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

Without disposal, campaigns for a “nuclear renaissance” as replacement for our globe-warming, fossil-fuel-consuming energy systems are just so many smoke rings.

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.

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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.”

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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.

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“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.

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Now I’m not so sure.