Mitigating Nuclear Hazards - Part 7, High-Level Waste

I’ve spent most of my 35-year professional career directly involved or as an interested observer of the nuclear waste crisis. This could be one of the biggest and most dangerously expensive problems for humanity to resolve worldwide as it has direct implications for the health and safety of communities, affects the military’s ability to use nuclear powered ships, as well as likelihood of needing future nuclear energy to limit climate change impacts. Let me give a brief overview to provide my insights.

The issue is what to do with spent nuclear fuel that is now high-level waste (HLW) which is so highly radioactive that it will be a problem for hundreds of thousands of years. In fact, a federal court required EPA to require calculations of future dose amounts up to one million years in the future!

The waste currently is filling up wet and dry storage capacity at existing nuclear power plants as well as military sites that are close to population areas. The risk of accidents or terrorist activity only increases over time so something must be done as soon as possible.

In 1984-85 working for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), I joined a group reviewing nine environmental assessments for potential locations to store and dispose HLW. DOE proposed and NRC agreed with three sites for characterization but Congress decided only one site would be characterized at Yucca Mountain, Nevada. The extreme dry desert conditions seemed ideal for HLW disposal. However, working at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in 1998 on site hydrology, I learned the southwestern U.S. had been a very wet site during the Pleistocene epoch about 15,000 years ago. The water table had risen 300 meters and altered clay minerals. Several underground experiments in the 7 kilometer tunnel indicated much more water was present than anticipated which flowed through fractures and could pose a problem for building a repository to hold HLW.

I kept working on Yucca Mountain at NRC from 1999 to 2004 to evaluate geologic interactions with HLW. One of my first assignments in 1999 at NRC was to review the Environmental Impact Statement by Department of Energy on the proposed Yucca Mountain repository site. It became obvious that leaving the used fuel in current locations near population areas is much riskier than getting the waste moved to remote desert location(s). The greatest projected risk would be to miners creating the underground repository from being exposed to naturally-occurring radon.

We looked at many issues (we called risk scenarios) and developed performance assessment methods. As with everything we found pros and cons for the site but no other alternatives were considered. I gained confidence in the site by looking at multiple natural and engineered barriers such as the two billion year old Oklo nuclear reactor that occurred in nature so we can look at how far radionuclides migrated. I also got to tour underground in the 7 km experimental studies facility the day after a magnitude 7.0 earthquake hit the Mojave Desert and shook Las Vegas. Underground I became surprised to learn there were no fallen rock or damage.

I left NRC in 2005 to become an environmental consultant then joined DOE in 2008 at the Las Vegas office to answer NRC questions on the Yucca Mountain license application and we made very good progress overall. However, after spending 20 years and $11 billion or so, President Obama ended the site program in 2010.

A book published this year by a former NRC Chairman, Greg Jaczko, describes his rise to power . After earning a Ph.D. in theoretical particle physics, he went to work in Washington on a AAAS fellowship with Congressman Ed Markey and then states, “In March 2001, I joined Senator Reid’s staff…to help him fight the Yucca Mountain project.” He describes the powerful Nuclear Energy Institute and cites his concern for the nuclear industry having too much control over the regulatory environment. With Reid’s support, he became Commissioner of NRC for four years then was appointed Chairman with the election of President Obama. He cites a conversation with chief of staff Rahm Emanuel who said, “…the president wants to address climate change and he needs to have nuclear power as part of that program.”

However, support for nuclear energy did not include Yucca Mountain for storage and disposal of high-level radioactive waste. Jaczko states, “…I pushed to make good on the president’s promise to end the program to store nuclear waste in Nevada. The administration had bungled the effort to close down the Yucca Mountain project, so I stepped in, using my full authority of my office to finish the job.” Later in the book he states, “Yucca Mountain was, after all, essential to the industry’s success. Without a permanent depository for used nuclear fuel, it would continue to face challenges to its effort to operate and possibly even expand.”

Jaczko (in my opinion) coldly describes what happened next, “In February 2010…DOE closed down the Yucca Mountain site. Thousands of contractors and federal workers were terminated.”

A blue-ribbon commission (BRC) confirmed that geologic disposal in required. Despite any technological progress that had been made, there is no political willpower to resolve the HLW crisis. The BRC listed their recommendations:

“The strategy we recommend in this report has eight key elements: 1. A new, consent-based approach to siting future nuclear waste management facilities. 2. A new organization dedicated solely to implementing the waste management program and empowered with the authority and resources to succeed. 3. Access to the funds nuclear utility ratepayers are providing for the purpose of nuclear waste management. 4. Prompt efforts to develop one or more geologic disposal facilities. 5. Prompt efforts to develop one or more consolidated storage facilities.2 6. Prompt efforts to prepare for the eventual large-scale transport of spent nuclear fuel and high-level waste to consolidated storage and disposal facilities when such facilities become available. 7. Support for continued U.S. innovation in nuclear energy technology and for workforce development. 8. Active U.S. leadership in international efforts to address safety, waste management, non-proliferation, and security concerns.”

In addition, the U.S. government agreed in 1982 to take HLW from the industry by 1998 so the feds are paying industry for not taking HLW. A report in 2015 stated that the federal government will pay utilities an estimated $27 billion assuming they can find a storage site by 2021.

The DOE made several failed attempts to get consent-based siting including in North Dakota and a storage site in New Mexico does not have local support either.

On June 7, 2019, Congressional Representative Harley Rouda, the Chairman of the Subcommittee on Environment, held a field hearing in Laguna Niguel, California on “Examining America’s Nuclear Waste Management, Storage, and the Need for Solutions with the following takeaways:

  • The Chairman, Ranking Member and all witnesses recognized that the disposal of nuclear waste is a bipartisan issue and stressed the need for a bipartisan solution.

  • Don Hancock of the Southwest Research and Information Center testified that it will be necessary to have multiple repositories in several locations across the country, not just a single facility located in Yucca Mountain,  as the Trump administration proposed.  

  • Reprocessing nuclear waste is not a long-term solution for America’s nuclear waste storage problem.  Nuclear waste disposal will be needed for the foreseeable future.

  • Chairman Rouda focused on the need to provide economic incentives to encourage communities to consider hosting long-term storage solutions.  Siting long-term nuclear storage facilities must take into account environmental and health impacts as well as safety concerns.

Other countries including Finland, Sweden, and France are making much more progress with finding solutions to nuclear waste storage and disposal. In Finland, according to World Nuclear News, a First in the World full scale test is planned this summer for underground disposal of spent fuel which needed to obtain an operating license.