Chapter 59: Blue Ribbon Commission

This chapter was published on “Inuitech – Intuitech Technologies for Sustainability” on April 22, 2013.

1.       THE BLUE RIBBON COMMISSION:

There are 104 commercial nuclear power reactors operating in the United States today; together they supply approximately 20 percent of the nation’s electricity needs.

Given that each reactor uses about 20 metric tons of uranium fuel per year, the industry as a whole generates 2,000 to 2,400 metric tons of spent fuel on an annual basis (1 metric ton equals about 2,200 pounds).   At present, almost all the national existing inventory of SNF is being stored at the reactor sites where it was generated – about three-quarters of it in shielded concrete pools and the remainder in dry casks above ground. The quantity of commercially-generated spent reactor fuel currently being stored in this manner totals close to 65,000 metric tons—roughly speaking, it would cover one football field to a depth of approximately 20 feet. This inventory includes approximately 3,000 metric tons of spent fuel in storage at nine sites where commercial reactors have been shut down and are no longer operating.

In addition to the spent fuel currently being stored at commercial nuclear power plant sites around the country, there are substantial quantities of spent fuel and HLW at a number of government-owned facilities managed by the Department of Energy (DOE).  Most but not all of this material derives from national defense nuclear activities and is therefore often referred to as “defense waste.” It is important to be clear, however, that these materials were produced and have always been managed by DOE and its predecessor agencies, which had responsibility for nuclear weapons production—not by the Department of Defense.

The federal inventory currently includes a relatively small quantity of spent fuel—approximately 27 metric tons—from naval reactors that power the nation’s fleet of 83 nuclear powered submarines and aircraft carriers. The inventory of naval SNF is growing slowly, at a rate of 1 to 2 metric tons per year, due to the continued operation and necessary re-fueling of reactors on these ships. The Navy’s current projection is that a total of 65 metric tons will be generated by 2035, all of which would be destined for disposal in a repository (the Navy does not consider reprocessing as an option for its SNF).

The Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program (NNPP), an integrated program carried out jointly by the Navy and DOE, manages spent naval reactor fuel, which for many years has been shipped to INL for technical studies and storage pending final disposal. Current practice is to transport the Navy’s SNF from the shipyards where refueling occurs by rail, in specially-designed casks, to the Naval Reactors Facility (NRF) on the INL. At NRF, the spent fuel is placed in a water pool similar to those used for commercial and other DOE spent fuel, examined to confirm that its actual condition is consistent with expectations, and evaluated for other technical studies (e.g., to improve the efficiency of future nuclear fuel). After an appropriate cooling period, the SNF is transferred to specifically-designed multipurpose canisters suitable for dry storage at INL as well as subsequent transportation and disposal; the naval SNF will, under current plans, never be removed from these canisters.  At present, the Navy has about 50 loaded canisters in dry storage at INL; by 2035, it estimates there will be just over 350 canisters ready for disposal. For perspective, the Yucca Mountain license application allocated space for 400 canisters of naval SNF in the total of 11,000 canisters it was designed to hold.

The Obama Administration’s decision to halt work on a repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada is but the latest indicator of a policy that has been troubled for decades and has now all but completely broken down.  The approach laid out under the 1987 Amendments to the Nuclear Waste Policy Act (NWPA)—which tied the entire U.S. high-level waste (HLW) management program to the fate of the Yucca Mountain site – has not worked to produce a timely solution for dealing with the nation’s most hazardous radioactive materials. The United States has traveled nearly 25 years down the current path only to come to a point where continuing to rely on the same approach seems destined to bring further controversy, litigation, and protracted delay.

1.1        Need for a New Geologic Disposal Facility:

Deep geologic disposal capacity is an essential component of a comprehensive nuclear waste management system for the simple reason that very long-term isolation from the environment is the only responsible way to manage nuclear materials with a low probability of re-use, including defense and commercial reprocessing wastes and many forms of spent fuel currently in government hands. The conclusion that disposal is needed and that deep geologic disposal is the scientifically preferred approach has been reached by every expert panel that has looked at the issue and by every other country that is pursuing a nuclear waste management program.

Some commenters have urged the prompt adoption of recycling of spent fuel as a response to the waste disposal challenge, as well as a means to extend fuel supply. It is the Commission’s view that it would be premature for the United States to commit, as a matter of policy, to “closing” the nuclear fuel cycle given the large uncertainties that exist about the merits and commercial viability of different fuel cycles and technology options. Future evaluations of potential alternative fuel cycles must account for linkages among all elements of the fuel cycle (including waste transportation, storage, and disposal) and for broader safety, security, and non-proliferation concerns. Moreover, all spent fuel reprocessing or recycle options generate waste streams that require a permanent disposal solution. In any event, the Commission believes permanent disposal will very likely also be needed to safely manage at least some portion of the commercial spent fuel inventory even if a closed fuel cycle were adopted.

