Nuclear Weapons

U.S. Spent Nuclear Fuel: The Up To $80/kgU Solution

11.14.13 | 8 min read | Text by Clifford E. Singer

A congressional impasse on what to do with U.S. reactors’ spent nuclear fuel could last to 2017 or beyond unless a compromise can be found between the House and Senate. The House has voted to support finishing review of the site license application for the Yucca Mountain repository, but the Senate has not. Facing opposition from the state of Utah, Private Fuel Storage, LLC, has let a license for storage for twenty years of 40,000 metric tons (tonne) of spent nuclear fuel (i.e. from 40,000 tonne of uranium originally loaded into reactors) lapse. The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 allowed for the federal government to build a monitored retrievable storage facility (MRS) for up to 10,000 tonne, but there has been insufficient support for this in Congress.

Resolving the Impasse

A recent review 1 considered two suggestions for keeping the current impasse from dragging on for years. One was to approve funds to complete the Yucca Mountain site license review, but give Nevada control over transportation to the site. If the application were approved, this could reduce the time needed to come to an agreement with Nevada on terms for opening the repository by several years. However, prospects for such a compromise in the current Congress are dim.

Another suggestion was to revisit the payment amounts specified in the “benefits agreements” in the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 (NWPA). These amounts are $20 million/yr while a repository is open to receive spent fuel and $10 million/yr while an MRS is open. These amounts will likely be less than 60 percent of their purchasing power on the originally scheduled Yucca Mountain opening date of 1998. The purchasing power of the annual benefits payments would likely decline by about another factor of two over the time envisioned to fill the facility to its licensed capacity. Even without taking account of other considerations discussed below, this situation creates a prima facie case for revisiting the benefits payments.

The estimated cost of spent nuclear fuel disposal exceeds $600 per kg of waste. (This is a cost per uranium originally loaded into commercial reactors; estimate is based on the amount spent on Yucca Mountain so far and the Nuclear Waste Fund balance that the Department of Energy previously estimated as adequate.) The annual benefit payments now allowed for by the NPWA amount to a fraction of a percent of the total project cost. A private property owner would likely balk at such a small return on a valuable asset, so it is hardly surprising that the Nevada Congressional delegation is united in opposition to execution of the terms of the current Yucca Mountain license application.

The suggested benefits payment in the title of this article is “up to $80/kg.” This maximum amount would be annually adjusted for inflation starting every year after 2013 in order to maintain its purchasing power. The $80/kg figure comes from an interchange during a July 31, 2013, appearance of Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz before the House’s Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Environment and the Economy.[ref]Oversight of DOE’s Strategy for the Management and Disposal of Used Nuclear Fuel and High-level Radioactive Waste, U.S. House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Environment and the Economy, July 31, 2013,[/ref] Noting a cost estimate of $5.6 billion to conduct a search for a new repository site, the subcommittee chair twice asked why this sum should not instead be given to Nevada. Divided by the 70,000 tonne capacity specified in the Yucca Mountain site license application (90 percent of which is for commercial spent fuel), this would amount to $80/kg. While these questions may have well been a rhetorical device highlighting an additional expenditure (thought unnecessary), there is merit in giving this question serious consideration.

Why Sooner Rather Than Later?

There are several problems with looking to open Yucca Mountain within the existing NWPA and its current benefits agreements. The license application only allows for 63,000 tonne of commercial spent fuel. More than that has already accumulated. Any attempt to expand the licensed capacity would face the challenge of revision of the NWPA through normal congressional procedures, rather than the straight up or down vote required if the Nuclear Regulatory Commission approves the current license application. Also, opening Yucca Mountain in the context of the current NWPA is likely to face determined opposition from Nevada on all legally available fronts and lead to extensive delays. A particular Achilles’ heel of the license application is a provision to install billions of dollars’ worth of protective titanium-palladium alloy protective shields upon site closure. This is under the assumption that humans nearby will continuously use wells near the site for a million years; but never in that time will the value of the installed metal lead to intrusion to recover it. Even if the Nuclear Regulatory Commission considers the possibility of intrusion to be outside its purview, there is no guarantee of successful legal challenge against this or any other provisions of license for construction and operation.

