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Nuclear Energy/Nuclear Waste Disposal Issues

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Today 20 percent of U.S. electricity comes from the 104 nuclear power plants in 31 different states. The Energy Information Administration estimates a decrease in this percentage over the next 25 years as energy demand increases. Increasing demand for electricity is projected to be met by coal-fired power plants in the near future. With rising concerns of climate change and greenhouse gas emissions, some favor nuclear energy as the cleaner alternative. Without new plants though, U.S. nuclear power capacity will diminish during this crucial time for clean energy. No new nuclear plants have come online since 1975, so concerns with the lack of new plants as well as safety and waste disposal issues have left policy makers and the public grappling with the future of nuclear power.

If the U.S. decides to increase its nuclear power capacity, it will have to reevaluate whether to continue with plans of long-term storage, or developing reprocessing technology. For over 20 years, the Department of Energy (DOE) has been working to develop the Yucca Mountain Repository in southern Nevada as a central storage location for spent nuclear fuel and defense-related high-level radioactive waste. Opposition pushed the original opening of Yucca Mountain from 1998 to 2010, but further legal and monetary set-backs have postponed construction again. Yucca Mountain is now set to open in 2017. In the meantime, the equally controversial idea of reprocessing spent fuel has been gaining ground.

Recent Action

MIT Report Calls for Expanded Nuclear Energy Production, Light Water Reactors
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) released a report in September stating that existing uranium reserves can fuel an expanded nuclear reactor fleet for at least 60 years. That would give the Department of Energy time to develop a more comprehensive disposal plan that could include reprocessing and advanced fuel cycle technologies. The report advocates for continued use of light water reactors (LWR’s) and tax credits for “first movers” who build new nuclear plants. Anti-proliferation goals could be accomplished by providing processed fuel and nuclear waste services to nations that forego enrichment.  The report, entitled The Future of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle, was released as a follow up to the 2003 report, The Future of Nuclear Power.

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Previous Action

Commission Considers Other Nations’ Disposal Plans (11/10)
The Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future met November 15 to 16 to discuss efforts in other countries regarding nuclear waste disposal and advanced fuel cycle technology. The commission heard testimony regarding programs in Japan, France, Russia, and Canada. Panelists representing these countries, U.S. states, and interest groups focused on site selection for waste repositories and development of fast reactors, two areas which the commission has previously discussed in open meetings.

Discussion on these issues proved controversial at times, because each nation has adopted a different strategy for site selection and fuel cycle development. Most notably, while Japan, Russia, and France have committed to expensive reprocessing of spent fuel, the U.S. had denied funding for reprocessing from 1976 to 1999. In 1999 the Department of Energy signed a contract to help build a facility for production of mixed oxide (MOX) fuel at the Savannah River site in South Carolina.

The initial ban on reprocessing was intended to stop proliferation of fuel for nuclear weapons, specifically avoiding production of plutonium through reprocessing, but costs have become an increasingly important issue for that process as well. Though decades of research and monetary resources have been focused on reprocessing, these methods have as of yet failed to significantly reduce the expense of reprocessing compared to that of uranium mining.

Commissioner Ernie Moniz, professor of physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, took the opportunity to apprise presenters of that failure in the first session of the meeting. “I believe that the advantages just stated are greatly over-exaggerated,” he asserted in response to the French representative Pierre-Franck Chevet. Chevet, the General Director for Energy and Climate Change, claimed that not only was re-processed material cost-competitive with once-through methods, but that it reduced the stock of isolated plutonium in France.

“I would argue not reprocessing eliminates the stock of isolated plutonium,” quipped Moniz. What Chevet failed to mention, according to Moniz, was that the reprocessed materials are created by concentrating high-grade fissile elements, such as plutonium. Plutonium is a key component of nuclear weapons, and under their nuclear programs, Japan and France have created stockpiles of plutonium that they are now using in their light water reactors.

When asked why Japan had started using reprocessed MOX, Chairman of the Japan Atomic Energy Agency Shunsuke Kondo did not cite financial benefits but a perceived threat of uranium shortage when the decision was made in the 1970s. Recent reports, including one released by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), stress that uranium is in no apparent shortage and could last through 60 years, even if nuclear power production increases ten-fold. The report, entitled The Future of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle, calls for expanded use of nuclear power, but in the form of light water reactors, the dominant reactor currently in used in the U.S., rather than fast neutron reactors and other full cycle technologies. According to their respective presenters, Russia, Japan, and France are committed to reprocessing and deploying advanced fuel cycle reactors. Russia hopes to have more economical, lead-cooled fast reactors operable by 2030 and widely deployed by 2050.

On the disposal end of the fuel cycle, Canada and Japan have adopted a voluntary and competitive siting process, while Russia’s state-run Rosatom has decided to deposit waste in 7 uranium mines, though that plan has not yet been approved. Japan has been reviewing applications sent by mayors, but none of these have met the criteria established by Japan’s Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NUMO). Despite active seismic zones across the island of Japan, NUMO has committed itself to finding a domestic site. France plans to develop a repository in argillaceous rock near the city of Bure, though the exact site has not yet been chosen.

