Nuclear waste storage projects receive bipartisan boost
Twenty years ago, the federal government missed a $6 billion deadline.
That's when the Department of Energy was required to start accepting spent nuclear fuel at a national storage site at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. Instead, spent fuel remains at more than 100 sites across the U.S., including operating plants like Millstone Power Station in Waterford and shuttered facilities like Connecticut Yankee in Haddam.
Failing to meet the 1998 deadline mandated in the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 has forced the government to shell out $6 billion in settlements and court judgments to cover nuclear power companies' storage costs through 2016, the Congressional Research Service said last October.
Some lawmakers, like Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, say a bill that received bipartisan backing in the House of Representatives on Thursday is the best chance to break a decades-long political and legal logjam while relieving communities of the need to host radioactive material.
"This is really a significant moment in terms of all the mounting frustration that is all over the country," Courtney said in an interview. "This waste issue has been completely stuck in neutral."
Others, like Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., say the bill is "going nowhere in the Senate" and the government has nothing to show for its efforts but "a big hole in the ground."
Courtney credited Reps. John Shimkus, R-Ill., and Doris Matsui, D-Calif., for the Nuclear Waste Policy Amendments Act, which passed the House Thursday in a 340-72 vote. The bill revives the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's licensing process for Yucca Mountain and authorizes privately owned interim storage proposals to move forward until a permanent repository is licensed.
An interim storage site proposed by Holtec in New Mexico remains under NRC review. Later this quarter, Waste Control Specialists plans to ask the NRC to resume reviewing a proposal to build and operate an interim repository in west Texas, NRC spokesman Neil Sheehan said.
Yucca Mountain 'going to take quite awhile'
The Nuclear Energy Institute, a trade group in Washington, D.C., applauded the House bill's passing, with president and CEO Maria Korsnick calling it "overdue progress towards solving a longstanding issue."
Matt Wald of the NEI said, "It'd be nice to get (spent nuclear fuel) taken care of at Millstone, and babysitting it at Haddam Neck at Connecticut Yankee is just silly" compared to storing it at an interim or permanent site.
Bob Capstick, Connecticut Yankee's director of government, regulatory and public affairs, said the interim storage proposals in New Mexico and Texas prioritize accepting spent fuel from closed facilities.
"The legislation they passed is a strong step in the right direction," Capstick said Friday, noting "Yucca Mountain is going to take quite awhile. In the meantime, the NRC estimates it can get through licensing for interim site approvals in a two- or three-year period."
Connecticut Yankee operated for 28 years, closing in 1996 and completing decommissioning in 2007. The state in 2007 said Connecticut Yankee completed remediation of non-radioactive contaminants, and by 2013 the company demonstrated no contaminants were in groundwater.
Connecticut Yankee has kept its 1,019 spent fuel assemblies in 40 dry cask storage containers since 2005. Three additional casks contain sections of reactor vessel internals classified as high-level radioactive waste.
The site is staffed 24/7 by a handful of employees overseen by a manager. Capstick said he couldn't discuss details of the on-site security team. He said while the security and emergency planning profiles were different than an active facility where accidents could lead to a radioactive release, stringent standards still must be met, including enhanced security orders issued after 9/11.
Once the dry cask storage is removed to a potential interim site, Connecticut Yankee will decommission and deconstruct the spent fuel storage installation where the containers rest. The NRC license will terminate and the company will go out of business.
Capstick said the company hadn't decided upon future uses of the property. In 2013, Connecticut Yankee transferred about 38 acres of its land along the Salmon River to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Connecticut Yankee has won almost $200 million in lawsuits covering expenses to keep spent fuel safe and secure. But Capstick said the company doesn't benefit from the awards, which are partly dispersed back to ratepayers after proceedings with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and agreements with state utility regulators and Maine Yankee and Yankee Rowe. Maine Yankee and Yankee Rowe also shut down more than 20 years ago. All three sites are owned by consortiums of New England utilities.
At Millstone, all the spent fuel that's been used to create electricity remains on site, either in cooling pools or 31 dry cask storage containers, Millstone spokesman Ken Holt said. The canisters hold 32 fuel assemblies each and rest on a concrete pad big enough to accommodate 135 total canisters.
Millstone spent $11 million to expand its storage capacity in 2013 and, like other companies, it has successfully sued the government for years to cover expenses.
The NRC notes the settlements and judgments are paid from the U.S. Treasury Judgment Fund, a permanent account covering damage claims against the government. The NRC said the fund doesn't require appropriations, so it doesn't hit taxpayers directly, but it still digs into the country's deficit.
Tougher sell in Senate
Some have dubbed the legislation "Screw Nevada 2.0," referencing the way many Nevadans and lawmakers, like former Democratic Sen. Harry Reid, described Congress' 1987 selection of Yucca Mountain as a permanent repository.
"My colleagues don't want this dangerous waste in their back yards, but it's funny they didn't mind the jobs, the tax revenue, the cheap power and political support they got from the nuclear power industry," said Titus, a Nevada Democrat. "Now they just want someone else to clean up their mess."
Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., up for re-election, calls Yucca Mountain a national security risk, a waste of taxpayer dollars and a drain on tourism.
Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., has voted in favor of Yucca Mountain, but also has pushed for "consent-based siting" letting lawmakers "work with willing towns and states that want to store the waste," unlike Nevada.
Titus on Thursday proposed an amendment paving the way for consent-based siting and scrapping the Yucca Mountain project. It failed 332-80.
Emily Lewis of the Acadia Center, which promotes clean energy, said Friday a "consensus-based process" was favorable, because "we need a central repository for that waste, but it seems like that community does not want that storage."
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said in a statement that while Yucca Mountain remains controversial, a 2015 NRC report concluded the site was acceptable for storage. He said "it is critical that our nation determine a long-term plan to manage nuclear waste."
Courtney said the bill "leaves the door open" to final storage solutions other than Yucca Mountain, which must undergo a rigorous review process and faces challenges in court.
For those concerned about transporting spent fuel, he added, "It's not like this is some new undertaking. The most familiar example for Connecticut is the nuclear Navy operating here since the 1950s. It deserves tremendous planning and logistics, but we can point to a strong precedent."
If the bill lands on President Donald Trump's desk, it's likely to become law. Trump has proposed DOE funding for Yucca Mountain licensing two years in a row, but Congress has yet to appropriate the money.
The NRC says Congress must allocate more funding — likely hundreds of millions of dollars — for the agency to perform hearings and reviews required to advance Yucca Mountain toward a final decision.