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 develop reprocessing technology. Spent fuel is presently stored at 120 temporary locations around the country in 33 states, including at commercial reactor facilities and former Department of Energy (DOE) weapons production sites. For more than 20 years, the 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. After numerous delays, DOE finally submitted its license application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) for a waste repository at Yucca Mountain in 2008. The application is awaiting NRC approval, but the earliest Yucca Mountain could be operable looks to be 2020. President Obama has made it clear he does not support Yucca Mountain as a waste repository and essentially attempted to terminate the project by eliminating funding for it in his FY 2011 budget request; the future of the program remains unknown. In the meantime, the equally controversial idea of reprocessing spent fuel has been gaining ground.

Recent Action

Bingaman Introduces Nuclear Waste Administration Act of 2012 (08/12)
On August 1, Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) introduced the Nuclear Waste Administration Act of 2012 (S. 3469). The bill incorporates recommendations from the final report of the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future (BRC). The BRC recommended geologic exploration to find a suitable waste repository, support for nuclear research and development, a waste storage selection process requiring consent of affected communities, and more efficient waste transport.

S. 3469 would block the approval of temporary storage sites until a permanent repository was identified. This was a point of contention among Bingaman and others drafting the bill, Senators Lisa Murkowski (R-AL), Dianne Feinstein and Lamar Alexander (R-TN), but the language has remained in the bill. It is unlikely that this bill will move in the current Congress, but Bingaman, Chairman of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources will hold hearings in September to build a legislative record for S. 3469.

Nuclear Waste Storage Debate Stalls Plant Licenses (08/12)
On August 7, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) voted to delay granting or renewing licenses for nuclear power plants until the NRC addresses a federal court ruling in June obligating the commission to store waste in a less environmentally harmful way.

The NRC was also directed to assess storage facilities for vulnerability to fires and waste leakage. Temporary storage has lasted much longer than the commission anticipated because of political deadlock surrounding Yucca Mountain.

Long term storage above ground is vulnerable to natural hazards and in wake of the disaster at the Fukushima Power plant after the Japanese tsunami in 2011, the court felt the NRC was risking severe environmental and health effects. The commission was previously researching the possibility of storing waste in wet or dry fuel casks for up to 300 years, but the Fukushima disaster and court ruling have proven this to not be a wise course of action.

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Previous Action

NRC Nominees Macfarlane and Svinicki Confirmed by Senate (06/12)
On June 29, the full Senate approved two nominations by President Barack Obama for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). Allison Macfarlane will serve as chair of the NRC to replace outgoing chairman Gregory Jaczko. Republican Kristine Svinicki was nominated to be a commissioner for a second five-year term.

Macfarlane is an environmental science policy professor at George Mason University and served on the Blue Ribbon Commission for America’s Nuclear Future (BRC). She received her Ph.D. in geology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Her nomination and approval came after Jaczko announced his departure amid accusations that he was bullying NRC staff and withholding information from the commissioners. Macfarlane will serve for the remainder of Jaczko’s term which will end in June 2013. At a hearing before the Committee on Environment and Public Works on June 13, Macfarlane promised to bring control to the NRC after a rocky four years under Jaczko.

Svinicki has served on the commission since 2008. She has worked as a nuclear engineer in the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Nuclear Energy and as a professional staffer on the Senate Armed Services Committee. Some senators opposed her re-nomination because of concerns that she supports industry interests over nuclear power plant safety.

NRC Sends Implementation Report to Congress (03/12)
On March 12, Chairman Gregory Jaczko of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) sent a report on the status of its implementation of the Near-Term Task Force recommendations to Congress. The Near-Term Task Force was formed after the March 2011 Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear meltdown in Japan and issued their report, Recommendations for Enhancing Reactor Safety in the 21st Century, in July 2011. The Conference Report of the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2012 (P.L. 112-74) requests the NRC submit a written status report one year after the disaster.

