Radioactive waste has often been referred to as the Achilles heel of nuclear power. It should be. It poses a threat to human health and our environment for hundreds of thousands of years. To date, a safe and viable way to permanently isolate it has not been identified. However, this dilemma has not kept nuclear out of the U.S. energy portfolio or dampened the zeal for a new generation of nuclear reactors by the industry and its congressional allies. A recent court decision, the termination of the Yucca Mountain geological repository and lessons from the Japan nuclear crisis present new arguments for why radioactive waste should be a chief reason we abandon nuclear power once and for all, but it is still might not be enough.
Getting around the waste issue
The dilemma of what to do with the high-level nuclear waste generated by reactors has always been divorced from the licensing process. In fact, those participating in licensing are not allowed to raise concerns about the waste that would be generated by a proposed reactor because of a generic rule set by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) in 1984 that is based on the so-called Waste Confidence Decision.
The main tenets of the Waste Confidence Decision are based on the assumptions that radioactive wastes generated by nuclear power plants can be safely disposed of, a permanent disposal site will eventually be available, and radioactive wastes can be safely stored onsite past the expiration of existing facility licenses until a permanent disposal site is available. But when it comes to waste that remains dangerous for hundreds of thousands of years, assumptions are a reckless gamble.
A federal court agrees.
On June 8, 2012, the U.S. Court of Appeals in the District of Columbia ruled that Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s Waste Confidence Decision is inadequate and that the commission has failed to fully evaluate risks associated with its regulations on the storage of spent nuclear fuel as required under the National Environmental Policy Act
In other words, the reasonable assurances that have served as the rationale for allowing the use of an energy source whose byproduct poses a serious danger to human health – and because of its toxicity and longevity, must be permanently isolated from our environment – are not valid.
In response, 24 groups challenging both new reactor licenses and license renewals for existing reactors filed a petition urging the NRC to respond to the court ruling by freezing final licensing decisions until it has completed a rulemaking action on the environmental impacts of highly radioactive nuclear waste in the form of spent, or “used” reactor fuel storage and disposal.
On July 8, 2012, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission complied with the group’s request, stating, “in recognition of our duties under the law, we will not issue licenses dependent upon the Waste Confidence Decision or the Temporary Storage Rule until the court’s remand is appropriately addressed.”
Contrary to initial reports, however, this doesn’t mean that there will be no new reactor until policy-makers decide the next course of action on nuclear waste management, Nor does it mean that existing reactors whose licenses expire will have to stop functioning.
It means the agency has to technically assess the environmental consequences of storing waste at nuclear power plants for the foreseeable future, address the possibility that the waste would need to be managed onsite indefinitely and demonstrate how it will mitigate those consequences. How the NRC will fulfill these new mandates in unclear. However, while options are being considered, license and relicense reviews will proceed. In the long-term, some license renewals –which allow aging reactors to operate for an additional 20 years will be delayed. But even if the NRC fails to satisfy the new regulatory demands by the time reactors’ licenses expire, they will be able to continue operation since it is the NRC that is holding up the process.
Beyond the question of waste reactors facing extensions are rife with other problems that make their renewals questionable and new reactor licenses will more likely fail not because of agency inaction but because of cost overruns, declining energy demand and cheap natural gas. The NRC could also still appeal the court’s decision, but based on the July 8 vote, it is unlikely that it will.
However, Congress could step in and legislate the Waste Confidence Decision, effectively overturning the court decisions, by enacting policy that would amend the NRC’s National Environmental Policy Act requirements, eliminating the NRC’s responsibility to technically prove that waste stored onsite for several decades will not harm the environment. Further, congressional nuclear boosters could see this as an opportunity to resuscitate Yucca Mountain.
Yucca Mountain and Fukushima
The court’s decision comes in the wake of other harsh realities facing the nuclear industry and its regulators. In 1982, Congress passed the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, requiring the establishment of a deep geologic repository for nuclear waste storage and isolation. In 1989, Congress designated Yucca Mountain, about 80 miles north of Las Vegas, as the future waste repository site. It was controversial because it was located in an earthquake zone and near a drinking water aquifer In 2010, after more than 20 years, the plug was pulled on the project.
A recent failed court case attempted to compel the NRC to resume consideration of the Yucca Mountain licensing proceeding. Whether nuclear proponents in Congress will take up the fight to keep Yucca Mountain on the table is unclear. Even if the licensing process for this site was resumed or the siting and licensing of a new repository is pursued, it could take another decade or more to come to fruition, which means for the foreseeable future the waste will need to be stored onsite.
The Japanese nuclear crisis, in part, exposed the vulnerabilities in the way waste is being stored at U.S. nuclear power plants. According to the Department of Energy, 65, 000 metric tons of spent fuel is being stored at U.S. nuclear power plants, and approximately 75 percent of that fuel is packed into cooling pools. A report by the Institute for Policy Studies reveals that these pools are beyond capacity and lack proper containment, a potentially lethal combination that demands regulatory action.
Unfortunately neither the near-term task force created to review the lessons from Fukushima accident nor the Blue Ribbon Commission established to review policies for managing nuclear waste and recommend a new plan, adequately address the issues associated with current onsite storage practices.
The court’s decision, underscored by the current realities of waste management and disposal, are testament to the abject failure and perhaps hubris of developing a risky technology under the assumption that one day there would be a place to permanently store the lethal waste generated and that the nuclear waste could be safely stored onsite in the meantime. But there are few signs that our government and the nuclear industry have any intention to stop digging deeper into the nuclear hole.