Other panels offered comment on these strategies, within the specific context of the U.S. and what a path forward on these issues would entail for the commission. Former governor of Wyoming Mike Sullivan advocated for a disposal plan with 3 key items: insulation of the disposal authority from politics, voluntary entry into the program by communities, and greater devotion to securing public trust. Similarly, former governor of Idaho Cecil Andrus recommended that a separate entity be created for the sole purpose of establishing a high level radioactive waste repository. These comments echoed advice received by the commission’s Subcommittee on Waste Disposal at a meeting on November 4.

On the same panel, Representative John Garamendi (D-CA) advocated for research on and deployment of advanced fuel cycle technology. He cited research at the Idaho National Laboratory on an integral fast reactor (IFR) that was terminated three years before completion because of proliferation concerns. Success of such a reactor, Garamendi suggested, would require several billion dollars as compared to the $130 billion being spent by the Department of Defense every year to obtain oil from the Middle East. Commissioners cautioned that the expense could be $1 billion a year for 20 years of research and development (R&D), and that feasible reprocessing methods that actually diminish the waste would probably not be ready before 2030.

Other options for managing nuclear waste include the development of a medium-term centralized storage facility, continued on-site storage in dry casks, and proceeding with plans for a long-term centralized waste repository. These methods might be preferable to continued investment in advanced fuel cycle technologies, according to geochemist Tom LaTourrette of the RAND Corporation. He stated that the fission products of advanced fuel cycle reactions are much more mobile than the actinides produced by once-through technology. Others have stated that the volume of waste produced by advanced fuel cycle reactions is not appreciably less, and may be even greater, than the volume of waste produced by once-through technology.

In conclusion of the meeting, Chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board (NWTRB) John Garrick discussed key lessons learned from U.S. repositories. According to Garrick, a permanent geologic repository is essential, feasible, and can be located in an array of geologic environments, although nonhomogeneous environments will complicate geochemical modeling. Waste isolation and protection against heat generation are technical challenges to the disposal process but not prohibitive. Finally, in building these repositories, proto-typing of first-of-kind systems will facilitate development.

With these recommendations in mind, the commission will draft and deliver a report to the President and the Secretary of Energy by July 2011.

Video, presentations, and statements from the meeting, as well as notices of future meetings are available at the Blue Ribbon Commission’s web site.

Commission Discusses Lessons Learned from Yucca Mountain Backlash (11/10)
The Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future met November 4 to discuss the lessons learned from site characterization and development of nuclear waste repositories in the U.S. This meeting was held by the Disposal Subcommittee of the commission, which is tasked with providing suggestions for managing spent nuclear fuel.

The subcommittee has considered two repository sites: the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico which has been receiving low-level nuclear waste since 1999, and the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository, which has faced public backlash, congressional obstruction, and withdrawal of its license application from consideration by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). In considering the failure of the Yucca Mountain repository, panelists at the meeting suggested that the entire site selection, characterization and review process be reformed and simplified, possibly under the authority of a new private or public corporation, rather than the Department of Energy (DOE) or the NRC.
The meeting began with an acknowledgment from the co-chairs of the subcommittee, former Senator Charles Hagel and Jonathan Lash, that the development and approval of the Yucca Mountain repository has been particularly challenging. Selection and development has taken 24 years, and still no waste has been stored in that facility, though DOE is required by law to do so. The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982, establishes a fee requirement for every unit of electricity produced by nuclear power plants. That act also requires DOE to use that money for the establishment of a nuclear waste repository, and to manage all the nuclear waste produced by electric utilities. DOE has not met those requirements and is now being sued by South Carolina for the withdrawal of its application for the Yucca Mountain repository.

Addressing that failure, panelists from national laboratories, federal agencies, and private consultants, discussed the “lessons learned” form the Yucca Mountain site evaluation and what a better process might entail. George Dials, Executive Vice President of B&W Technical Services Group, briefly commented that “Yucca Mountain has become the victim of primarily political decision making.” There is widespread agreement that the Senate Majority Leader, Harry Reid (D-NV), pressured the DOE to withdraw its application from Reid’s home state. Dials argued that this maneuvering makes little sense when viewed in terms of health-exposure: currently 53 million people live within 50 miles of one of 23 U.S. waste sites with transuranics. If that material was moved to a single repository, such as Yucca Mountain, that number would fall to about 60,000 people.

Lake Barrett, the former Acting Director of the Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management at DOE, added that the regulatory requirements for site selection are inappropriately stringent. Barrett claimed that the “relentless societal demand for a zero risk, zero uncertainty, nearly utopian waste repository,” represented the main factor guiding the site selection process. He expressed that the “gauntlet” of regulatory standards developed by the NRC was counterproductive and that it was leading to a seemingly interminable site selection process. The DOE first began work on Yucca in 1982. Since then, pre-siting, site characterization, and the application process have consumed 30 years.