Jaczko and the four other commissioners of the NRC appeared at a hearing before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works on March 15, 2012 to discuss their efforts in implementing the new safety recommendations. In the status report and at the hearing, Jaczko sorted the recommendations into three tiers. Tier one consists of those recommendations that were implemented immediately, tier two consists of actions that are to be taken once resources are available, and tier three consists of those recommendations that require further study. The NRC issued a request for information to all license holders on March 12 that addresses seismic, tsunami, and flooding hazards. The NRC is required by Public Law 112-74 to ask reactor licensees to re-evaluate their seismic, tsunami, and flooding hazards.

Anniversary of Tohoku Earthquake/Tsunami and Fukushima Disaster (03/12)
The one year anniversary of the magnitude 9 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami (March 11) in Japan that led to over 20,000 fatalities, over $100 billion in economic losses, over $250 billion in response and rebuilding costs, and the nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant, was acknowledged with ceremonies and reviews in March of 2012. Japan has shut down all of their remaining nuclear power plants, while Germany, Italy and Switzerland are reconsidering nuclear power. France, Canada and the United States remain committed to nuclear power and initiated reviews of nuclear safety. China is reviewing efforts to build nuclear power plants at a relatively brisk pace in a rapidly growing country.

In the United States, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) initiated an immediate review of safety at 104 nuclear power plants in the U.S. and set-up the Near-Term Task Force which provided recommendations on lessons learned from Fukushima in their report, Recommendations for Enhancing Reactor Safety in the 21st Century. On March 12, 2012, the NRC issued regulatory requirements in response to lessons learned from Fukushima.  Three orders requiremitigation strategies, hardening containment vents and enhancing spent fuel pool instrumentation. More information is available from the NRC’s webpage, Actions in Response to the Japan Nuclear Accident.

The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) published a report entitled U.S. Nuclear Power Safety One Year After Fukushima along with a press release in early March. UCS criticized the NRC for placing the first of 12 recommendations from the task force as the lowest priority. The first recommendation was to clarify government requirements for “beyond-design-basis” accidents, but the NRC is not moving forward on this. The industry has initiated their own plan to purchase more emergency equipment and place the equipment at multiple locations, so plants are better prepared for unexpected crises. UCS is concerned that the industry approach is not sufficient but without NRC guidance it will become the standard.

NASA Worries About Plutonium Fuel Resources for Space Exploration (11/11)
Resources of plutonium-238, a radioactive isotope used to power unmanned space rovers and probes, are running low in the U.S. and expected to last only through 2022. This important fuel, different from plutonium-239 used for nuclear weapons, has been used for multiple scientific missions into space, including the Voyager spacecraft in the 1970s and the Cassini spacecraft that is now orbiting Saturn. Plutonium-238 production boomed during the Cold War but has since come to a halt. Because the U.S. is the only nation with access to the material, many scientists are worried that a shortage of plutonium may result in fewer space-based scientific missions beyond Mars.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has agreed to split costs with the Department of Energy (DOE) to fund plutonium production by small companies, which could range between $75 million and $90 million over a five year span. However, Congress has not yet agreed on any legislation to allow this to go through. While supporters believe this cost-sharing is an effective collaboration, those in opposition feel that NASA should fund the startup because the project will likely reduce funding from other types of nuclear research within DOE. Given such opposition, experts do not expect production of new plutonium-238 to begin before 2020.

Next Steps for Nuclear Power After Earthquakes (11/11)
The Institute of Nuclear Power Operations (INPO), a U.S.-based think tank, issued a press release with a report (Special Report on the Nuclear Accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station) about the first four days of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster after the March 11, 2011 magnitude 9 Tohoku earthquake and subsequent tsunami. The report was prepared for the U.S. nuclear industry, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and the U.S. Congress. The tsunami was larger than expected and may have been enhanced by the displacement of splay faults on the sedimentary wedge above the subduction zone earthquake. The huge tsunami led to at least one 46-foot high wave rushing over the breakwater barrier (18 to 30 feet high) at the Daiichi nuclear power plant. The tsunami killed two workers, flooded emergency generators and disabled water intakes needed to cool the reactors. Plant workers bravely tried to avert further catastrophe without electricity, without information about the status of the reactors and without any outside help. They had to deal with flooding, structural damage, aftershocks, hydrogen gas explosions and radiation releases while they tried to cool the reactors and safely shutdown systems. Three important lessons learned include: 1. Earthquakes and tsunamis can be larger than previously thought and can combine across segments to produce higher intensity events, 2. Emergency electricity backups for nuclear power plants need to be more resilient and 3. Hydrogen gas pressure buildup in older nuclear reactors remains a considerable known concern.

