VIII. HIGH LEVEL WASTE
Communities Alliance Position Paper
and the Future of Geologic Disposal
of High Level
Waste in the U.S.
results from the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel. It includes liquid waste
produced directly during reprocessing of spent fuel to recover usable plutonium
and uranium. It also includes solid material derived from liquid wastes that
contain fission products in sufficient concentrations.
Spent nuclear fuel
comes from commercial nuclear power plants, domestic research reactors,
nuclear-powered U.S. naval warships, DOE-run research and defense reactors,
reactor design testing, and energy and medical research. In the U.S., nuclear
fuel, once used in a nuclear power reactor tends to be referred to as “spent”
used nuclear fuel
This is because the U.S. employs a once-through fuel cycle and does not recycle
the fuel from spent fuel rods to recover the remaining energy potential.
March 3, 2010, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) filed a motion with the U.S.
Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to withdraw its license application for a
nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain. The petition followed the release
of the Obama administration’s proposed FY 2011 budget that zeroed out funding
for the Yucca Mountain Project, closed the DOE’s Office of Civilian Radioactive
Waste Management, and gave responsibility for used/spent nuclear fuel management
and disposition to the DOE’s Office of Nuclear Energy.
In addition, Energy Secretary Chu was
directed by President Obama to appoint members to the newly established Blue
Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future (BRC). The BRC is charged with
developing recommendations for a safe, long-term solution to managing the
Nation’s used nuclear fuel and nuclear waste. The Commission will specifically
advise on issues including alternatives for the storage, processing, and
disposal of civilian SNF and defense nuclear waste. It is not, however, a
The BRC is scheduled to submit an
interim report to the Secretary of Energy in July 2011 and a final report in
the BRC proceeds with their research and hearings, the Yucca Mountain project is
uncertain. The NRC has yet to rule on its own Atomic Safety and Licensing Board
(ASLB) finding that DOE does not have the authority to withdraw the license
application. However, the NRC Chairman is moving forward with plans to close
the license review for Yucca Mountain.
the interim, the federal government continues to fail to meet its obligation
under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act to take responsibility for the disposal of
SNF produced at the nation’s nuclear power plants; nor HLW resulting from
reprocessing SNF at federal facilities to obtain plutonium for the manufacture
of nuclear weapons. Because of lawsuits filed against DOE by electric
utilities, the federal government has settled millions in claims related to its
failure to take possession of commercial SNF by 1998. In addition, the federal
government has failed to keep agreements with state governments to take
possession and dispose of the waste.
Billions of taxpayer and ratepayer dollars have been spent on the Yucca
project. Despite recent actions by the Administration, current law still
requires that a geologic repository be built at Yucca Mountain for the permanent
disposal of HLW and SNF.
ECA POLICY POSITIONS
communities that host DOE sites where HLW and SNF have been produced and are
being stored have unique health, safety and environmental concerns and needs.
They have a key role to play in the discussion and evaluation of alternatives
for future high-level waste disposition.
communities urge the following with respect to the disposal of nuclear waste:
Trust Is Paramount – One of the great challenges in regard to new
nuclear policy and facility development is trust. As stakeholders have
testified in front of the BRC, trust in DOE’s ability to manage HLW and develop
coherent policies and confidence in the NRC’s independence in licensing a
repository has eroded over time. Without trust, public acceptance will be hard
ECA communities want to engage DOE and other federal agencies at the outset of
any HLW policy development. ECA communities can help present the local values,
concerns and priorities that should be considered as new policies are planned.
ECA can also be an honest broker, creating a forum for States, Tribes and other
key stakeholders to have a definitive role in the process that will help rebuild
trust with DOE and the NRC.
Recommendations on the Role of Local Governments – ECA members
believe it is critical for local governments and communities to be part of the
discussion of future nuclear policy decisions. Their engagement is critical at
all steps in the process – beginning with the development of the vision,
refining the goals and priorities, and providing input when conflicts arise.
The key issues for communities include:
Being engaged early and actively in any siting
process for any new nuclear facilities or geologic repository.
Ensuring communities have oversight with a clearly
defined, funded and recognized role in the licensing, construction and operation
of any facility (this includes transportation and emergency response issues).
Highlighting the impact of new nuclear power development
on interim storage of used fuel and potential recycling of used fuel disposition
from the community perspective.
