Comments (18)

  1. Submitted by rolf westgard on 12/03/2013 - 11:07 am.

    Yucca mountain closing all politics

    Reports from both GAO and DOE show that Yucca Mountain is a satisfactory storage facility. Its closing is political as Obama has bowed to pressure form Sen Reid and others. The more we block nuclear, the more we have emissions from coal burning, literally hundreds of millions of tons of CO2 and other pollutants.

  2. Submitted by Joe Musich on 12/03/2013 - 01:59 pm.

    what about the …

    Fault line yucca is over ?

  3. Submitted by David Frenkel on 12/03/2013 - 02:51 pm.

    Nuclear waste

    The US has dug itself a deep hole when it comes to nuclear waste. Hanford was mentioned but there a number of DOE sites like the Idaho National Lab that have significant amounts of buried radioactive material that are being slowly cleaned up. Most hospitals that have oncology departments have significant amounts of spent radiation typically in basements waiting to be safely disposed of some day.
    There are still the issues of safely transporting radioactive waste if that is even possible.
    Beyond the political issues at Yucca Flats there were legitimate concerns about earthquakes. There is no good solution for the legacy of the Manhattan Project which brought the world into the nuclear age.

  4. Submitted by rolf westgard on 12/03/2013 - 03:29 pm.

    nuclear waste site

    No seismic activity at Yucca site.

    Sandia National Laboratories was commissioned to study America’s geology for an alternate site. Sandia’s newly released report notes that granite’s properties as a chemically and physically stable rock, with low permeability, would “strongly inhibit” radiation from reaching the outside environment if waste canisters leaked. The National Academy of Sciences has also concluded that “geologic disposal remains the only scientifically and technically credible long-term solution available to meet safety needs”.
    Three of the twelve promising U.S. granite sites identified in the Sandia report are in northern Minnesota. The Minnesota sites are especially effective because of low water content and our lack of seismic activity. The other good site is in Vermont’s granite, but Vermont officials have already vetoed the idea, stating that “it should be placed in the middle of nowhere.”
    This is an attractive opportunity for MN, only limitation is irrational fear of radiation. Not be a problem at a new site.

    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 12/04/2013 - 10:12 am.

      Sandia?

      Yeah, too bad Sandia Labs aren’t geologists, they’re a nuclear weapons lab. I’m sure their “geology” study is very reliable…

  5. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 12/03/2013 - 04:01 pm.

    At some point, there *was* seismic activity at the Yucca Mountain site. It is, after all, a *mountain,* a geologic feature that’s virtually always accompanied by seismic activity.

    That said, if we abandon Yucca Mountain, what are the alternatives? I’d never heard Minnesota mentioned as a possibility until I read Rolf Westgard’s comment, so I’d like to find out more about that.

    Given that I’m not at all enthused about going back to kerosene lamps or candles, and that we don’t seem to have devised an alternative to electricity, the only real questions revolve around how that electricity is to be generated. Hydro power may well be the cleanest, though it has environmental issues, too. Clean or not, environmentally-friendly or not, however, Minnesota is not a name I’d expect to see on a list of top potential hydroelectric power states, even if we managed to dam up every North Shore river and run the water through turbines. St. Anthony and Minnehaha falls, collectively, will not take up the slack for a state of 5 million.

    Over the next generation or so, the realistic possibilities seem to boil down to: A) more of the same coal-fired power plants, with the environmental damage they create at both the front and back ends of the power generation process; or B) nuclear power plants, with potentially deadly, and potentially environmentally-disastrous, byproducts at the end of a fuel cycle.

    So, do we want our grandchildren to confine their light-dependent activities to daylight hours only, and our industrial production to hydro or horse-powered mechanisms? Do we want to poison them with air pollution from massive burning of coal, or water pollution from the massive strip-mining of that same fuel? Do we want them poisoned, perhaps more slowly, by excessive radiation? Do we want to commit them to spending huge sums for the storage of waste produced by nuclear-generated electricity long after we’ve passed from the scene?

    Frankly, none of those choices appeal to me, but “not to decide is to decide.” Letting things drift without policy decisions condemns us to a continuation of the status quo, one that increasing numbers of people find unsatisfactory.