On November 30, the Associated Press reported that a simulation by the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) of the damage in nuclear reactor number 1 at Fukushima Daiichi shows more damage than previously thought. The simulation suggests the melted fuel rods bore through much of the primary containment (i.e. concrete and steel bottom) and almost leaked out.

Back in the United States, the NRC authorized the North Anna nuclear power plant in Louisa, Virginia to initiate a restart of its two reactors on November 14, 2011. The reactors automatically shut off due to the magnitude 5.8 Virginia earthquake that struck about 11 miles from the plant on August 23 (see Virginia Earthquake – NRC Actions for more information). The shaking was greater than the plant was designed to handle. Dominion, the power company that owns and operates the facility, is spending more than $21 million to inspect and assess the damage. So far, even though the shaking intensity was about two times greater than expected, the damage is confined to minor cracks and damaged bolts. Massive spent fuel storage containers did shift by as much as one inch as the earth moved beneath them.  Dominion is upgrading seismic monitoring equipment for the reactors and the dry cask spent fuel facility. The NRC is in the midst of a review of nuclear power plants and has called for U.S. plants to upgrade their seismic risk analyses.

Communities and the public in the U.S. and abroad remain wary of nuclear power plants. On November 29, the NRC’s Atomic Safety and Licensing Board denied a state attempt to halt the relicensing process for the Pilgrim nuclear power plant in Plymouth, Massachusetts based on the accident in Japan.

NRC Standstill Means Uncertain Future for Yucca Mountain (09/11)
On September 9, 2011, four members of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) voted 2-2 on whether to uphold a June 2010 decision by the NRC’s Atomic Safety and Licensing Board to prevent the Obama Administration from pulling DOE’s application for the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository in Nevada.

The 2-2 vote has been interpreted in different ways. Republican Commissioner William Ostendorff, who has publicly voiced his support for Yucca Mountain, said the split is “legally unambiguous” and that the licensing board’s decision should stand. Democratic Commissioner William Magwood argued that the indecision means Congress is now responsible for deciding the fate of Yucca Mountain. Though five members serve on the commission, including Chairman Gregory Jaczko, the vote was split because Democratic Commissioner George Apostolakis recused himself. Apostolakis previously participated in the project’s scientific review, which was conducted at Sandia National Laboratory.

The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 requires the Department of Energy (DOE) to site, construct, operate, and close a repository for spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste. It was amended in 1987 to designate Yucca Mountain as the only site for waste disposal. In 2010, the Obama Administration pulled DOE’s licensing application from the NRC and has repeatedly zeroed out funding for Yucca Mountain. The DOE has indicated that Yucca Mountain is not an appropriate site for a nuclear waste repository.

NRC Prioritizes Seismic and Flood Safety Review of Nation’s Reactors (09/11)
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is prioritizing the twelve safety recommendations of the Near-Term Task Force and seeks to collect updated seismic and flooding data from America’s 104 operating nuclear power plants “without unnecessary delay.”  The report recommended addressing protection, mitigation, and emergency preparedness issues with a long-term goal of overhauling the agency’s regulatory structure. The NRC asked its staff to select which recommendations should be addressed first and these prioritizations are expected in early October. These priorities should improve safety and be implemented as soon as possible. The staff recommends actions to reduce seismic and flooding risks as top priorities.

As part of the NRC’s efforts to implement these priorities as soon as possible, the agency is seeking input on a draft letter that would require operators to re-examine their site’s seismic risk and provide the results of their investigations. Comments on the draft letter are due on or before November 15.

Schumer Floating Legislation on Mandatory Background Checks (08/11)
To prevent security threats against infrastructure facilities, Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) will introduce legislation to run background checks on employees at power plants, water treatment plants, and other critical infrastructure. Brought to light by a July 2011 Department of Homeland Security (DHS) report, the upcoming legislation would increase the role of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in the employment process. The DHS report warned that extremists are likely to launch physical and cyber attacks from the inside of a major U.S. utility facility. The DHS report cited “high confidence in [DHS’s] judgment that insiders and their actions pose a significant threat to the infrastructure and information systems of U.S. utilities.” If Schumer’s legislation is passed, background investigations will be run against the FBI’s criminal history record and the Interstate Identification Index, a system that contains fingerprint records from U.S. states, territories, and federal and international criminal justice agencies.

