The Middle Ages of Our Energy Policy—Will the renaissance be nuclear?

With increasing frequency and urgency come proclamations that we are entering a period of nuclear power renaissance. The first applications in 30 years for licenses to build new nuclear power plants in the U.S. have recently been filed with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Are we ready for this renaissance?

Simply continuing to derive approximately 20 percent of the nation’s electric power production from nuclear generation will require nearly the full capacity of the Yucca Mountain permanent repository for radioactive waste as presently proposed. Expanding nuclear’s contribution nearly ten-fold as projected to be needed in order for nuclear power to make a meaningful reduction in our current emissions of greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels would require both interim repository capacity and permanent repository capacity far beyond that currently proposed for Yucca Mountain. While some look to reprocessing spent fuel rods–a practice discontinued in the U.S. in 1972–that would probably not eliminate the need for interim and permanent storage and would risk proliferating the ingredients of nuclear weapons in a belligerent world.

Ironically, and perhaps ruinously for future generations, as we adopt greenhouse gas and energy policies that promote a nuclear-powered future, progress on the development of permanent storage appears at best to be stalled, and red flags have been raised that the costs and risks associated with a resumption of reprocessing nuclear waste are too great to be justified. These contradictory undercurrents of the nuclear renaissance need to be reconciled soon before they collide in our dependence on a power source with no plan for safe and secure storage of its long-lived toxic byproduct.

The trumpeted nuclear power renaissance has powerful policy drivers, backed by significant federal subsidies and guarantees. The primary baseload alternative to nuclear power, coal-fired power plants, faces the uncertain but widely believed to be inevitable future of costly controls on emissions of greenhouse gases, of which coal plants are the largest emitters. Producing no greenhouse gases, nuclear power features prominently in many prescriptions for slowing the rate of global warming, including that of Patrick Moore, a founder of anti-nuclear Greenpeace. Consistent with those prescriptions and the promotion of a robustly diversified fuel portfolio, the Energy Policy Act of 2005 is another driver, providing extended Price-Anderson liability insurance, a production tax credit of $18 per MW hour for the first 6,000 MW of new advanced nuclear facility capacity during its first eight years of operation, up to $2 billion in regulatory risk insurance against licensing or litigation delays in achieving commercial operation, loan guarantees for up to 80 percent of project costs, and compensation for project delays for the first six reactors to be developed.

But the singular driver that has eluded the power industry–the one intractable hurdle that continues to separate nuclear power from its luminous future–is a solution to its radioactive waste product: either long-promised but never-delivered permanent storage or economical reprocessing that is “proliferation-resistant.”

The saga of permanent storage reads like a Washington political potboiler. Today’s repository program dates to the 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act pursuant to which sites in nine states were initially identified as potential long-term storage sites, one in the east and one in the west. Most were quickly abandoned, including first-in-the-nation presidential primary state New Hampshire, for overtly political and not technical reasons. By 1987, Congress abandoned altogether an eastern site and settled on the site in then politically weak Nevada, Yucca Mountain, which the Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences at the time concluded was the worst among alternative study sites for future risk of radiation release. Progress on developing the Yucca Mountain site since then reads like “The Perils of Pauline.” Today, 26 years later, the project is at least 20 years behind schedule, underfunded, and, in the estimation of its now politically powerful opponent Nevada Senator and Senate majority leader Harry Reid, a “dying beast.”

Temporary or interim storage in dry casks, pending completion of Yucca Mountain or some other permanent deep geologic storage, remains an economically viable and secure option, but violates the 1982 Act pursuant to which nuclear utilities agreed to pay the federal government a fee of a tenth of a cent per kilowatt hour and the government agreed to begin taking control of their nuclear wastes for transport to permanent storage beginning in 1998. The government’s 20-year-plus breach of this agreement has resulted in 60 lawsuits against the Department of Energy, damage awards of $342 million as of February 2007, and ultimate liability projected at $7 billion if Yucca Mountain opens for business as currently projected in 2017, or $11 billion if that date slips to 2021 as is widely expected. Recently, Congress mandated the DOE to study potential temporary storage for high-level nuclear waste in order to demonstrate that the nation is capable of moving forward “in the near term with at least some element of nuclear waste policy.” But the DOE balked, contending that interim storage “is clearly not the solution” and argued that the 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act bars the DOE from taking title to spent fuel until after the Nuclear Regulatory Commission grants a license for the permanent repository at Yucca Mountain. A self-imposed June 2008 deadline for submitting the application to license Yucca Mountain was recently postponed.

Reprocessing, once heralded as the solution to storage, appears to recede as a reality just as quickly as the “beast” Yucca Mountain is “dying.” The U.S. government’s only gambit in commercial reprocessing began in 1966 at a facility in West Valley, N.Y. After reprocessing only 640 tons of waste and accumulating more than 600,000 gallons of high-level waste, the facility was closed in 1972 after the U.S. decided to discontinue reprocessing for non-proliferation reasons in favor of a “once through” cycle in which nuclear fuel is used once before direct disposal in a deep underground repository. On-site high-level waste at West Valley was finally stabilized in 2002, but cleanup is projected to take 40 years and cost more than $5 billion. The Bush administration has proposed to resume reprocessing under the auspices of the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership as a “proliferation-resistant” solution to the vexing problem of permanent storage. As part of GNEP, plutonium and other actinides would be extracted from spent fuel rods and fast neutron reactors would be developed, capable of using fuel that comprises the recovered actinides. But how GNEP contributes to storage is an open question since plutonium constitutes only about 1 percent of the spent fuel from U.S. reactors; the remaining waste will still require permanent storage. In addition, the technologies, including fast neutron reactors, needed to make GNEP “proliferation-resistant” have not yet been demonstrated. And lastly, late last year, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office issued a report finding that reprocessing as proposed in GNEP would cost 25 percent more than direct disposal of nuclear wastes across a wide range of assumptions.

An energy renaissance that weans the nation from its dangerous dependencies on foreign oil and reduces greenhouse gas emissions surely would be welcome energy policy. That renaissance may be nuclear. But without the political resolve and technical progress needed to achieve safe and secure long-term storage, we will need to start driving other paths out of our unsustainable carbon-dependent Middle Ages.


Dan Watkiss is an energy lawyer in Washington, D.C. He represents power companies, exploration and production and mid-market companies, natural gas pipelines, power and liquefied natural gas project developers and lenders, as well as government agencies and regulators.

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