C.T. CARLEY: Nuclear waste issues continue as costly item

By C.T. Carley

The quickest way to measure the size of the nuclear waste problem in Mississippi is to calculate its cost. Since 1983, users of nuclear-generated electricity from the Grand Gulf nuclear power plant and other reactors in neighboring states – and that’s just about everyone who has home air-conditioning or who turns on the lights or charges a cell phone – have paid a total of $384 million, including interest, to finance the federal government’s nuclear waste program.
But, we have yet to receive any benefit from the program.
We are continuing to pay a fee of one-tenth of a cent per kilowatt-hour generated, even though President Obama terminated he Yucca Mountain waste-repository project four years ago. Even by Washington standards, the payments aren’t small change. Nationally, the nuclear-waste payments have reached $35.8 billion. The money goes into the U.S. Nuclear Waste Fund, that was created under the landmark Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 to pay for construction of a deep-geologic repository to hold high-level radioactive waste from our defense programs and from nuclear electricity production.
Now things are coming to a head. The Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) and the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NARUC) have asked a federal court to order the Department of Energy to promptly suspend payments to the Nuclear Waste Fund until Congress addresses the waste problem in new legislation. Absent this, or the restart of the Yucca Mountain project, on which $10.8 billion has already been spent, “DOE cannot justify continued Waste Fund fee collections,” NEI and NARUC said in the court petition.
Meanwhile, the amount of used fuel stored at nuclear electric generating plants is increasing. Nationally, it has reached 69,720 metric tons, that is kept in engineered water pools and concrete-and-steel dry casks at plant sites. In Mississippi alone 870 metric tons of used fuel is stored at Grand Gulf. As the production of nuclear-generated electricity continues, the amount of used fuel will grow.
The quantity of used fuel stored around the country already exceeds the maximum amount Congress authorized for disposal at Yucca Mountain. So, it is likely that multiple waste repositories at more than one site will be needed.
Yet, while suspending payments to the Nuclear Waste Fund is a start, and may help us break the political gridlock over the nuclear waste program – and help revive the Yucca Mountain project, it is unlikely to be enough to address our long-term needs. The experience of many other countries with nuclear electricity generating plants suggests that recycling used fuel significantly reduces the amount of waste that must be stored in a repository. Recycling also extends uranium resources.
France, Great Britain and other countries have shown that the process is safe and, contrary to the claims of nuclear critics, does not contribute to the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
Nuclear power is far too important to be saddled with our government’s failure to build a repository. So, unless Nevada politicians develop a sudden affinity for nuclear waste, users of nuclear-generated electricity are likely to be stuck with tens of billions in lost payments to the Nuclear Waste Fund. Instead of being used for its intended purpose, the money is being diverted into the U.S. General Fund to help reduce the budget deficit. That’s folly!
Our country needs nuclear-generated electricity as prudent insurance against the possibility that natural gas prices may balloon in the future. and, our fleet of nuclear plants is the only major source of electrical energy that doesn’t pollute the air or emit greenhouse gasses. U.S. nuclear plants, moreover, produce electricity about 90 percent of the time, compared to 30 percent for wind power and much less for solar power. But without used fuel recycling or a place to permanently dispose of waste, the present unacceptable situation will continue indefinitely.
C.T. CARLEY, Ph.D., P.E., is Professor Emeritus of Mechanical Engineering at Mississippi State University. Contact him at ctcarley@bellsouth.net.