Nuclear and Clean Energy Bills Pass Senate Committee (07/11)
On July 14, the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources reported 23 bills that covered energy, water, and public land issues. Of note in this first package of bills were two nuclear energy demonstration bills and four bills to reduce oil consumption and increase domestic clean energy production. The Nuclear Power 2021 Act (S. 512) would require the Department of Energy (DOE) to demonstrate two small modular reactor designs and the Nuclear Energy Research Initiative Improvement Act of 2011 (S. 1067) would require the DOE to support research to reduce the manufacturing and construction costs associated with nuclear reactors. To reduce oil consumption and increase domestic clean energy development and deployment, the committee passed the Advanced Vehicle Technology Act of 2011 (S. 734), the Energy Savings and Industrial Competitiveness Act of 2011 (S. 1000), the Alternative Fuel Vehicles Competitiveness and Energy Security Act of 2011 (S. 1001), and a bill to promote the domestic development and deployment of clean energy technologies. This last bill would create a Clean Energy Deployment Administration (CEDA) which was first discussed as part of the 21st Century Energy Technology Deployment Act (S. 949) which was introduced in 2009.

Uranium Bill Passes House Energy and Commerce Committee (07/11)
On July 27, 2011 the House Committee on Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy and Power approved by voice vote the Energy and Revenue Enrichment Act of 2011 (H.R. 2054). The legislation, introduced by Representative Ed Whitfield (R-KY), must now be voted on by the full committee. This bill was passed without the support of Representative Bobby Rush (D-IL), subcommittee Ranking Member, and Representative Henry Waxman (D-CA), Ranking Member of the full committee. Under this legislation, the Department of Energy (DOE) would conduct a two year program to re-enrich and consequently sell, the depleted uranium “tails” at government owned plants. Uranium “tails” refer to the 700,000 metric tons of depleted uranium that DOE stores at Portsmouth, Ohio and Paducah, Kentucky. Critics argue the bill creates a monopoly since it does not allow for other domestic facilities to re-enrich uranium before the two year program is over.

NRC Issues Safety Report and Yucca Mountain License Evaluation (07/11)
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has been busy reviewing nuclear power plants in the wake of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant failures in Japan and closing out work on the Yucca Mountain license application.

On July 12, a Near-Term Task Force set-up by the NRC, reviewed the NRC’s processes and procedures in light of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant failures in Japan.  The task force report, Recommendations for Enhancing Reactor Safety in the 21st Century, recommends clarifying the regulatory framework, ensuring protection, enhancing mitigation, strengthening emergency preparedness and improving the efficiency of NRC programs.  In particular, the task force recommends that plants reevaluate and upgrade as needed the design-basis seismic and flooding protection of each reactor and consider ways to mitigate seismically-induced fires and floods.

On July 21, the NRC published the first of three technical evaluation reports about their review of the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository license application. NRC plans to publish two more technical reports and then close out the license application process by September 30, 2011. Congress has not changed the law naming Yucca Mountain as the primary high-level nuclear waste geologic repository and the House went as far as to provide funding for continued work on the Yucca Mountain license application in the fiscal year 2012 Energy appropriations bill even though the Obama Administration has requested terminating all funding for Yucca Mountain. The fall could be a critical time for decisions on Yucca Mountain.

Nuclear Waste Debate Continues in U.S. and Elsewhere (05/11)
Japan continues to struggle with its severely damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant after the March 11 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. Reactors 1, 2 and 3 where the fuel cores have melted remain unstable though a full meltdown has not occurred. Tokyo Electric Power Company hopes to have the reactors under control by January 2012; however, outside experts are growing more uncertain about this time table. Smaller incidents such as the removal of two workers with radiation exposure, an oil leak near reactors 5 and 6 and an explosion near reactor 4 continue to cause concern in Japan and abroad. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) released a draft assessment on June 1, indicating that Japan had underestimated the tsunami danger and had inadequate safety measures. IAEA maintains an update page on Fukushima’s status.

