Ruling green lights temporary nuclear waste storage

With no central underground depository, above-ground casks will have to do.


For decades, the U.S. nuclear energy industry has struggled to answer the biggest question posed by regulators and anti-nuke activists: How much confidence can we have in its ability to safely store radioactive waste long-term?

The most recent answer, according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, is quite a lot. Last month, the agency in charge of regulating the commercial nuclear industry approved a rule that would allow for nuclear power plants to store radioactive waste above ground, indefinitely. The policy streamlines the environmental review process on projects related to nuclear energy, and supporters say it takes the pressure off attempts to establish a long-term underground repository.

Nuclear plants have operated for many years under the “waste confidence rule,” which allowed industry officials to assume that, at some point in the future, there would be a long-term burial site for the country’s 80,000 tons of commercial nuclear waste. As a result, plants have stored highly radioactive waste in “temporary” leak-prone pools of water, located on site. In the 1980s, the industry developed a safer storage alternative in dry cement casks – where waste could be transferred after cooling for five years in the pools.

Currently, the NRC does not require plants to transfer waste from wet storage to concrete casks until after a reactor is decommissioned, which means hazardous material sits in the pools for many decades. All told, two thirds of the nation’s nuclear power plant waste – just over 53,000 tons – is stored in such pools. Last week’s ruling, however, does not actually require plants to move waste to the cement casks promptly; it just affirms that the casks are indeed safe in the long-term.

The decision comes in response to a lengthy debate about how we deal with the nasty byproducts. After plans to bury waste in Nevada’s Yucca Mountain were killed in 2009 for political reasons, the industry faced new pressure to find different solutions. As a result, the NRC froze licensing for new nuclear power plants and renewals for current plants in 2012 while it investigated the long term safety of interim storage more thoroughly.  

The new ruling represents the Commission’s conclusion, based on its studies, that the industry can safely store the radioactive waste for 100 years and more in the existing temporary facilities.

“The new ruling is important because it essentially says dry cask storage is incredibly safe,” said James Conca, a scientist and expert on nuclear waste disposal. “We’ve known this for years,” he said, but we hadn’t done enough modeling over 100 years to prove it.”

The NRC tests found that the dry casks – which look like giant concrete cylinders, and are about the size of a one car garage – completely contain all radiation while passively cooling the material inside. They resist earthquakes, projectiles, tornadoes, floods, temperature extremes and tsunamis. In other words, they’re bombproof holding tanks. But they’re also expensive. It would cost about $7 billion to move all waste in the country that has cooled in pools for at least five years into casks.

According to Geoffrey Fettus, a lawyer for the NRDC, based on industry’s spotty track record of managing radioactive and other forms of hazardous waste, it’s not reasonable to assume nuclear plants can guarantee the safety of their waste storage facilities over long time frames.

And while the sealed casks above ground may be better than open pools, they aren’t as safe as a deep geologic burial site could be, says Conca. “You don’t want the stuff just sitting in the open ground for thousands of years like Chinese statues,” he said.

Though the new policy streamlines the process of opening nuclear power plants, we’re not likely to see a flurry of new projects. Of the 24 pending licenses related to commercial nuclear activity, only four are for building new plants, but all face major financing obstacles. (The estimated price of building a facility has tripled over the past 10 years, mostly due to upgraded safety standards and labor and construction costs.)

The ruling provides a temporary solution but leaves open a thornier question: has the NRC inadvertently allowed policymakers to ignore the task of finding a suitable waste disposal site for centuries to come?

“Indefinite or even long term surface storage is not the appropriate alternative to deep geologic disposal,” NRC chairwoman Allison McFarlane wrote in her comments on the ruling.

In the meantime, it looks like solving the nuclear waste problem may well have become a Sisyphean task.

Sarah Tory is an editorial intern at High Country News.

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