The Site characterization process is by-far the most time consuming. For the Yucca Mountain repository, challenges such as obtaining state permits, budget reductions faced by DOE, and turnover of management have stretched that process to a 15-year period.

Linda Lehman, a former consultant to the state of Nevada, provided information on the technical challenges of the site-characterization process. She considers volcanism and groundwater flow to be problem areas for the Yucca Mountain site. For the first 18 years of its studies, DOE assumed that groundwater flowed from West to East through the mountain and was restricted to the matrix of the rock. At the same time, however, state reviewers insisted that fracture flow was a significant part of the picture. Consistent with these claims were the differing chemistry of groundwater on the East and West side of the mountain, irregularities in the potentiometric map, and the presence of a large fracture co-linear with the center of the mountain ridge. According to Lehman, these disagreements among state and federal authorities represented a significant barrier to completing site characterization.

Lehman suggested that DOE has recently adopted a more effective approach of incorporating all affected parties into the scoping process. She cited the successful site location efforts at the Savannah River site in South Carolina and in Idaho. Dr. Robert Andrews, a scientist with the consultant Intera Inc., confirmed that stakeholders need to be more involved in site location. He added that changing regulatory expectations lengthened the characterization process and complicated the scientific review. 

Others on the panel lamented the overlapping regulatory authorities of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which establishes contamination standards for nuclear waste storage, and NRC, which formalizes engineering guidelines to meet those standards. John Greeves, former Director of the Division of Waste Management at NRC, insisted that more “succinct, understandable, and implementable” standards are necessary. Greeves went further to list a set of priorities for revising the site development process, including:

  • The establishment of standards prior to siting decisions;
  • Characterization of at least 2 potential central repository sites at depth;
  • Establishing demonstration facilities that can be phased into more permanent storage sites; and
  • Stable management and budgets to ensure continuity.

Subcommittee members repeatedly referred back to this list in discussions with the panelists.

Suggestions for a single regulator with stable personnel were met with considerable interest from the subcommittee. Member Per Peterson asked the panelists what entity might serve that role, and what a simpler standard would entail. Greeves advocated for a federal or private corporation to be tasked with waste disposal, citing the Swedish company SKB as a good example. In June 2009, SKB finalized their site selection for a 450 meter-deep repository in granitic rock at Forsmark, Sweden.  

Gary Gates, the President and CEO of Omaha Public Power District weighed in on the regulatory requirements as well. Gates suggested that the NRC displace the EPA as the single regulator of disposal. “We’d like to have one point of reference,” he petitioned.

“You need a tough regulator,” said Gates. “Absent that, you’re going to lose a lot of public confidence.” Panelists view the NRC as stringent on engineering issues. The EPA, for its part, sets the bar for longevity of storage and contamination quite high, according to Barrett: “What happened in the case of Yucca, [was that] we had the worst of both.”

A final ruling has not yet been made by the NRC on whether DOE can withdraw its application for Yucca Mountain. Should the NRC proceed however, it can expect further opposition from local groups.

Video of the meeting, as well as transcripts and presentations can be found at the Blue Ribbon Commission’s web site. More information on the DOE’s application for the Yucca Mountain repository (and withdrawal) can be found at the DOE Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management's (OCRWM) web site.

Showdown Unfolds Over Yucca Mountain Saga (10/10)
In the first week of October, Gregory Jaczko, the Chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), announced that the NRC would end its review of the proposed nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. Jaczko initially cited the lack of a budget for fiscal year (FY) 2011 as his reason for closing the review. As of October 1, 2010, the government is being funded by a Continuing Resolution (CR), which will maintain FY 2010 funding levels until December 3, 2010. Following the Yucca Mountain Development Act, signed by President Bush in 2002, the establishment of a repository at Yucca Mountain is required by law. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) wants the Yucca Mountain repository to be terminated, as do the majority of residents in Nevada. President Obama supports the termination of Yucca Mountain and included no funding for the program in his FY 2011 budget request.

The five-member NRC is reviewing the Department of Energy’s (DOE) authority to withdraw the license, which the DOE attempted this summer at President Obama’s request. The review follows an appeal by DOE of a ruling by the NRC’s Atomic Safety and Licensing Board (ASLB) that only Congress, through legislation, could withdraw the application for a license.

South Carolina and Washington, which have significant temporary nuclear waste sites, and others are now suing to overturn Jaczko’s decision, alleging that he lacks the necessary authority to make that decision alone. Two memos calling for a vote on the licensing procedure from Commissioner William Ostendorff reveal dissent within the NRC. 