After significant public protests and election defeats, the German government led by Chancellor Angela Merkel announced that Germany will phase out nuclear power plants in the country by 2022. Eight suspended reactors will not be restarted and the other 9 working reactors will be phased out over time. Germany gets about 25 percent of its electricity from nuclear power. The fraction will be replaced by a 10 percent reduction in consumption and a 35 percent increase in renewable energy resources. In the United States, policymakers continue to debate nuclear energy and nuclear waste, though the public has not expressed much sentiment.

In May, the Institute for Policy Studies released a report entitled Spent Nuclear Fuel Pools in the U.S.: Reducing the Deadly Risks of Storage that provoked lots of media attention and concern by its title alone. The report notes that U.S. nuclear power plants have generated about 65,000 metric tons of spent fuel and 75 percent of this spent fuel is stored in pools. The authors recommend that spent fuel older than 5 years be transferred to dry, hardened storage casks that are safer than pools for longer term storage. This would cost between $3.5 and $7 billion and take about 10 years. The funds could be derived from a 0.4 cent per kilowatt-hour fee to nuclear power consumers or taken from the $18.1 billion collected for waste storage as part of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982. The idea of transferring spent fuel from pools to dry storage is consistent with recommendations from a 2005 National Academies report.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) released two reports on spent fuel scenarios if Yucca Mountain is terminated, one on Commercial Nuclear Waste and one on DOE Nuclear Waste. The GAO reports note that commercial nuclear power has generated 65,000 metric tons plus 2,000 metric tons per year in the future at current rates. The Department of Energy (DOE) and the Navy are furthermore responsible for 13,000 metric tons of spent fuel from research and naval operations and much of this is in pools. DOE estimates additional costs of $918 million (2010 constant dollars) to maintain current storage facilities or add more storage from 2020-2040.

Since 1983, DOE has spent $15 billion ($9.5 billion from the waste fund) on the evaluation and license application for the Yucca Mountain geologic waste repository and Congress has appropriated an additional $5 billion for Yucca Mountain activities. There is about $25 billion (2010 constant dollars) in the waste fund as of March 2011 while almost $1 billion has been paid out to companies suing the government for delays in opening a permanent geologic repository. The GAO report notes that the termination of Yucca Mountain means longer term temporary storage and there are no alternatives being considered.

Congress continues to grapple with nuclear waste storage in hearings and legislation. Many oppose the termination of the Yucca Mountain geologic waste repository and no legislation has been introduced that would allow the termination of Yucca Mountain. While DOE has proceeded with termination because the President has ended funding for the project, it will require an act of Congress to change the law. Instead several bills (Roadmap for America’s Energy Future, H.R. 909, and the No More Excuses Energy Act of 2011, H.R. 1023) have been introduced that would force Yucca Mountain to move forward.

The President’s Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future released a draft report suggesting an independent federal agency develop one or more new interim or permanent storage facilities in communities that would accept these projects. The draft report elicited stronger criticism from policymakers opposed to terminating Yucca Mountain. For now, it appears that Congress and the Administration will await the final report of the commission before taking any further action.

Senate Energy Committee Consider Isotope Bill (04/11)
The American Medical Isotope Production Act of 2011 (S. 99), introduced by Senators Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), was marked-up and passed by the Energy and Natural Resources  Committee in April. The measure supports research to increase domestic production of the isotope, molybdenum 99 (Mo-99) while using decreasing amounts of highly-enriched uranium (HEU). Traditionally, Mo-99 is produced by concentrated neutron-bombardment of HEU. Processes based on HEU pose a threat to national security because the materials can be used in nuclear weapons. Mo-99 is preferred for medical purposes because it decays to technetium-99, which is used to detect cancer, heart disease and thyroid disease, to study brain and kidney function and to image stress fractures. A summary of the hearing in February on this issue can be found here

House Committee Launches Yucca Mountain Investigation (04/11)
The Environment and the Economy Subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee sent a letter to Secretary Steven Chu of the Department of Energy and a letter to Chairman Gregory Jaczko of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) about an investigation of the reasons for  terminating the Yucca Mountain high-level nuclear waste repository. The letters seek information that led to the decision to withdraw the licensing application that was pending before the NRC. The letters, signed by Chairman Fred Upton of the full committee and Chairman John Shimkus of the subcommittee, informed the two federal officials that their actions are being evaluated with respect to their responsibilities and obligations under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 (42 USC 10101). 

