The current state of our nuclear industry generates a total of 2,000 – 3,000 metric tons of nuclear fuel a year. Over the past 40 years we have accumulated 76,430 metric tons of used nuclear fuel, coming from the creation of nuclear weapons, nuclear power, and the materials used manufacture these products. Within 90 miles of Athens there is approximately 36 million gallons of high-level waste at the Savannah River Site, SRS, (outside of Aiken, SC) and Plant Vogtle will continue to contribute to our countries nuclear waste once reactors 3 and 4 come online.
In 2002, Congress approved the construction the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository 80 miles outside of Las Vegas. This construction was designated by the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1987, to have the DOE build and manage such a facility. Yucca Mountain Repository was to replace the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, built-in 1999, which was designed for low-level waste. In 2008, the DOE successfully attained licensing to build Yucca Mountain after proving the viability of using it as a storage site, but in 2011 funding was cut for the program. The site currently sits abandoned with no waste tunnels, receiving and handling facilities, or waste containers built. Our country does not currently have a national repository that can store nuclear waste, so where is it now? Until a repository can be created, all the spent fuel and waste must be stored at the 121 locations across the country. At Vogtle, the spent fuel is stored in big tanks of cool water until it can be processed. At the Savannah River Site, liquid nuclear waste is encased in glass and stored in large canisters beneath the ground. With no repository coming online any time soon, this has caused states to take an initiative with on-site storage. When SRS began converting its waste into glass, it had a max on site storage capacity of 3,000 canisters. Renovations are currently being made to double the capacity to 6,000 canisters in lieu of the stalled national repository.
Many advocates of the repository claim that it’s a matter of national security to have nuclear waste stored in a centralized location, one where it is easy ensure the safety of the public. Nevada is very much against the idea of hosting a repository, as one can expect, even when the site is on federally owned land. The Nevada state government claims that the site can lead to irreversible environmental damage such as contamination of groundwater. Nevada began preparing to fight against the project when President Trump recently proposed a $120 million-dollar increase in the budget to restart the licensing process of Yucca Mountain.
The revised 2008 cost for building Yucca Mountain was $96.2 billion USD, which included the $13.5 billion already invested into the project. A new budget for the project has yet to be created, and it is probably going to be larger now due to lack of continued maintenance and construction. So, are we saving money by not building such a facility? Well the answer is: sort of. The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 required the DOE to begin removing fuel from reactor sites by 1998. Since then there has been $5 billion in court-awarded damage settlements as of 2015. Projections are that by 2022, $29 billion will be paid to the companies who are storing it on site. The companies who store this waste are incentivized to store their waste in their home states. Why would they lobby for repository if they can make money by producing power and storing waste? So, whose problem is it anyways: the federal government, states, energy companies, or your average college student?
- If nuclear energy is the way of the future, why are we not talking about how we are going to manage our nuclear waste?
- Do you think a national repository is a matter of national security and is it worth the cost to build one?
- We have the policy set forth in the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, so what should we do next to manage our waste?
- Should states be responsible for the waste they produce due to the government’s inability to provide a solution?
John Oliver had a bit where he talked a lot about nuclear waste and how it is a problem. It’s a pretty good video that summarizes the issues along with an attempt at some humor.