Nuclear expansion was touted this week as the answer to America’s energy needs, but there is still a question of what to do with the spent fuel the process creates.
Just a few hundred yards past a Burke County podium where Energy Secretary Steven Chu cheered the $14 billion expansion of Plant Vogtle, a lesser known construction project is under way to add storage for spent fuel that could be stranded indefinitely here in Georgia.
The waste, part of 2,490 metric tons of the material statewide, has been accumulating in concrete-lined pools since Vogtle’s first two reactors went online in 1987 and 1989. Those pools will be full in 2014, however, and the cancellation of the government’s Yucca Mountain waste repository in Nevada has left the fate of spent fuel from all 104 U.S. reactors in limbo.
Under the 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act, the Department of Energy became responsible for disposal solutions, and Congress approved Yucca Mountain in 2002. Under an Obama administration edict, however, the project was canceled and a Blue Ribbon Commission was appointed to seek alternatives.
Southern Co. executives who testified before that panel last year urged the government to honor its commitment to finish Yucca Mountain and noted that its customers have paid about $1 billion into a nuclear waste fund that was to finance a permanent repository for spent fuel.
Although Chu’s commission was directed not to take a position on Yucca Mountain, its members reiterated in a final report issued Jan. 26 that a deep geologic repository “remains essential to nuclear waste disposal” and suggested interim storage sites could safely and temporarily be used to consolidate the materials.
During his visit to Georgia on Wednesday, Chu addressed the issue by announcing a “working group” to explore the recently released recommendations.
“Finding a workable way to end the stalemate over the safe and secure storage of used nuclear fuel is one of the most important things we can do to support this vital industry,” he said.
Possible options could include the controversial practice of reprocessing spent fuel to recover usable materials, but commissioners concluded years, and possibly decades, of additional research would be needed to fine-tune such technology.
Chu promised to seek funding for such research, which has raised the possibility that Savannah River Site in South Carolina could become a venue for such projects.
In addition to holding huge quantities of nuclear weapons production waste that was to be disposed of at Yucca Mountain, SRS is in a state that – along with Georgia – ranks among the nation’s top 10 states for the volume of spent nuclear fuel in storage.
Although Chu’s Blue Ribbon Commission’s recommendations were general, SRS could play a role in an eventual solution, said Rick McLeod, the executive director of the SRS Community Reuse Organization, an economic development consortium.
“There are two issues there: the need for a repository itself for spent fuel and defense waste, and also the idea of consolidated interim storage,” he said, noting that SRS is already a storage site by default.
One commission recommendation, McLeod said, was to locate nuclear waste facilities in places where the community wants them, such as an area in New Mexico where the government’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant waste burial ground is already in operation.
“You already have folks out there, in cities like Carlsbad and Hobbs, actively marketing a site for interim storage,” McLeod said.
There is no way to tell whether SRS would be evaluated for a regional storage facility, he said, noting that a more likely scenario would be that the site is used for reprocessing research.
Environmental activists, however, believe Chu’s committee will meet overwhelming opposition if an attempt is made to store spent nuclear fuel at a site that already houses huge volumes of defense waste.
“I can assure you the environmental groups in South Carolina are going to be engaged actively and would be strongly opposed to it,” said Tom Clements, the nonproliferation policy director for the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability.
He said SRS is unsuitable for a permanent repository because of the region’s geology.
“So if they proposed anything, it would be an interim thing,” he said. “But it would get a lot of opposition.”
Plant Vogtle is among many sites where long-term storage systems are being built.
Cask storage is already in place at Vogtle’s sister nuclear plants Hatch and Farley, which have 42 and 12 casks filled, respectively. Those sites are among 51 licensed cask facilities in 47 locations in the U.S., according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
And with no clear plan in sight for a national geologic repository, the NRC revealed in a Federal Register notice last year that it has drafted longer-term rules for storing both spent fuel and high-level radioactive wastes onsite for as long as 120 years.
Southern Nuclear, Southern Co.’s nuclear plant operating company, is making similar long-term plans at Plant Vogtle, declaring to the NRC last year that it expects to fill 110 dry storage casks by 2035 – all from the existing inventory of spent fuel from units 1 and 2.