Members of Congress continue to question actions taken in regards to Yucca Mountain. Two senior House Republicans, Fred Upton (R-MI), ranking member of the Energy and Commerce Committee’s Energy and Environment Subcommittee, and Ed Whitfield (R-KY), sent a letter to the NRC’s Inspector General requesting that he conduct a review of Jaczko’s decision. Joe Barton (R-TX), Ralph Hall (R-TX), Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI), and Doc Hastings (R-WA), ranking members of the Energy and Commerce Committee, Science and Technology Committee, Energy Independence and Global Warming Select Committee, and Natural Resources Committee, respectively, sent Jaczko a letter on October 13, 2010. The letter states that Jazcko cannot end the review based on the President’s budget request. Seven Republican members of the House Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee have also sent a letter condemning Jaczko’s decision. Jaczko continues to stand by his decision and the actions will likely be reviewed in the courts.

DOE Office of Legacy Management Releases Strategic Plan (9/10)
The Department of Energy released a draft of its Office of Legacy Management’s Strategic Plan for the 2010-2020, and is accepting comments on the plan through November 30. The Office of Legacy Management (LM) is responsible for the long-term surveillance and maintenance (LTS&M) of 87 publicly and privately owned nuclear contamination sites. Looking towards cost-effective and sustainable management of these sites, LM expresses its goals of (1) enhancing reclamation and reuse of managed lands, (2) improving domestic uranium mining and cleanup through a center for sharing information, and (3) establishing national standards for reclamation through collaboration with affected organizations. In the report, LM requests the authority to use royalties and funds from sale of lands to support reclamation projects. It also proposes that LM managed land be used for renewable energy projects. For a copy of the report, and information regarding LM, please see the LM web site.

Report Estimates Much Higher U.S. Plutonium Waste (7/10)
A new report, Plutonium Wastes from the U.S. Nuclear Weapons Complex, suggests that the amount of plutonium buried at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in south-central Washington is nearly three times what the federal government estimated in a 1996 audit. Robert Alvarez, a former U.S. Energy Department official, arrived at this figure by reanalyzing studies conducted by the department over the last 15 years. Inés R. Triay, the assistant secretary of energy for environmental management, did not dispute Alvarez’s figures.

Plutonium has a half life of 24,000 years and is harmful to humans even at low doses, making contamination of drinking water and the natural environment a key concern. Alvarez’s study focused on the amount of plutonium that has leaked from storage tanks, was intentionally dumped in the dirt or was pumped into the ground, a figure which remains unknown, though Alvarez determined that it is higher than previously thought. The fear is that in a few hundred years this plutonium could reach the saturated zone and enter the Columbia River. While cleanup of the site began in the 1990’s, it is still in its early stages. The findings of Alvarez’s study suggest that cleanup will be more complex than previously thought and will require technologies that do not yet exist to extract plutonium from the ground.

DOE's Nuclear Energy University Program Announces Awards (7/10)
The U.S. Department of Energy’s Nuclear Energy University Program announced $18.2 million in awards to educate the next generation of nuclear scientists and strengthen nuclear research capabilities at U.S. universities. The awards consist of $5 million in undergraduate scholarships and graduate fellowships, and $13.2 million in grants for universities to purchase new equipment or to upgrade their research reactors. Energy Secretary Steven Chu applauded the awards, stating, “To ensure American leadership in the global nuclear energy industry, we need a skilled workforce for years to come. This investment will give our students the support and resources they need to advance nuclear energy and keep America at the forefront of the nuclear industry.” A full list of awardees and more information can be found here.

Some Congressional Members Oppose Yucca Mountain Termination (7/10)
Despite the Obama Administration’s determination to shut down the proposed high-level nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain, Nevada, many members of Congress oppose the termination. On June 29, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s Atomic Safety and Licensing Board ruled that the Department of Energy (DOE) cannot withdraw its Yucca Mountain construction authorization application, a move that would have halted the project forever.

In response to this ruling, 91 senators and representatives wrote a letter to Energy Secretary Steven Chu asking DOE to halt actions to reprogram funds and terminate contracts to dismantle the Yucca Mountain project. The letter, which was signed by 14 Democrats, calls the ruling “a clear statement that the [Energy] Department does not have the authority under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act to unilaterally terminate Yucca Mountain.” Conversely, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), a staunch opponent of the Yucca Mountain repository, reiterated his opposition and his commitment to work with President Obama and DOE “to ensure Nevada never becomes the nation’s nuclear dumping ground.”

President’s Nuclear Waste Commission Holds Public Meeting (5/10)
The President’s Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future, comprised of leading scientists, former public policy officials, and experts from the private sector and NGOs, met to discuss the best path forward on how to deal with existing and future nuclear waste. The commission heard many opposing arguments on the viability of reprocessing spent nuclear fuel, the requirements for a geologic repository and how waste should be stored and transported in the interim.

