Millstone doesn’t want its nuclear waste, but somebody might
Waterford ― If it were up to the operators of the Dominion Millstone Power Station, its spent nuclear fuel would not be stored on site.
Vice President Michael O’Connor said this past week that the plant can safely store all its spent fuel on site, as it has since Millstone began operating in 1970, but he would rather see it moved elsewhere.
“It is absolutely preferred to be off-site,” O’Connor said of the spent fuel.
The Millstone plant currently has 52 large concrete containers, known as dry storage casks, of spent fuel, O’Connor said, in addition to nuclear waste stored in steel-lined concrete pools. O’Connor said the 52 dry storage casks could be shipped to another location, once one is available, and that fuel from the pools is periodically moved into casks.
Approximately 100,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel has been generated from commercial nuclear power generation in the country since 1950, and it is currently stored at more than 70 sites in more than 30 states.
The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 outlines the federal government’s responsibility to site, build, and operate a permanent nuclear waste storage solution.
And that is what the Department of Energy is planning to address.
The department recently announced revisions to its consent-based siting process for spent nuclear fuel. It says it won’t create nuclear waste storage facilities without the permission of host communities, which also would be compensated.
The updates to the siting process plan, which was originally drafted in 2017, focus on finding sites for one or more interim storage facilities with an emphasis on equity and environmental justice by including diverse communities, stakeholders, states and tribes in the decision-making process.
The plan also allows for an increased role for potential host communities in developing additional criteria to assess the suitability of sites to store the waste and to increase funding to get more communities to participate.
The plan is broken down into three stages and six phases for finding appropriate interim storage sites and will take up to 15 years before any facility begins operation. The planning portion, Phase 1A, has already been completed, and Phase 1B, which involves community outreach and engagement, is underway and will last up to three years.
The interim facilities will operate until the department can move the spent fuel to a permanent location, which it said in its plan will eventually be needed. The lessons learned from this interim storage process will be applied to siting a permanent location.
U.S. has a large amount of spent fuel
Spent nuclear fuel is uranium fuel that has been exposed to radiation in a reactor, usually over a span of four to six years, after which it can no longer continue to efficiently react to create a power and is removed from the reactor.
Millstone accounts for 47% of the state’s electricity production and more than 90% of the state’s carbon-free electricity, which is enough to serve the yearly needs of nearly 2 million homes.
Nuclear power currently accounts for nearly 20% of U.S. electricity production and half of the nation’s carbon-free energy. According to the energy department, nuclear power is a key to achieving the nation’s goal to reduce carbon emissions by 50% by the end of the decade, achieve 100% clean energy by 2035 and a net-zero emissions economy by 2050.
The U.S. also has an inventory of non-commercial spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste, which includes a portion of the roughly 127,000 tons of reprocessing waste managed by the DOE. This waste is generated by activities including the operation of the Navy’s nuclear fleet and the DOE’s research and development activities.
Reprocessing is a process that separates plutonium and uranium from other nuclear waste contained in the used fuel from nuclear power reactors. The separated plutonium can be used again to fuel reactors.
Still no permanent waste site
U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, said Wednesday that this process of finding interim storage host communities would help prevent another Yucca Mountain situation.
“Clearly the resistance and the blowback that Nevada has had over the decades has demonstrated that you just can’t do that in a democracy,” Courtney said. “You have to have buy-in before you actually select a site.”
The Yucca Mountain storage facility was the country’s proposed permanent spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste site. Plans called for using a tunnel system for up to 70,000 metric tons of waste underground.
The State of Nevada has strongly voiced its opposition to the site. Attorney General Aaron Ford wrote in an official statement that “Yucca Mountain is a singularly bad site to house the nation's high-level nuclear waste and spent nuclear fuel.” He cited issues with the geology and location, the limited space available, while the transportation of spent fuel poses a risk to local and national security.
The project was approved in 2002 by then-President George W. Bush, but shut down in 2010 by the Obama Administration.
The government has spent $12 billion on the failed project and is still responsible, per the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982, with finding a permanent location.
Courtney said the Yucca Mountain failure is a “bitter pill” for people to swallow and would likely never be a storage option.
He said that the goal of the consent-based siting process is to be as transparent as possible with potential host communities and is a similar approach to those taken by Canada and Finland in their nuclear power programs.
The process will allow communities to volunteer as host sites, learn about what hosting a site will entail and allow the community to withdraw from consideration up until it signs a host agreement.
There is $26 million available for about eight interested communities to learn more about hosting a site. Courtney said there were more than 200 responses to the Phase 1A request for information, which allowed communities to comment on the siting process and the role of interim storage as part of a national waste management system.
Courtney added that the process, outlined in the plan, will concurrently look for a permanent site for the fuel as a way to build more trust with communities.
“If you don’t see a viable pathway to a permanent site, how can you really say that this isn’t permanent?” Courtney said about the temporary sites.
Courtney is a member of the bipartisan House Spent Nuclear Fuel Solutions Caucus. In 2018, Courtney helped pass bipartisan legislation that authorized a consolidated interim storage program that would allow nuclear waste stored in local communities to be moved to a remote location before a permanent location is built.
Since 2020, Courtney said he has helped secure $93 million to support the Department of Energy’s consolidated interim storage program.
Courtney said that finding interim sites would ease the burden on taxpayers currently paying for the widespread storage. It currently costs taxpayers between $400 million and $800 million annually for fuel waste storage, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute.
What Waterford wants
First Selectman Rob Brule wrote to Courtney in March 2022 to voice his support of the consent-based approach and express the town’s desire to move the spent fuel elsewhere. He said the town would not consider storing waste from other locations at Millstone and would be opposed to using the plant as a storage site under the new program.
“Enabling on-site storage was a necessary but temporary step in the absence of a permanent federal disposal site,” Brule wrote. “Moving (spent fuel) from Millstone to a federal site would enable productive reuse of property at Millstone to further invest in infrastructure for carbon-neutral energy products.”
Both Brule and O’Connor said they support research and development of alternative uses for the fuel, such as reprocessing the waste, in addition to a permanent storage facility.
Courtney said the leadership of Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm and Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy Dr. Kathryn Huff will lead the research and development of other methods for handling spent nuclear fuel, with funding outlined in the Infrastructure Bill passed in 2021.
The two visited eastern Connecticut last year to listen to community members and tour Millstone and the decommissioned Connecticut Yankee Nuclear Power Plant in East Haddam. That site currently has 43 dry storage casks of nuclear waste stored outside.
Overall, Courtney hopes people embrace the new process, one that will include more than just a mayor raising a hand to volunteer, as the government works to find a permanent solution.
“The interim approach is something that I think people feel would be a good first step to create a more comfortable level for a more efficient consolidation of spent fuel that are around the country,” Courtney said.
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