One of the many issues facing the Obama Administration is the future disposition of the nation’s nuclear waste. The proposed Yucca Mountain Repository, originally slated for a 1998 opening, has been delayed by years of conflict between Congress, the Department of Energy, environmental groups, and the State of Nevada. A new report suggests that, when completed, the Yucca Mountain facility will already be inadequate under current nuclear waste storage regulations.
The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 (NWPA), as amended in 1987, requires the Secretary of Energy to submit a report to the President and Congress regarding the necessity of a second repository for the nation’s spent nuclear fuel (SNF) and high-level radioactive waste (HLW). Former Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman produced that report, The Report to the President and the Congress by the Secretary of Energy on the Need for a Second Repository (here) in December of last year.
The DOE report calls on Congress to amend a statute in the NWPA that limits the amount of SNF and HLW that may be stored in a repository to 70,000 metric tons heavy metal (MTHW) until a second repository is open. The report also notes that by 2010, “inventories of commercial and federal government SNF and HLW… are projected to exceed 70,000 MTHM.”
In considering how best to address the issue of nuclear waste storage, DOE considered three contingencies:
(1) “Removing of the statutory limit of 70,000 MTHM for Yucca Mountain and disposal of currently projected quantities of SNF and HLW at the Yucca Mountain repository;”
(2) “Beginning the process of siting, designing, licensing and constructing a second repository as soon as possible so it will be ready to receive SNF and HLW by the time 70,000 MTHM has been emplaced in the Yucca Mountain repository;”
(3) “Deferring the decision and prolonging the time commercial SNF generated after 2010 will be stored at reactor sites, as well as the time DOE SNF and HLW will be stored at DOE sites.”
Regarding the first option to remove the storage limit, the report argues, “the Yucca Mountain repository would likely have sufficient capacity to dispose of the entire defense waste inventory plus the commercial SNF expected to be produced by the existing fleet of nuclear power reactors.” The report continues, “the 70,000 MTHM statutory limit on capacity of the first repository until a second repository is in operation is not based on any technical considerations related to the characteristics of possible repository sites or geologic media.” DOE believes that a 4,200 acre layout of the facility is reasonable, “more than three times the area of the layout currently used to accommodate 70,000 MTHM.” The repository’s current layout is 1,250 acres.
The second option, to build a second repository posthaste is dismissed by the report, in large part because “the need for legislation before any site-specific work could be performed introduces uncertainty in the schedule for a second repository.” Additional appropriations would also be necessary.
When DOE reviewed the final option to defer the decision, it found that “additional liabilities under the Standards Contracts” were likely. Current law required DOE to begin accepting waste for disposal in 1998. DOE estimates that the “liability associated with the delay in waste acceptance… may be up to $11 billion, and could increase significantly for each additional year operations are delayed or interrupted.”
DOE concludes that “lifting the statutory limit on the disposal capacity at Yucca Mountain provides an opportunity to defer the need to reassess repository capacity requirements.” During this time, DOE suggests that additional information regarding the potential growth of the nuclear energy industry, and nuclear fuel recycling can be incorporated into waste growth models.
DOE submitted a license application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for approval to construct the Yucca Mountain repository in June of last year. That review process may take four years to complete. The earliest possible year of completion for the repository is 2020.