There was general agreement from the commission and witnesses that there is a need for a geologic repository, whether we move forward with fuel reprocessing or not. Harvard scientist, Dr. Matthew Bunn, suggested the U.S. follow the lead of Finland and Sweden who have selected sites for waste repositories, with the support of the local community. Bunn and other witnesses, such as Corey Hinderstein, VP of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, stressed the fact that dry cast storage is a safe solution for interim storage and there is no need to act hastily on a long term solution. Information about the commission members, video archive of the entire hearing and copies of the witnesses’ presentations can be found here.

Administration Works on Non-Proliferation and Russian Agreement (4/10)
President Obama is working to achieve a civilian nuclear agreement with Russia. The agreement would allow Russia and the U.S. to work together on nuclear trade, technology and research and even allow Russia to import, store and possibly reprocess spent nuclear fuel from American-supplied reactors around the world. This might help to create business opportunities and mitigate nuclear waste issues. The work on the agreement has been accelerated by a two-day nuclear security summit in Washington, DC where Obama brokered a non-binding agreement with 46 nations to reduce the threat of nuclear terrorism and the beginning of a month-long U.N. Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference in May.

U.S. Signs Civil Nuclear Energy Agreement with United Arab Emirates (2/10)
Energy Secretary Steven Chu signed an agreement between the United States and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to cooperate on training and education in nuclear safeguards and management systems. UAE intends to build 10 nuclear power plants in 20 years and plans to make Masdar the first carbon-neutral, zero-waste city in the world. Secretary Chu signed the agreement in the UAE as part of his multi-day trip to the Middle East. There was also a U.S. nuclear energy trade delegation traveling in the Middle East at the same time, but perhaps a bit too late, as the UAE chose a consortium of Asian countries to build its reactors about a month earlier.

Nuclear Tipping Point Warnings (1/10)
The Brookings Institution has released a new book entitled The Nuclear Tipping Point: Why States Reconsider Their Nuclear Choices that examines the factors that shape nuclear policy in nations around the world. The authors call on U.S. leadership and international cooperation to prevent the world from unleashing an epidemic of nuclear weapon proliferation and use.

A new documentary called Nuclear Tipping Point has also been released. The documentary includes discussions by four former U.S. officials -- Secretaries of State George Shultz and Henry Kissinger, former Secretary of Defense William Perry, and former Senator Sam Nunn – on finding ways to reduce the United State's reliance on nuclear weapons and reduce the chance of a rogue nation using a nuclear weapon for a terrorist act. Michael Douglas narrates the film and there are additional interviews with California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and former Soviet Union President Mikhal Gorbachev.

President’s Nuclear Waste Task Force Announced (1/10)
On January 29, 2010, the Department of Energy announced the 15-member blue ribbon commission that will provide advice and recommendations on nuclear storage, processing and disposal. The commission will be led by Lee Hamilton, a former Member of Congress and chairman of the 9-11 commission, and Brent Scowcroft, a former Air Force general and presidential advisor. Below is a list of the other members including one member of the geoscience community, Allison McFarlane.

  • Mark Ayers, President, Building and Construction Trades Department, AFL-CIO
  • Vicky Bailey, Former Commissioner, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission; Former IN PUC Commissioner; Former Department of Energy Assistant Secretary for Policy and International Affairs
  • Albert Carnesale, Chancellor Emeritus and Professor, UCLA
  • Pete V. Domenici, Senior Fellow, Bipartisan Policy Center; former U.S. Senator (R-NM)
  • Susan Eisenhower, President, Eisenhower Group
  • Chuck Hagel, Former U.S. Senator (R-NE)
  • Jonathan Lash, President, World Resources Institute
  • Allison Macfarlane, Associate Professor of Environmental Science and Policy, George Mason University
  • Dick Meserve, Former Chairman, Nuclear Regulatory Commission
  • Ernie Moniz, Professor of Physics and Cecil & Ida Green Distinguished Professor, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  • Per Peterson, Professor and Chair, Department of Nuclear Engineering, University of California - Berkeley
  • John Rowe, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Exelon Corporation
  • Phil Sharp, President, Resources for the Future

President’s Science Council Meets (1/10)
The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) met on January 7, 2010. The council focused on five topics: research and development at the Energy Department, health policy, environment activities of the Office of Science and Technology (OSTP), the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the Administration’s science, technology and innovation policy. The webcast is available for viewing online and all past meetings, including public comments are available at the PCAST web page.

The next meeting of PCAST is scheduled for March 12, 2010 and public comments related to this meeting should preferably be submitted two weeks in advance of the meeting.

More Nuclear Bills Amid Concerns About Reactor Designs (11/09)
Senators Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Mark Udall (D-CO) introduced a bill to stimulate the development of new, cost-effective nuclear reactors on November 20, 2009. The bill, The Nuclear Power 2021 Act (S.2812) would authorize the Department of Energy (DOE) to work in a public-private partnership to develop a standard design for two small (< 300 megawatts) modular reactors, obtain a design certification from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission by 2018 and obtain an operating license by 2021. The bill would amend the Energy Policy Act of 2005, which provides loan guarantees and other incentives for the development of large nuclear reactors (> 1000 megawatts).