Recent decisions to close the Crystal River (FL), Kewaunee (WI), Vermont Yankee (VT), and San Onofre (CA) reactors highlight the growing amounts of spent nuclear fuel stranded at sites with no operating reactors. Without a place to move stranded spent fuel for many years until Yucca Mountain is (maybe) ready to receive shipments, each stranded fuel site costs millions of dollars per year to secure. Additionally, until there is a U.S. state available to willingly host spent commercial reactor fuel, there is virtually no possibility of the United States being able to negotiate agreements that preclude another country enriching uranium or reprocessing in pursuit of economic efficiency and nonproliferation objectives in exchange for permanent U.S. acceptance of spent nuclear fuel. While an opportunity to export spent fuel is only one consideration in determining whether a country of potential future concern acquires weapons-relevant nuclear capabilities, the potential consequences of these capabilities eventually falling into the wrong hands can be enormous. Failure to promptly resolve the spent fuel management problem in the United States thus ties the country’s hands in an arena with national and international security implications.

Promoting Flexibility

It is important to avoid an overly narrow focus concentrating only on repository siting. Thus, what is specifically suggested here is for the federal government to allow one or more states to charge up to $80 ($US2012)/kg to take spent fuel into a facility licensed to manage it for at least 100 years. This could be any combination of underground and above ground facilities in one or more states. The time frame of 100 years is chosen for two reasons. First, the dominant radiation hazard and heat load from casked spent fuel is from cesium-137 and strontium-90, which both have half-lives of about 30 years. Once these have decayed for about 100 years, it is easier either to dispose of the spent fuel underground or (less likely in the United States but still pursued in other countries) reprocess it to recover plutonium to fuel nuclear reactors.

Secondly, the most recent Waste Confidence Decision revealed a consensus among Nuclear Regulatory Commissioners that nuclear waste can be safely stored above ground in dry casks for at least 100 years. To actually license such a facility for so long requires that it have capability for repackaging material in dry casks and moving casks to new storage areas as needed; this should be readily manageable. Also, while there could be problems with licensing Yucca Mountain to contain radioactive materials for a million years, there seems to be little question that it could safely contain spent nuclear fuel for at least 100 years. As long as the federal government retains title to the spent fuel, licensing 100 years of storage at one or more locations should leave ample time to observe the results of other countries’ efforts and adequately research alternatives (for example, deep boreholes that would make recovery of weapons usable fissile materials much more difficult over the long term).

The phrase “up to” $80/kg is chosen deliberately in case more than one state is willing to host a spent nuclear fuel management facility. This would allow a competitive environment where states would in fact only be able to charge what the market will bear, thus potentially reducing outlays from federally controlled funds.

Two things should be kept in mind concerning a substantial increase in benefit payments beyond that called for in the NWPA. First, considering the cost of expected delays, legal costs, expense of managing stranded spent fuel, and ability of utilities to plan for what is going to happen upon retirement of aging nuclear reactors, it is not unlikely that charges of up to $80/kg will turn out to be “cheap at the price” compared to the alternative. Second, payments to host states can be put to good use for other needed purposes, while much of the money otherwise spent in a contentious siting process will be spent on what could be avoidable costs.

It is not clear whether $80/kg will be sufficient to encourage Nevada to cooperate with licensing Yucca Mountain, or to encourage other states to host spent fuel management facilities. What Nevada authorities and representatives would need to ponder is whether they might eventually get stuck with Yucca Mountain and only the comparatively paltry and inflation-eroded benefits payments called for in the NWPA. Preparation of legislation to amend the NWPA to update benefits payments might at least start a conversation about what level of compensation to prospective host states would be suitable. In light of the four imperatives enumerated above, there is much to recommend for making the attempt.

Clifford E. Singer is Professor of Nuclear, Plasma, and Radiological Engineering  and of Political Science at the University of Illinois, and is currently co-director of the College of Engineering Initiative on Energy Sustainability Engineering. Singer received a B.S. in Mathematics from the University of Illinois, a Ph.D. in biochemistry at the University of California, Berkeley and was a National Science Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow at MIT. He subsequently did research in plasma physics, advanced space propulsion, and the computational simulation of thermonuclear plasma performance at the University of London, Princeton University, and the University of Illinois. He was an Alexander von Humboldt Fellow at the Max Planck Institutes for Strömungsforschung and Plasmaphysik at Göttingen and Garching in Germany. As a local elected official he was briefly the final Chair of the Champaign County Solid Waste Disposal association, and he has supervised thesis research on the Illinois/Kentucky Low Level Radioactive Waste Compact. He is currently supervising research on global energy economics with emphasis on spent nuclear fuel management, sources of energy for transportation, and greenhouse gas emissions. Prior to completing a sabbatical leave at the American Association for the Advancement of Science Center for Technology and Security Policy in Washington, DC, he was the Director of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Program in Arms Control, Disarmament, and International Security (ACDIS).

U.S. Spent Nuclear Fuel Management: Political, Fiscal, and Technical Feasibility, Energy Policy 63 (2013) 1521–1528.