Understanding the federal government’s approach
through communication and collaboration with federal officials. Local
governments and potential host communities should be informed to the point that
they can help their own constituents or related stakeholders recognize the
federal government’s priorities, goals, and concerns.
Timeline for Final SNF/UNF Disposition
- ECA accepts the notion that the
need to address commercial SNF/UNF is less pressing -- especially in light of
NRC’s recent revision of its waste confidence rule. The revision expresses
confidence that used nuclear fuel can be safely stored for at least 60 years
beyond the operating license of a reactor – either on site or at a central
storage facility – before it needs to be moved to a repository. In addition,
the revised rule says the NRC has confidence that repository space will be
available “when necessary” (a clear statement of the need for a geological
repository for ultimate disposition of the waste).
It is important to note, however,
that if nuclear power is to contribute fully to the nation’s clean energy
portfolio and help meet carbon reduction targets with public support, the
question of what to do with commercial used nuclear fuel must be addressed.
One or More Geologic
Repositories Are Necessary
– ECA supports geologic
disposal pursuant to the Nuclear Waste Policy Act (NWPA). Much of the HLW and
SNF across the DOE complex must be removed from sites such as Idaho National
Laboratory, Hanford, and the Savannah River Site under stated commitments and/or
binding legal agreements.
In addition, DOE owns or generates
low-level radioactive waste (LLRW) and non-defense-generated transuranic (TRU)
waste that have similar characteristics to Greater-Than-Class C Low-Level
Radioactive Waste (GTCC). These waste streams do not currently have a
disposition path, but the preferred disposal alternative (as examined in DOE’s
Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the Disposal of GTCC Low-Level
Radioactive Waste and GTCC-Like Waste) could likely be a geologic repository
such as the one originally planned at Yucca Mountain or at the Waste Isolation
Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico.
Without a geologic repository, these
wastes could remained orphaned in communities that never planned to be permanent
or long-term storage sites. A final geologic repository - whether at Yucca
Mountain, WIPP, or elsewhere - is essential to the final disposition of HLW and
integral to the success of DOE’s Environmental Cleanup programs regardless of
issues with commercial spent fuel.
Yucca Mountain Should
Be Considered Along with Other Alternatives –
ECA believes the BRC should have the
opportunity to review all alternatives and make their recommendations
concerning the federal government’s responsibility to manage and ultimately
dispose of high-level radioactive waste. Many lessons have been learned by the
technical work performed at the Yucca Mountain site. The license application
should proceed based on technical merit. The decision to cancel the project
should acknowledge the ripple effects such action will create and should not be
based on politics.
Yucca Mountain Alternatives
– If alternative proposals
to Yucca Mountain – such as at WIPP, are advanced, DOE should engage local
governments as its first line of communication. ECA’s membership includes the
Yucca Mountain host community, Nye County, Nevada, and other Nevada communities,
such as Esmeralda County and Lincoln County, who are directly impacted by
transportation routes. Our membership also includes communities that may be
interested in hosting a repository for HLW, GTCC waste, and/or used fuel.
The Nuclear Waste Fund Should Be Used for What It was Originally Intended
– As it was originally created as part of the NWPA in 1982,
Funding Should Exist for Communities with Defense-Related HLW Waste
if Yucca Is Abandoned - ECA respectively requests that the Secretary
cease any further action to terminate the Yucca Mountain license application
with the NRC and allow for the full and fair NRC licensing process as authorized
by the NWPA and approved by Congress. Too much of the obligated defense
facility cleanup funds and activities are dependent upon the site to abandon it
as at least one of the options being considered. For example, if the Yucca
Mountain Project is terminated, waste from DOE vitrification programs at the
Defense Waste Processing Facility, Waste Treatment Plant, and West Valley
Demonstration Project may no longer meet any Waste Acceptance Criteria. The
vitrification products from these sites were all designed specifically to meet
Yucca Mountain Waste Acceptance Criteria, so this waste could be orphaned in
place for years.
ECA believes DOE should consider
providing funding (from the Nuclear Waste Fund or coming into the Yucca program
from the Department of Defense through defense authorizations) for communities
that may end up hosting sites with “stranded” defense-related HLW. This will
help ensure they can address their unique health and safety concerns and needs
until a final disposition plan is determined.