The bill comes on the heels of media reports about problems with the designs of new large nuclear reactors and related concerns from Members of Congress about giving out loan guarantees from the DOE for potentially troubled projects. In addition the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) is at odds with DOE over risk assessments for the loans.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) halted review of the Toshiba-Westinghouse Electric Co.’s AP1000 nuclear reactor over design flaws in the shielding building in mid-October. In early November, regulators in the United Kingdom, France and Finland questioned some of the designs for Areva’s EPR nuclear reactor. These problems have prompted Representative Edward Markey (D-MA) to request DOE to require any new nuclear energy project to complete its regulatory review before the designer is granted any loan guarantees.

The DOE will be offering four finalists loan guarantees to build new nuclear energy plants, with a total loan guarantee authority of $18.5 billion. The loan guarantee program was authorized in the Energy Policy Act of 2005 and would cover up to 80 percent of the cost of construction. Although DOE has stated that they will give out the loan guarantees soon, there has been no final action. The AP1000 and EPR reactor designs are purportedly being considered among the potential finalists and thus the news of the possible design flaws has prompted legislators to ask about the designs, the regulatory process and the loan guarantees.

In a letter submitted to Energy Secretary Steven Chu on November 6, 2009, Markey provides further details about the loan guarantee program and six questions about how DOE intends to move forward given the recent news about design flaws. A copy of the letter is available as a PDF from Markey’s website. The default risk fee that a company would have to pay up front ranges from 1 percent to 10 percent of the total estimated cost—a large and uncertain difference for all to consider.

Medical Isotopes Bill Passes House (11/09)
After a vote of 400-17, “The American Medical Isotopes Production Act of 2009” (H.R. 3276) passed the House on November 5, 2009. The measure as reported in the October Monthly Review, would “promote the production of domestic sources for medical isotopes” according to sponsor Ed Markey (D-MA).

Used in medical imaging, a current shortage of Molybdenum-99 has caused some delays in patient services. Legislators are concerned about a future shortage because the U.S. currently has no production capacity. Mo-99 is commonly produced from highly enriched uranium and that uranium can also be used in nuclear weapons, so the U.S. has previously restricted Mo-99 production and distribution. The House bill authorizes up to $163 million over 5 years for the Department of Energy (DOE) to promote Mo-99 production activities without highly-enriched uranium, bans the export of highly enriched uranium for Mo-99 production except for special circumstances, and requires DOE to retain responsibility for the final disposition of radioactive waste created by any use of highly enriched uranium for medical isotope imaging.

The Senate plans to hold a hearing to consider the bill on December 3, 2009.

NRC Says Nuclear Design Cannot Withstand Natural Hazards (10/09)
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) informed Westinghouse that its AP1000 Shield Building, designed to protect the nuclear reactor’s primary containment from severe weather and other hazards, failed to meet design standards. The company will have to make modifications to the design so it can withstand events like earthquakes, tornadoes, and high-winds in order for its full application to continue, though the NRC will continue to evaluate the remainder of the company’s reactor proposal.

The NRC press release can be found here.

Recommendations on the U.S. Nuclear Weapons Program (5/09)
The Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States released their report on the future of the U.S. nuclear weapons program on May 6, 2009. The twelve member commission and report were mandated by Congress in the National Defense Authorization Act of 2008. The commission proffered almost 100 recommendations, however, the commission was evenly split on whether the Senate should ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). Instead of a recommendation the commissioners offer a list of pros and cons regarding the treaty.

Key recommendations on which the commission agreed include a need for the U.S. to maintain an "effective nuclear deterrent force" and a need for the U.S. to lead efforts to prevent nuclear weapons proliferation, reduce the number of nuclear weapons worldwide and improve protection for residual nuclear forces and fissile material.

The commission noted that now is perhaps the most critical time for developing and acting upon a strategy for the U.S. nuclear weapons program because Russia has indicated a willingness to work on strategic nuclear weapons issues and because the world may be nearing a "tipping point" in nuclear proliferation that could lead to "imminent danger of nuclear terrorism".

The commission made several recommendations regarding the Department of Energy (DOE) that could shake-up the department and have generated some debate already. The report calls for the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), the Energy Department's nuclear weapons agency, to have even greater autonomy and less "bureaucratic interference" from DOE staff.

The commission also recommends renaming Los Alamos, Sandia and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories as national security laboratories and ensuring greater cooperation between these labs and the departments of Defense, State and Homeland Security. The report calls for greater funding and a broader security and energy mission for the labs. Last but not least the commission is concerned that maintaining the U.S. stockpile without testing may be difficult and suggests the labs have the ability to explore current and new nuclear engineering designs as long as they work within U.S. policy.