Nuclear Waste Considerations in the Aftermath of the Tohoku Quake (04/11)
The House Energy and Commerce Committee will hold hearings about whether to terminate the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository in early May and many representatives continue to question the future of the repository. President Obama has requested the termination of Yucca Mountain through the budget requests of fiscal years 2010, 2011 and 2012, but Congress would need to amend current law to do so.  The Department of Energy (DOE) is trying to revoke the Yucca Mountain license application from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) but the NRC has not yet reached a decision. The future of Yucca Mountain has gained renewed interest because of the March 11 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami in Japan that triggered explosions, leaks, evacuations and continued problems at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

The NRC has been in an “emergency” status since the Tohoku earthquake and has been reviewing safety at U.S. nuclear power plants. The status allows NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko to transfer some commission decision-making powers to himself and Jaczko has maintained those rights since the earthquake. Congress passed a law in 1980 authorizing the transfer of decision-making powers, however, now Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) is questioning why the NRC is still in an emergency status so long after the event and potentially not accessing the advice of the commission.

There have also been questions over how Jaczko determined a 50-mile evacuation zone in the early days of the disaster. This was done without the advice of the commission. Part of the Fukushima damage is related to spent fuel pools at the site and the NRC thought there was more spent fuel then there was, so they proposed a 50-mile evacuation zone. Even though the zone is larger than the evacuation zones announced by the Japanese, the Japanese zones continue to grow and the plant continues to suffer from instability and problems.

The U.S. has many spent fuel pools at over 100 power plants that are now of heightened concern after the events in Japan. The U.S. spent fuel was supposed to be moved to a waste repository years ago and Yucca Mountain was supposed to be the central site. Delays and controversy have kept Yucca Mountain from being completed and now the stalemate on Yucca leaves the U.S. without any solution for the growing number of spent fuel ponds at U.S. plants. On May 2, the NRC approved of a large expansion of spent fuel storage at the Beaver Valley Unit 2 in Shippingport, PA after a three year study.

While the federal government favors incentives for nuclear power development, extension of current nuclear plants, nuclear energy research, and enhanced nuclear non-proliferation, local governments as well as foreign governments are reconsidering nuclear energy. The Vermont state government and its utility board are against the continuation of operations by the Yankee Nuclear power plant in Vermont, even though the NRC granted Yankee a 20-year extension. Germany and India are reconsidering further development in nuclear energy within their borders.

Internationally, the 25-year anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in April 26, 2011, set forth calls for improved international safety standards for nuclear power plants. United Nations chief Ban Ki-moon called for the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to be more involved in developing new nuclear safety standards and President Medvedev of Russia called for international standards.

As temporary spent nuclear fuel storage in the U.S. continues to grow and with disasters such as Chernobyl and Fukushima reminding the world of the dangers of nuclear power, the U.S. policy on expansion and oversight of nuclear power and long-term waste storage remains mired in controversy and uncertainty. Some members of Congress have been vocal about their concerns about nuclear energy and nuclear waste, but little legislation has been introduced as legislators consider next steps.

Congress Wants More Information About Yucca Mountain (02/11)
Four members of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee sent a letter to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) on February 10, 2011 requesting information on the scientific and technical evaluation of the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste disposal site.

Committee Chair Ralph Hall (R-TX), Vice-Chairman James Sensenbrenner (R-WI), Investigations and Oversight Subcommittee Chairman Paul Broun (R-GA), and Energy and Environment Subcommittee Chairman Andy Harris (R-MD) sent the letter to each NRC commissioner asking for the immediate release of a yet to be released safety evaluation report on Yucca Mountain that was to be finished by August 2010. The letter says the report addresses post-closure scientific and technical issues associated with storing high level waste at the proposed repository. "Public disclosure of the report and the NRC staff's key findings is necessary to ensure fully informed consideration of science and technology policy issues surrounding this matter," the congressmen wrote.