Existing Law Must Be Modified for A Path Forward Other than Yucca
Mountain – The NWPA establishes timelines and responsibilities for
developing the Nation’s permanent waste disposition path. In 1987, it was
amended, directing DOE to study only Yucca Mountain. The law also
prohibits DOE from conducting site-specific activities at a
second site unless authorized by Congress. In addition, the NWPA prevents
the siting of interim storage facilities until the NRC licenses the
construction of the permanent repository - which currently means the geologic
repository planned at Yucca Mountain.
Termination of the Yucca Mountain geologic repository program is a major federal
action that lacks not only National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA)
documentation, but also opportunities for public involvement. Congress will
need to take action that modifies the NWPA before the executive branch of
government can make what many view as a unilateral decision without scientific
or technical justification.
Legislation to Site and Study Alternatives - Modified or new
legislation will be required to permit the study of permanent disposition
alternatives and sites. For example, the local government and community of
Carlsbad, NM, have expressed interest in expanding the mission at WIPP to
include HLW and/or Greater-than-Class-C disposition if the Yucca Mountain
project is terminated. However, for that to happen, the 16 miles withdrawn per
the Land Withdrawal Act would need to be established as a HLW repository and the
HLW prohibition would need to be removed, as would the defense-only pedigree and
the limit of 176,000 cubic meters. In addition, if the potential facilities are
to be conjoined with WIPP to take advantage of existing infrastructure, the
technical and regulatory bases for WIPP permits could be called into question as
the other wastes require an NRC license.
There Is a Potential for Reprocessing - Most ECA members support and
are interested in exploring recycling used fuel (or reprocessing) as part of an
integrated approach to permanent waste disposition. In this way, recycling may
allow what was once considered “waste” to be a new energy resource. While
reprocessing will not eliminate the need for a geologic repository – in fact, a
repository will still be required as it will not eliminate the waste stream -
reusing used nuclear fuel can
potentially reduce the volume, thermal output, and/or radiotoxicity of waste
requiring geologic disposal.
When DOE last introduced an initiative to study the potential development of
nuclear recycling facilities, over half of the 11 siting grant recipients
included ECA communities – the potential hosts as well as the constituents most
directly impacted by any new recycling policy or facility.
Environmental Impacts - Recycling does present some
concerns for ECA members, including among others, the environmental impacts of
creating increased amounts of Greater-than-Class C and low-level waste streams
associated with reprocessing. Presently, neither has clear, final disposition
Proliferation Concerns - Proliferation is an issue
often raised when discussing reprocessing. ECA communities support small
modular reactors and other advanced nuclear technologies being developed to be
proliferation-resistant and to recycle spent fuel without creating a separate
ECA members want to continue to work with DOE on the potential benefits and
drawbacks related to recycling. They are also uniquely positioned to help
address the needs of a community volunteering to host a new nuclear facility.
More specifically, ECA can help outline incentives for a host community that may
include funding for oversight, workforce development and/or training.
Interim Storage Should Be Considered as Part of an Integrated Approach to
Ultimate Disposal – ECA believes interim storage, if pursued, must
exist alongside a permanent solution and not instead of it. ECA supports the
option of pursuing interim storage provided economic incentives, health and
safety monitoring, oversight and a legally binding commitment to a final
disposition plan are provided to communities who agree to host such facilities
ECA also wants the term “interim” to be legally defined. Policy makers
currently use it loosely and have never actually associated it with a fixed
timeframe (10, 50, 100, 500 or more years). Until “interim” is defined by law,
potential host communities will continue to have significant concerns that, in
the absence of a long-term waste management strategy, interim storage sites will
become de facto permanent repositories. The federal government must demonstrate
a commitment to storage, especially given the failure of three past federal
efforts to site interim storage facilities.
ECA notes that the interim storage alternatives do not necessarily have support
from our communities without consideration of reprocessing or recycling used
nuclear fuel. In fact, ECA members are more likely to have an interest in
hosting an interim storage site if a recycling facility is also sited nearby.
Greenberg, Michael R.; West, Bernadette M.; Lowrie, Karen W.; Mayer,
Henry J. The Reporter’s Handbook on Nuclear Materials, Energy, and
Waste Management. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2009.