After Yucca: America's homeless nuclear waste
Every year, the nation's 104 nuclear plants create about 2,200 tons of nuclear waste and stow it in storage containers beside cooling towers across America.
In Idaho. In Massachusetts. In Iowa, Nebraska, Texas, Louisiana, California, New Mexico -- at 120 locations in 39 states a total of 66,000 tons of used but still dangerously radioactive fuel are stored in concrete containers under the open sky.
And now it has nowhere else to go.
The plan for two decades was to bury it in volcanic rock under Yucca Mountain, a hundred miles from Las Vegas.
But President Barack Obama opposes the repository and has slashed funding for it in his budget proposal.
"Both the president and I have made clear that Yucca Mountain is not a workable option and that we will begin a thoughtful dialogue on a better solution for our nuclear storage waste needs," Energy Secretary Steven Chu told a Senate budget panel recently.
Concerns about transportation safety, earthquakes, water contamination and its proximity to millions of Nevadans have stalled the repository's completion after two decades and billions of dollars of study and construction.
Some even contend that the Yucca Mountain project is dead.
Chu, along with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., is proposing a blue-ribbon commission to study America's options for dealing with the waste, though prying open that debate again is unlikely to yield a quick solution.
"There is no backup plan in place," the Congressional Research Service said last month.
There is no shortage of ideas, however. And all of them provoke controversy.
Some groups want to reprocess the waste. Some propose a few interim storage areas across the country. Others insist the nation needs a single permanent site for the waste -- maybe in Utah.
Nuclear plants had planned to hand over their waste to the U.S. Energy Department a decade ago, when Yucca Mountain was originally set to open. Delays have forced utilities to keep the waste at reactor sites.
Two plant operators, Yankee Atomic Electric Co. and Connecticut Yankee Atomic Power Co., have waste at three decommissioned plants.
Spokesman Bob Capstick says the companies' sole reason to exist now is babysitting that waste, 59 containers lined up on two fenced-in blacktop fields and guarded 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Capstick hopes work continues on Yucca Mountain even as the Obama administration explores other options.
"It doesn't make sense to eliminate Plan A," Capstick says, "and not have a Plan B."
Chu said last week that short-term storage on-site at reactors can "buy us some time" while the nation decides a future solution for the waste. Besides mentioning reprocessing as a possibility, he deferred other options to the future blue-ribbon commission.
"I don't want to presuppose what this panel will say and do, but these are some of the things that we want to at least put on the table," Chu said.
Another home » One possibility is finding permanent storage elsewhere.
The U.S. Energy Department released a report in December detailing the hunt for a second repository in addition to Yucca Mountain. The likeliest places, the report said, included the sites originally on the list before Yucca was selected.
The original list proposed in the 1980s includes two locations in Utah of bedded salt, Lavender Canyon and Davis Canyon, both abutting Canyonlands National Park. Other potential sites could be in Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas or Washington state.
Yet another possible solution advocated by some nuclear companies is central, temporary storage.
That was the idea behind the Skull Valley Goshute Reservation site in Tooele County, about 25 miles southwest of Salt Lake City. Licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to hold nuclear waste for up to 40 years, the site stalled after the Bureau of Indian Affairs refused to back the project lease and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management denied a right of way for a railroad spur to the site.
John Parkyn, chairman and chief executive of Private Fuel Storage LLC, a consortium of eight nuclear utilities that partnered with the Skull Valley band for the temporary storage, doesn't rule it out as an option.
"It's never stopped. It's going through the legal process," says Parkyn, who used to run the Dairyland Power Cooperative, which spent millions annually to store waste at a Genoa, Wis., power plant that hasn't operated since 1987.
Reusing nuke waste » Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, says the clear solution to the nation's nuke waste overflow is reprocessing.
He points to France and Great Britain as models. The United States can deal with the weapons-grade plutonium created in reprocessing, he says.
Nuclear security "doesn't seem to be that big of concern," in the nations with reprocessing, Bennett adds. "And I think Americans can control it as much as the British and the French can."
Salt Lake City-based EnergySolutions, a nuclear waste company, acquired the license to use the British reprocessing technology in 2006, and proposed several new reprocessing projects during the Bush administration. Steve Creamer, the company's CEO since 2004, was involved in an earlier plan -- which never got off the drawing board -- to create a temporary spent nuclear fuel storage site on state lands dubbed "Plan B."
Beyond Nuclear is a group that opposes new reactors and wants current plants shuttered. It says the best alternative right now is "hardening" on-site storage, which includes securing the dry casks holding the waste to protect them from terrorist attacks and accidents.
Kevin Kamps, the group's radioactive waste watchdog, says transporting the waste and creating "nuclear waste parking lot" dumps is problematic. Even more scary, he says, are the burgeoning pools of radioactive material building up at nuclear plants.
"Right now," he says, "the pools are just monumental dirty bombs waiting to be blown up."
Anxious for solutions » David Wright, president of the Nuclear Waste Policy Coalition, an ad hoc group of utilities and regulators in 31 states, says reprocessing and additional storage are ideas worth exploring. But, since waste isn't a problem that's going to go away, answers are needed soon.
"If the political will is there to solve the problem, you will solve the problem," Wright says.
Like others watching the latest developments with Yucca Mountain, Steven Kraft of the Nuclear Energy Institute insists that the Yucca Mountain project isn't dead. The Obama administration has budgeted $288 million this year for licensing, he notes. "They haven't killed it."
"Hopefully, Yucca Mountain will survive," he adds. "But if it doesn't, then this blue-ribbon panel, hopefully, they will come up with some other disposal facilities."
"It's not the end of the world," Kraft says.
"You've got a problem. Now you've got to solve it."