On February 24, House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-MI) and Environment and the Economy Subcommittee Chairman John Shimkus (R-IL) sent a letter to Secretary of Energy Steven Chu with a list of questions and requests for information regarding the Yucca Mountain project. One question asks whether Chu considers Yucca Mountain a geologically safe site for the disposal of nuclear waste and requests information regarding his decision. The congressmen inquire about the future of the Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management; the application licensing process; and the financial status of the project. In the letter, the lawmakers write that they have an obligation to taxpayers to deliver a waste repository for which they have been providing money and to prevent the U.S. Treasury from paying damages to nuclear energy companies whose contracts with the Department of Energy to accept nuclear waste have been breached.

Colorado Approves First Uranium Mill in 25 Years
Colorado has approved the first uranium mill to be built in the U.S. in over 25 years. On January 4, the state’s Department of Public Health and Environment approved Energy Fuels Inc.’s application for a license to operate a joint uranium-vanadium mill in the Western Colorado town of Naturita. Energy Fuels, a Canadian company, owns two uranium mines in proximity to the mill and plans to process 500 tons of ore per day, enough to fuel 2,000 megawatts of nuclear power, according to the company. Local opposition groups have raised concerns that Energy Fuels has not set aside sufficient funds to finance clean up of contaminated groundwater and soil that could result from the tailings disposal. Please see the health department’s press release and Energy Fuels web page on the mill for further details.

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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Nuclear Energy
Currently, 104 nuclear reactors operate in 31 states, generating 20 percent 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 was included in many major energy policy initiatives introduced by President George W. Bush. 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. In the 111th Congress, Senators introduced The Nuclear Power 2021 Act (S.2812) to amend the Energy Policy Act of 2005 and stimulate development of new, cost-effective, small nuclear reactors.

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. Spent fuel is presently stored at 120 temporary locations around the country in 33 states, including at commercial reactor facilities and former DOE weapons production sites. 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 on 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. Under the act, DOE accepts fees from nuclear electricity companies in return for providing a repository; if DOE does not fulfill this obligation by 2020 it must accept the waste itself, which could cost taxpayers billions of dollars. 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, 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 caused construction delays, and the earliest the facility would be operable is now 2020.

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 standards, however, were criticized for only extending 10,000 years.

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.

The state of Nevada challenged the project 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 project 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, and the facility does not look to be operable until 2020.

At President Obama’s request, the Department of Energy filed a motion with the NRC in March 2010 to withdraw its license application for a waste repository at Yucca Mountain. However, in June 2010, a panel of judges at the NRC ruled that the DOE did not have the authority withdraw its application and only Congress could.

In October 2010, 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 cited the lack of a budget for fiscal year (FY) 2011 as his reason for closing the review. President Obama included no funding for the program in his FY 2011 budget request. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) wants the Yucca Mountain repository to be terminated, as do the majority of residents in Nevada. South Carolina and Washington, which have temporary nuclear waste storage sites, are suing to overturn Jaczko’s decision. Several members of Congress condemned Jaczko’s action, and it is likely to be reviewed in the courts.

President Obama has made it clear he does not support Yucca Mountain as a waste repository and essentially attempted to terminate the project by eliminating funding for it in his FY 2011 budget request. The future of the project remains unknown. 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.

President Obama directed DOE Secretary Chu in March 2010 to establish the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future to conduct a review of policies for managing the back end of the nuclear fuel cycle and to provide recommendations for developing a waste management solution. Videos, presentations and statements from past meetings and notices of future meetings are available at the Blue Ribbon Commission’s web site.

Contributed by Linda Rowan, Geoscience Policy staff; Dana Thomas, AAPG/AGI Spring 2011 Intern; and Erin Camp, AAPG/AGI Fall 2011 Intern.

Background section includes material from AGI's summaries and updates for Nuclear Energy/Nuclear Waste in the 111th Congress, NAS, CRS reports, EPA, and DOE Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management.

Please send any comments or requests for information to AGI Geoscience Policy.

Last updated on September 17, 2012