The Commission recognizes that current law establishes Yucca Mountain in Nevada as the site for the first U.S. repository for spent fuel and high-level waste, provided the license application submitted by DOE meets relevant requirements.  The Blue Ribbon Commission was not chartered as a siting commission.  Accordingly the Commission didn’t evaluate Yucca Mountain or any other location as a potential site for the storage or disposal of spent nuclear fuel and high-level waste, nor have we taken a position on the Administration’s request to withdraw the license application.  The Commission simply noted that regardless what happens with Yucca Mountain, the U.S. inventory of spent nuclear fuel will soon exceed the amount that can be legally emplaced at this site until a second repository is in operation.  So under current law, the United States will need to find a new disposal site even if Yucca Mountain goes forward.  The Commission believes the approach set forth here provides the best strategy for assuring continued progress, regardless of the fate of Yucca Mountain.

1.2       Recommended Strategy:

The Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future (the Commission) was chartered to recommend a new strategy for managing the back end of the nuclear fuel cycle.  The Commission recognized that this nation’s failure to come to grips with the nuclear waste issue has already proved damaging and costly and it will be more damaging and more costly the longer it continues: damaging to prospects for maintaining a potentially important energy supply option for the future, damaging to state – federal relations and public confidence in the federal government’s competence, and damaging to America’s standing in the world—not only as a source of nuclear technology and policy expertise but as a leader on global issues of nuclear safety, non-proliferation, and security.

Continued stalemate is also costly—to utility ratepayers, to communities that have become unwilling hosts of long-term nuclear waste storage facilities, and to U.S. taxpayers who face mounting liabilities, already running into billions of dollars, as a result of the failure by both the executive and legislative branches to meet federal waste management commitments.

Almost exactly one year after the Commission was chartered and less than five months before the initial draft report was due, an unforeseen event added yet more urgency to the charge and brought the problem of nuclear waste into the public eye as never before.  A massive earthquake off the northeastern coast of Japan and the devastating tsunami that followed set off a chain of problems at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station that eventually led to the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl.  In the weeks of intense media coverage that followed, many Americans became newly aware of the presence of tens of thousands of tons of spent fuel at more than 70 nuclear power plant sites around this country—and of the fact that the United States currently has no physical capacity to do anything with this spent fuel other than to continue to leave it at the sites where it was first generated.

As required by the charter, a draft of the final report was released for public comment on July 29, 2011. This report reflects comments received on the draft report, which generated thousands of written submissions to the Commission, as well as input gathered at five public meetings that were held in Denver, Boston, Washington D.C., Atlanta, and Minneapolis in September and October 2011 to solicit feedback on the draft report. A comprehensive record of comments and feedback received on the Commission’s draft report which was taken into consideration to finalize the report.

The Commission and its subcommittees met more than two dozen times between March 2010 and January 2012 to hear testimony from experts and stakeholders, to visit nuclear waste management facilities in the United States and abroad, and to discuss the issues identified in its Charter. Additionally, in September and October 2011, the Commission held five public meetings, in different regions of the country, to hear feedback on its draft report.  A wide variety of organizations, interest groups, and individuals provided input to the Commission at these meetings and through the submission of written materials.

The strategy that was recommended by the Commission has the following eight key elements:

  • A new, consent-based approach to siting future nuclear waste management facilities;
  • A new organization dedicated solely to implementing the waste management program and empowered with the authority and resources to succeed;
  • Access to the funds nuclear utility ratepayers are providing for the purpose of nuclear waste management;
  • Prompt efforts to develop one or more geologic disposal facilities;
  • Prompt efforts to develop one or more consolidated storage facilities;
  • 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
  • Support for continued U.S. innovation in nuclear energy technology and for workforce development; and
  • Active U.S. leadership in international efforts to address safety, waste management, non-proliferation, and security concerns.

1.3        Active US Leadership:

As more nations consider pursuing nuclear energy or expanding their nuclear programs, U.S. leadership is urgently needed on issues of safety, non-proliferation, and security/counter-terrorism. Many countries, especially those just embarking on commercial nuclear power development, have relatively small programs and may lack the regulatory and oversight resources available to countries with more established programs. International assistance may be required to ensure they do not create disproportionate safety, physical security, and proliferation risks. In many cases, mitigating these risks will depend less on technological interventions than on the ability to strengthen international institutions and safeguards while promoting multilateral cooperation and coordination.

From the U.S. perspective, two further points are particularly important:

  • With so many players in the international nuclear technology and policy arena, the United States will increasingly have to lead by engagement and by example; and
  • The United States cannot exercise effective leadership on issues related to the back end of the nuclear fuel cycle so long as its own program is in disarray; effective domestic policies are needed to support America’s international agenda.

