Jun 3, 2010

Billions spent on 'Temporary' home that only lasts decades for nuclear waste

GreenChange  Wiscasset doesn't even have a nuclear-energy plant anymore. The Maine Yankee facility was shuttered back in 1996 after developing problems too costly to fix, and the reactor was dismantled early this decade. What's left is a bare field of 167 acres cleared and ready for development—except for one thing.

Left behind are 64 enormous steel-and-concrete casks that hold 542 metric tons of radioactive waste. Seventeen feet tall and 150 tons apiece, the casks are protected by razor wire, cameras and a security force.

Casks like these are the power industry's biggest hot potatoes. Their presence at a defunct reactor site like Wiscasset's underscores the intractability of the nuclear-waste problem confronting the power sector and the failure of U.S. policymakers to find a permanent solution. Meant for temporary storage next to energy plants, these containers are now serving as de facto indefinite repositories around America.

The Energy Department has been legally obligated to relieve nuclear plants of radioactive spent fuel since February 1998, but hasn't lived up to that requirement, because, quite simply, the government hasn't found a permanent place to put it.

Any hope of an end to this impasse evaporated in March when the Energy Department notified the federal Atomic Safety and Licensing Board that it wanted to drop plans for a federal repository at Yucca Mountain, Nev.

That meant that after three decades and more than $10 billion in expenditures, the Energy Department was giving up on its only candidate for permanent storage.

The department said it was time for a complete reassessment of the waste problem, and Energy Secretary Steven Chu pointed out that Yucca Mountain wasn't big enough to meet current and future needs.

Stephanie Mueller, Department of Energy spokeswoman, said in April that nuclear energy has "an important role to play…to cut carbon pollution and create new clean-energy jobs." She says the president and the energy secretary are looking to a new blue ribbon commission to recommend "a safe, long-term solution" to the waste problem within 18 months.

Instead of moving waste to a geologic vault, such as a mountain enclosure like Yucca capable of locking it away for thousands of years, the foreseeable future now belongs to temporary holding vessels such as the steel-and-concrete casks at Maine Yankee. Each is licensed to contain waste for 20 years.

Power companies are likely to rely on casks even more in coming years. About 80% of reactor sites in the U.S. intend to move used fuel to casks because their storage pools are filling up.

...Utilities have filed more than 70 lawsuits against the government accusing it of breach of contract because it hasn't taken the waste.

So far, $1.3 billion has been paid out. The Department of Justice estimates the liability will top $12 billion if a waste facility is not opened by 2020.

The current state of affairs "does not bolster the credibility of our government to handle this matter competently," says Dale Klein, a former Republican chairman of the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Meanwhile, utilities continue to contribute $770 million a year to a Nuclear Waste Fund to pay for a permanent repository that now isn't even on the drawing board.

Read full at Wall Street Journal