Dear Mr. President: Nuclear generators ask, “Where’s our mountain?”

By Kathleen Davis, Associate Editor

The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 promised nuclear generators a federal repository for spent nuclear fuel by Jan. 31, 1998. In 2001, nuclear generators are still sitting atop mounting piles of waste product (to the tune of nearly 20 metric tons of used uranium fuel each year for a typical nuclear plant, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute). With the grand opening of the Department of Energy’s (DOE) waste repository (Yucca Mountain, Nev.) delayed until at least 2010, generators are left to scramble for places to put spent fuel, and it’s not as easy as simply boxing it up and sliding it under the bed next to the fuzzy winter sweaters.

“The courts have clearly ruled that the law and the contracts did not actually require a repository [for the federal government to be held to the 1998 deadline], but the Department of Energy continues to take the stance that they will not move the fuel until they have a repository operational,” stated David Jones, spent fuel program manager for Duke Energy in an interview with EL&P.

“This leaves us in a situation where we are now trying to ensure adequate storage, as well as looking at storage expansion possibilities,” he added. “Our contingency plan is simply to continue with our current storage options while applying pressure on the DOE and the government to address the issue [of Yucca] and to discuss recovery of our costs resulting from the DOE’s failure to perform under the contract.”

Spent nuclear fuel is stored on-site in one of two ways: either in steel-lined, concrete pools of water or in aboveground steel containers (or steel-reinforced concrete containers with steel inner canisters), often referred to as “dry storage.” However, nuclear generators, the Institute and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) all stress that both wet and dry storage are temporary measures, with permanent disposal left in the hands of the federal government. (The NRC does reassure that such storage is safe for 100 years without adverse health or safety consequences.)

Wet storage was the original idea, with most plants building the pools into original floor plans. As pools fill up, however, a number of plants have moved on to dry storage options if they are unable or unwilling to re-rack the pools. (Re-racking is the process of moving the stored assemblies in the pool closer together to allow more room. The Institute estimated that more than 130 re-rackings have occurred at various nuclear plant sites already, and they predict that at least 27 nuclear units will reach their pool limits by the end of the year.)

“We are running out of room in the pools,” Jones stated simply when asked about Duke’s storage options. “That’s the biggest issue right now. Our operations and staff have been tailored to storage of spent fuel in pools. When we run out of room in those pools, all of a sudden it means we have to find other means of expanding that storage, which is another burden that utilities have to take on that wasn’t envisioned when the contracts with the government were signed.”

Dry storage options (with materials like steel, concrete and lead taking the place of water as a radiation shield) have a 20-year license, with the possibility of extension, and could ease the storage pressure. However, the licensing of dry storage can be quite a political hot potato, as many predict dry storage may have to last beyond the expected 20- to 40-year period if Yucca is stalled. Plus, the initial investment in dry storage ranges between $10 million and $20 million, with an additional $5-7 million a year to add containers as storage needs expand. (NEI estimates that the delay in Yucca Mountain has “already created a potential $56 billion liability.”)

In the end, generators believe it will all come down to the U.S. government making good on their two-decade-old promise, which currently looms in the form of a Nevada mountain.

“With everyone focused on energy and their concerns with the availability of electricity, it is very disconcerting that the government is jeopardizing the reliability and efficiency of 20 percent of that power [the numerical value associated with nuclear energy in the U.S.] by delaying the issue of the repository,” added Tom Shiel, spokesman for Duke Energy.

David Jones and Tom Shiel can be reached at tpshiel@duke-energy.com.

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