The Obama Administration plans to release its own nuclear weapons program review at the end of this year. In advance of this report, the Office of Management and Budget has asked DOE and the Department of Defense (DOD) to consider a transfer of NNSA to Defense.

The congressional commission and the administration's plans are likely to determine the future structure and funding for the largest component of the DOE in the coming years. Look for hearings, legislation and debate in Congress to heat up this summer and fall, with the potential for this issue to rise to an even higher priority if North Korea or other nations appear to destabilize the current nuclear weapons stalemate.

The full report and other information about the Congressional Commission is available from the U.S. Institute of Peace web site at

Yucca Mountain Regulations Move Ahead Slowly As Alternatives Explored (2/09)
On February 16, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) approved the EPA’s 1 million year allowable radiation levels of 15 millirem for the first 10,000 years and 100 millirem thereafter. This is just one step, though, in getting the NRC to approve the application requesting Yucca Mountain as the long-term geologic repository for U.S. civilian nuclear waste. The application was finally submitted in June 2008 after numerous delays, and at this point the earliest Yucca Mountain could be operable is 2020. After two decades of planning, the nuclear industry is understandably worried about the fate of the program.

Alongside this small victory came the call from the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) for a back-up plan. The NEI asked President Obama to create a commission to explore alternatives to long-term storage, like recycling or reprocessing spent nuclear fuel. The administration plans to look into alternatives while continuing to cut funding for the project. The House succeeded in cutting another $100 million from the project in the 2009 spending omnibus passed on February 25 and the President’s request for 2010 allows only for a review of the project. Despite continued problems and calls from opponents to withdraw the site, Energy Secretary Steven Chu supports following through with the licensing process as a learning experience. So the project struggles on, despite repeated efforts to terminate the whole process.

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Nuclear Energy
Currently, 104 nuclear reactors operate in 31 states, generating 20% of U.S. electricity. All of these nuclear power plants were built before 1975 and the construction of new plants has been stymied by safety issues, costs and waste disposal concerns. The operating costs of a nuclear power plant have decreased over time and are now more competitive with the operating costs of coal-fired and natural gas fired power plants, especially with the rising costs of natural gas. Nuclear power plants are also much cleaner than coal or even natural gas fired power plants, producing almost no emissions of pollutants or greenhouse gases. Assuming safety, construction costs and waste disposal issues can be dealt with, it seems like nuclear power plants are a good energy alternative for a population increasingly concerned with climate change.

Indeed, nuclear power has been included in many major energy policy initiatives introduced by President George W. Bush since 2001. The National Energy Policy Group (NEPG), established by President Bush in early 2001, produced a report that in part encouraged expanding the nuclear energy portion of the U.S. electricity portfolio by providing financial incentives to build new nuclear power plants. The Energy Policy Act of 2005 (H.R. 6 and Public Law 109-58) was based on the NEPG report, and provided the nuclear energy industry with tax rebates on capital facilities investments, help with liability coverage, and a new, faster process for approving new nuclear power.
The Department of Energy (DOE) and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) are the primary federal agencies with oversight authority over nuclear power generation in the U.S. The United States Geological Survey (USGS) has a more limited role managing waste repository research and facilitating nuclear fuel research. DOE responsibilities include research and development of nuclear technologies, providing for the security of nuclear facilities, facilitating international cooperation, and ensuring a continual supply of resources necessary for nuclear power. Managing these responsibilities in DOE are the Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management, the Office of Nuclear Energy and the Office of Science. Nuclear programs within DOE also serve defense purposes, including the development of defense nuclear power and nuclear weapons research through the National Nuclear Security Administration. The NRC is an independent agency that regulates the civilian nuclear power industry. NRC is charged with maintaining safe nuclear power generation through licensing, operational oversight, and rulemaking.

Nuclear Waste
There are two options for nuclear waste material: reprocessing or storing. Reprocessing consists of chemically separating the plutonium, uranium, and other byproducts from the irradiated nuclear fuel. Up to 95 percent of the plutonium and uranium can be recovered and then reused in the nuclear reactors. It can reduce the amount of waste generated by 90 percent. This is a popular method for managing nuclear waste in Europe. However reprocessed uranium and plutonium could be used to make nuclear weapons, causing the U.S. to fear nuclear proliferation and to spend the past 20 years focused almost exclusively developing long-term storage.

The use of deep geologic repositories as a means to isolate radioactive waste from the environment was recommended in the1957 report by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), The Disposal of Radioactive Waste on Land. According to the report, an ideal repository would be permanent, contain passive hydrologic and geochemical properties, be capable of safely storing the waste until it decays to nonhazardous levels, and contain a system of independently engineered barriers to enhance the geologic characteristics. As an ideal material for a repository, NAS recommended a thick salt formation because salt is hard, flexible (allowing fractures to heal themselves), and less permeable to water migration.