    I’m not at all an enthusiast, but I reluctantly favor nuclear power. Storage problems may be political, and may seem intractable, but I don’t think people will put up with a return to the world before electricity, nor do I think people will quietly tolerate the visible poisoning of the environment and their family members by the production and consumption of coal as a fuel. Nuclear waste storage seems the lesser — not by a wide margin, but nonetheless the lesser — of two evils.

    And I’d like to find out more about the potential benefits and potential flaws in any plans to store nuclear waste under Minnesota.

  6. Submitted by Tom Anderson on 12/03/2013 - 06:38 pm.

    There will be a new President in three years.

    Since I don’t imagine that Yucca has been filled in yet, it is still an option.

    I know that there must be some reason why nuclear waste can’t be shipped into space towards the sun. That reason is?

    • Submitted by rolf westgard on 12/03/2013 - 09:07 pm.

      To the sun

      We have at least 60,000 tons of spent fuel. We wouldn’t want the bill for lifting that toward the sun.

      • Submitted by Tom Anderson on 12/04/2013 - 07:14 pm.

        Makes sense

        Since the alternative seems to be that we’ll all die if we don’t do something with it, perhaps the cost wouldn’t be so high. I’m just kidding. Thanks for the simple answer, I was afraid it would be something as obvious as that.

  7. Submitted by rolf westgard on 12/04/2013 - 03:48 am.

    Nuclear spent fuel in MN

    Ray writes, “I’d like to find out more about the potential benefits and potential flaws in any plans to store nuclear waste under Minnesota.”
    I have submitted an article on this subject to MinnPost. Let’s see if it gets published.
    Rolf

  8. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 12/04/2013 - 07:50 am.

    The self-closure creep feature of Yucca Mountain is unique to salt formations. The stability of boreholes, shafts and tunnels in granite is a problem, rather than a feature.

    The defunding of Yucca was inexcusible.

    However, it is ironic that the southwest’s rejection of the storage facility means that they have ensured that the carbon-based energy economy will accelerate the unlivability of their region.

  9. Submitted by Thomas Harlan on 12/04/2013 - 08:12 am.

    Spent fuel in MN

    The issue of the storage of spent fuel in Minnesota (other than that spent fuel generated by the two nuclear power plants in MN) has already been addressed by the Minnesota Legislature. Like Vermont, the answer is no: other spent fuel cannot be stored in the state. The spent fuel that is stored here is supposed to be here temporarily. That has not worked out so well.

    There is a public hearing tonight (12/4) in Minnetonka that is being sponsored by Nuclear Regulatory Commission. It is part of the NRC’s public hearing requirements for its Environmental Impact Statement that evaluates the continued storage of spent fuel in places other than a permanent depository. Here is the link:

    http://www.nrc.gov/waste/spent-fuel-storage/wcd/pub-involve.html#schedule.

  10. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 12/04/2013 - 10:25 am.

    Sandia and Yucca

    First, beware of Sandia Labs, they have a documented history of covering up dangerous faults in the nuclear triggers and weapons they designed for decades. I would definitely get a second, third, and fourth opinion on anything they’re associated with.

    Second, I’m pretty sure the idea with Yucca Mountain was to encase the waste in glass prior to storage there. They weren’t just going to haul everything down there and stick it in the mountain. Since the whole glassification operation has gone nowhere technically there’s nothing to store in Yucca Mountain yet, so the whether it’s “open” or not at this point is a moot.

    Finally, the nuclear industry itself cannot be trusted. For years they’ve been making false claims about waste and the cost of nuclear power. For instance most people don’t realize the main reason more nuclear power plants haven’t been built is that they are simply to expensive to build and operate compared to other power sources. The nuclear industry has been bragging for years that nuclear has “almost” reached cost parody with the most expensive (i.e. coal) type of energy. The problem with that claim is it doesn’t factor in the billions and billions of dollars associated with waste management. Once you factor that in nuclear is far and away the most expensive form of energy we have.

    The industry also has been claiming that the waste issue has been solved, which appears to be an outright lie. And they claim that their designs are sooooooo safe we no longer need to worry about accidents… yet they want congress to put caps on any liabilities they might face as a result of nuclear accidents in the future.