The Fukushima accident has focused new attention on nuclear safety worldwide. Globally, some 60 new reactors are under construction and more than 60 countries that do not have nuclear power plants have expressed interest in acquiring them. These nations will have to operate their facilities safely and plan for safe storage and disposition of spent nuclear fuel. The United States should help launch a concerted international safety initiative—encompassing organizations like the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) as well as regulators, vendors, operators, and technical support organizations—to assure the safe use of nuclear energy and the safe management of nuclear waste in all countries that pursue nuclear technology.

Nuclear weapons proliferation has been a central concern of U.S. nuclear policy from the earliest days of the nuclear era. These concerns are still prominent, especially where the deployment of uranium enrichment, reprocessing, and recycled fuel fabrication technology is being contemplated. As countries with relatively less nuclear experience acquire nuclear energy systems, the United States should work with the IAEA, nuclear power states, private industry, and others in the international community to ensure that all spent fuel remains under effective and transparent control and does not become “orphaned” anywhere in the world with inadequate safeguards and security.  Longer term, the United States should support the use of multi-national fuel-cycle facilities, under comprehensive IAEA safeguards, as a way to give more countries reliable access to the benefits of nuclear power while simultaneously reducing proliferation risks. U.S. sponsorship of the recently created

IAEA global nuclear fuel bank is an important step toward establishing such access while reducing a driver for some states to engage in uranium enrichment. But more is needed. The U.S. government should propose that the

IAEA lead a new initiative, with active U.S. participation, to explore the creation of one or more multi-national spent fuel storage or disposal facilities.

In addition, the United States should support the evolution of spent fuel “take-away” arrangements as a way to allow some countries, particularly those with relatively small national programs, to avoid the costly and politically difficult step of providing for spent fuel disposal on their soil and to reduce associated safety and security risks. An existing program to accept highly-enriched uranium fuel from research reactors abroad for storage in the United States has provided a demonstration—albeit a limited one—of the national security value of such arrangements. The capability to accept limited quantities of spent fuel from foreign commercial reactors could be similarly valuable from a national security perspective. As the United States moves forward with developing its own consolidated storage and disposal capacity, it should work with the IAEA and with existing and emerging nuclear nations to establish conditions under which one or more nations, including the United States, can offer to take foreign spent fuel for ultimate disposition.

The susceptibility of nuclear materials or facilities to intentional acts of theft or sabotage for terrorist purposes is a relatively newer concern but one that has received considerable attention since 9/11. The United States should continue to work with countries of the former Soviet Union and other nations through initiatives such as the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program and the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism to prevent, detect, and respond to nuclear terrorism threats. Domestically, evolving terrorism threats and security risks must be closely monitored by the National Regulatory Commission (NRC), the Department of Homeland Security, and other responsible agencies to ensure that any additional security measures needed to counter those threats are identified and promptly implemented. The recent events at Fukushima have – as they should – prompted the NRC and the industry to re-examine the adequacy of “mitigative strategies” for coping with large-scale events (like an explosion or fire) or catastrophic system failures (like a sudden loss of power or cooling); as noted previously, we also recommend that Congress charter the National Academy of Sciences to assess lessons learned from Fukushima with respect to the storage of spent fuel.

2.       Conclusions:

The overall record of the U.S. nuclear waste program has been one of broken promises and unmet commitments. And yet the Commission found reasons for confidence that this records can be turned around.  To be sure, decades of failed efforts to develop a repository for spent fuel and high-level waste have produced frustration and a deep erosion of trust in the federal government. But they have also produced important insights, a clearer understanding of the technical and social issues to be resolved, and at least one significant success story – the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) facility in New Mexico. Moreover, many people have looked at aspects of this record and come to similar conclusions.

The problem of nuclear waste may be unique in the sense that there is wide agreement about the outlines of the solution. Simply put, the US knows what has to be done and how to get it done.  Experience in the United States and abroad has shown that suitable sites for deep geologic repositories for nuclear waste can be identified and developed. The knowledge and experience needed are in hand and the necessary funds have been and are being collected. Rather the core difficulty remains what it has always been: Finding a way to site these inherently controversial facilities and to conduct the waste management program in a manner that allows all stakeholders, but most especially host states, tribes and communities, to conclude that their interests have been adequately protected and their well-being enhanced—not merely sacrificed or overridden by the interests of the country as a whole.

This is by no means a small difficulty—in fact, many other countries have not resolved this problem either.

However, it has been observed that other countries make significant progress with a flexible approach to siting that puts a high degree of emphasis on transparency, accountability, and meaningful consultation. The WIPP has been operating successfully.   And most recently, it was witnessed an accident that has reminded Americans that we have little physical capacity at present to do anything with spent nuclear fuel other than to leave it where it is. Against this backdrop, the conditions for progress are arguably more promising than they have been in some time. But it will only be seen if this initiative is started, which what the Commission urges the Administration and Congress to do, without further delay.

Resources:

  1. Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future.

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