The first federal policy to deal with spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste commenced in 1982 when Congress passed the Nuclear Waste Policy Act (NWPA). The NWPA gave the DOE a timetable to find and construct an underground repository, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) authority to regulate construction and operation. States were allowed to veto decisions to put the repository within their borders, unless Congress overrode it. As part of the NWPA, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) ruled that the minimum time a permanent nuclear waste repository should be capable of isolating waste was at least 10,000 years. In 1987 the NWPA was amended to declare Yucca Mountain, located in southern Nevada adjacent to the Nevada Test Site, as the only site to be considered for further study and for it to open in 1998. Opposition to the Yucca Mountain site immediately surfaced, citing concerns over the site's proximity to Las Vegas, transportation of waste to the site, potential seismic activity, and groundwater infiltration. The opposition from politicians and technical difficulties has caused construction delays, moving the opening date to 2010 (it has since been postponed until 2017).

On July 23, 2002 after being approved by Congress, President Bush signed the Yucca Mountain Development (H.J. Res 87) resolution into law (Public Law: 107-200), moving the Yucca Mountain project into the licensing phase under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) despite the objections of Nevada's Governor Kenny Guinn.

Yucca Mountain will have to meet strict standards to help ensure the safety of people living in the region, the environment, and national security. In 2001, EPA released its first public health and environmental radiation protection standards for Yucca Mountain. These strict standards set the levels of radiation exposure that are acceptable from groundwater, air, and soil in the areas surrounding the repository. The original standards, however, were criticized for only extending 10,000 years.

The project was then challenged by the state of Nevada in 2004. Lawyers told the court that Yucca Mountain is not suitable to handle the radionuclides that could seep into groundwater sources thousands of years from now. The EPA 10,000 year evaluation was contrary to recommendations from the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) report to evaluate the site for 300,000 years. Because the casks holding the waste cannot last for more than 10,000 years, the geology of the mountain alone must be able to isolate the waste over much longer time periods. The State of Nevada has long maintained that the rock at Yucca Mountain cannot isolate radioactive waste for more than 10,000 years. On July 9th 2004, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled the selection of the Yucca Mountain site was constitutional and the groundwater standards were adequate, but the ruling rejected the 10,000 year compliance period for limiting the release of radiation set by the EPA. The court ordered the EPA to revise its standards to be consistent with NAS recommended radiation releases.  The EPA’s new standards extend out 1 million years and comply with NAS recommendations.

The Yucca Mountain has since suffered multiple setbacks, from problems with the NRC licensing committee to insufficient funds for the project. Currently the project is focused on preparing for the NRC’s licensing proceedings after submitting a license application to build the repository on June 3, 2008. The application may take up to 4 years to approve, postponing the opening of Yucca Mountain until 2017. Spent fuel is presently stored at 120 temporary locations around the country, including at commercial reactor facilities and former DOE weapons production sites. So far the DOE has spent about $7.5 billion on the project, with an estimated $18.5 billion more needed for construction. After that the operational costs of the facility will be about $1 billion per year.

Recently there has been reconsideration of reprocessing. In 2001 President Bush’s national energy policy included developing nuclear reprocessing technology. The DOE announced in 2006 the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP) to promote a new nuclear power recycling program that would develop safe, cost-effective technology to reprocess nuclear material to be used exclusively for fuel and not for weapons. This is a shift in U.S. policy regarding nuclear waste recycling. Previously the U.S. did not approve of any recycling of nuclear waste for energy because of the possibility of nuclear weapon proliferation from enriched waste products. In 1977 President Carter cut all funds for commercial reprocessing efforts in the U.S. following President Ford’s 1976 presidential directive to stop reprocessing spent fuel due to weapons concerns. Now there is new technology which can make recycled waste far less viable for weapon production. GNEP would also share civilian nuclear power generation technology with developing countries that agree to use the technology for civilian purposes only. In the coming years, Congress may reconsider reprocessing as an alternative to long-term waste repositories like Yucca Mountain.

See the CRS Report, Nuclear Fuel Reprocessing: U.S. Policy Development, for a more complete timeline.

Sources: AGI Monthly Review

Contributed by Corina Cerovski-Darriau, Rachel Poor, and Linda Rowan, Government Affairs staff; Merilie Reynolds, AGI/AAPG Fall 2008 Intern; Joey Fiore, AGI/AIPG Summer 2009 Intern; Eliabeth Brown, AGI/AIPG Summer 2010 Intern; Eliabeth Huss, AGI/AIPG Summer 2010 Intern; Kiya Wilson, AGI/AIPG Summer 2010 Intern; and Matthew Ampleman, AGI/AAPG Fall 2008 Intern.

Background section includes material from AGI's summaries and updates for Nuclear Energy/Nuclear Waste in the 110th Congress, NAS, CRS reports, EPA, and DOE Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management.

Please send any comments or requests for information to AGI Government Affairs Program.

Last updated on January 6, 2011

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