    We have better and safer alternatives. Yes they need to be developed and that will cost money but unless its going to cost more than $100 billion we’re ahead of the game compared to nuclear power.

  11. Submitted by Dan Endreson on 12/04/2013 - 10:32 am.

    MN on list for potential permanent waste sites

    It is true Minnesota was at one time on the list for possessing acceptable sites for a permanent nuclear waste repository. In 1986, the DOE conducted meetings throughout the state on these proposed sites. There were total of eight sites throughout Minnesota covering areas located in Benton, Clearwater, Marshall, Mille Lacs, Morrison, Nicollet, Norman, Polk, Sibley, Stearns, Stevens, and Renville counties. Communities living in these areas would not be the only ones impacted. Anyone living near major roadways and rail lines would have to live with the worry of nuclear waste moving past their front doors. And even if Yucca was still on the table, a 2008 DOE report states the US will need a second repository even if Yucca was operational. It seems like Minnesotans may become the stewards of over a half a century of radioactive waste.

    One other item on Yucca, the site also sits above the water table. Seems like a bad idea unless you like radioactive waste in your water.

    Maybe it would be better to focus on new modern technology rather than relying on old technology developed in the 1940’s to boil water in order to spin a turbine. A recent report showed that the increase in solar energy has been dramatic. There are about 2,400 solar installations in the pipeline that would generate 43,000 megawatts. That’s the equivalent of 43 big nuclear power plants. Enough electricity to keep the lights on in six million American homes. Seems like a better investment for us and future generations.

  12. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 12/04/2013 - 02:08 pm.

    I neglected to include them

    Solar and wind power certainly work for me environmentally, I’m not yet convinced that my bias in favor of the environmentally sustainable has yet been translated to the economically viable and consumer-reliable. If issues of storage and reliability can be genuinely solved, I’d be happy to abandon my tepid support for nuclear power and switch to a solar/wind combination.

    Humans have never done ANYTHING successfully for 500 years except reproduce, so the notion of us having to monitor nuclear waste for centuries to come (or water quality in the state’s northern tier of communities during and after sulfide mining being proposed) does not inspire any confidence in my household. Just from the standpoint of dealing with waste products and substances, I’d much prefer solar and/or wind power, but it has to be economically viable and at least as reliable as our current mostly-but-not-always reliable coal-powered grid.

  13. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 12/04/2013 - 02:40 pm.

    Viability

    I think the renewable power sources are viable, those technical problems are far easier to solve and less dangerous than any technical problem associated with nuclear power. For instance simply upgrading our energy grid would save billions of dollars and make transmission far more economical, once you bring wind, solar, geothermal, tide, etc. online you got the energy you just have to get it where it’s needed.

    The problem is that the current business models don’t work for renewable energy since by and large it’s dependent on traditional generating “plants” of any kind. It’s hard to see now Excel can charge for solar and wind etc. I think what we’ll end up looking at is a nationalized energy grid or some kind of nationwide public utility that can coordinate energy production and distribution on a more or less non-profit basis of some kind.

  14. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 12/04/2013 - 02:42 pm.

    Yucca yucca yucca

    Yeah, I forgot, Yucca is already inadequate for amount of nuclear waste we’ve created so we already know we need a second site anyways.

  15. Submitted by William Pappas on 12/17/2013 - 06:10 am.

    Nuclear fuel disposal

    Great picture featuring the presence of nuclear storage casks in the river flood plain: great planning. The public subsidy of nuclear plants is an unprecedented monster. Now we are paying power companies hundres of millions simply because we aren’t removing the stored waste fast enough. This is on top of the construction subsidy, the operating subsidy and the government insurance required since no private insurance company on earth can afford to insure a nuclear plant. Nuclear power is unsafe in any scenario. The storage debacle in the Mississippi Flood Plain near Redwing is a prime example. Even the city of Redwing gets in the act having to maintain emergency personel at a level large enough to respond to emergencies at the plant. They need money for that too. It is a never ending trough of public money that flows into the black hole of the Nuclear Power industry.

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