Time Ticking on Nuclear Waste Decision

As the U.S. extends the life of its nuclear plants far into the future, a potentially critical question remains: Where will the reactors' intensely radioactive waste be stored for thousands of years to come?

As the U.S. extends the life of its nuclear plants far into the future, a potentially critical question remains: Where will the reactors' intensely radioactive waste be stored for thousands of years to come?

The question is especially important to Illinois, home to much more spent nuclear fuel than any other state. Nearly 8,000 tons of used fuel is stored in deep pools of water or massive concrete vessels at the state's 14 commercial reactors, three of which have been shut down for years.

Erratic planning for nuclear waste has left no place for permanent disposal until perhaps 2015, when the Yucca Mountain underground repository is scheduled to open in Nevada. Even then, the volume of spent nuclear fuel will continue to grow at reactors around the country for decades.

Yucca Mountain was to have opened in 1998 but fierce opposition from the State of Nevada and anti-nuclear activists has caused chronic delays.

"The program is already... years behind schedule," said Steven Kraft, director of waste management at the Nuclear Energy Institute, the policy organization of the nuclear industry.


Kraft said Yucca Mountain, limited by law to accepting no more than 77,000 tons of nuclear waste, will begin to reach that barrier after 2030. He said a second repository must be built then or the law must be changed to allow its expansion.

More than 50,000 tons of nuclear fuel is dispersed across the U.S. at more than 120 sites, mostly nuclear plants. Every commercial reactor has stored spent fuel, still lethally radioactive, that has accumulated from the day the plant opened.

Illinois has more commercial reactors than any other state, and many are old, dating to the 1970s, so the amounts of waste have mounted up.

Chicago-based Exelon Corp., like other nuclear plant operators, is seeking to extend the licenses of its plants in Illinois, Pennsylvania and New Jersey, meaning they will continue to operate past 2030 and generate even more nuclear waste.

Exelon is also considering opening a new nuclear plant in Illinois in Clinton, about 20 miles south of Bloomington. The company says that will be politically possible only if there is a permanent disposal site.

"We don't believe you will ever see another nuclear plant built unless there is a solution to high-level nuclear waste," said Exelon spokesman Craig Nesbit. "It is an impediment to the industry."

The nuclear industry says that if Yucca Mountain never opens it will be forced to continue storing radioactive spent fuel at reactors around the country.

As storage pools fill up, utilities will begin storing the waste outdoors in massive metal and concrete containers. The containers are expected to have a lifespan of a century or more, but are not expected to safely contain the waste for the needed 10,000 years or longer.

Adam Levin, director of spent fuel and decommissioning strategy for Exelon, said even if Yucca Mountain opens in 2015 the amount of nuclear waste in Illinois will nearly double, to 15,000 tons, over the next quarter-century.

With the continuing opposition of Nevada, however, there is no guarantee Yucca Mountain will open in 10 years.

"If Yucca Mountain does not open, we will continue to operate our [reactors], and spent fuel will continue to accumulate at our sites," Levin said.

That prospect infuriates anti-nuclear activists.

"We were saying all along that one of the big shams of Yucca Mountain is that it is totally inadequate," said Dave Kraft, director of the Evanston-based Nuclear Energy Information Service.

Kraft said Yucca Mountain was sold to the public with the idea that nuclear waste scattered around the country would be centralized in one location. The argument was that spent nuclear fuel would be more safely stored 1,000 feet below the Nevada desert than on the surface at nuclear plants, many located near cities.

But that consolidation will never happen, Kraft said, because the nuclear industry will continue to generate new waste far into the future.

When utilities began construction of nuclear plants in the 1960s and 1970s it was thought that only a limited amount of spent fuel would be stored near the reactor.

Five years in a storage pool, it was thought, would give the ceramic-clad uranium pellets time to cool for transportation to a reprocessing plant, where plutonium and uranium isotopes could be extracted and turned into new fuel. The cycle would still generate nuclear waste, though not as much as using the fuel just once.

Among the reprocessing plants was one built by General Electric Co. in Morris, Ill. The plant, which never operated, now stores spent nuclear fuel.

President Jimmy Carter banned reprocessing in 1977 over concerns that plutonium could be diverted and used to make a nuclear bomb.

In the early 1980s the government settled on deep-earth burial for the mounting inventory of nuclear waste. Eventually, Yucca Mountain was selected and an opening date of 1998 was set.

Ruth Weiner, a chemist affiliated with the American Nuclear Society, said the opening date was a guess from the start.

"When you start a project like this, it is really difficult to estimate how much time or how many dollars it will take," said Weiner, who stressed that she was speaking for herself and not the organization.

Although the 35-mile-long maze of storage tunnels has yet to be dug, the Energy Department has already spent $8 billion on research and other expenses at Yucca Mountain.

Energy Department spokesman Allen Benson said the money came from a one-tenth-of-one-cent-per-kilowatt-hour charge on the electric bills of consumers served by nuclear utilities.

He said the surcharge, levied since 1983, will continue until Yucca Mountain is completed.

"The projected life cycle cost is $60 billion," Benson said.

Of course, that assumes Yucca Mountain will open some day.

An opinion poll commissioned by the State of Nevada in October found that nearly 77 percent of Nevadans opposed locating a nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain and would vote against it if given the chance.

Yucca Mountain, located 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas, is in an arid, sparsely populated area. But critics have noted evidence of past volcanic activity, and a water aquifer lies 1,000 feet below the proposed storage tunnels. Since the waste will remain dangerous for at least 10,000 years, there is concern that radioactive material could someday enter the environment.

"I think that Yucca Mountain is the worst site researched in this country, and I support geological storage," said Arjun Makhijani, president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research.

Makhijani said a nuclear dump site should be built in stable rock where it can never migrate into the environment, a test Yucca Mountain fails.

The Energy Department disputes that claim, as does the Nuclear Energy Institute.

Nor is the public getting much value for the $8 billion and rising cost of Yucca Mountain, Makhijani said.

"The government has wasted most of the money," he said.

Source: Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News