It has been almost 40 years since the Nuclear Waste Policy Act established a program for the safe, permanent disposal of the nation’s used nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste, yet at reactor sites across the country, used fuel and HLW continue to languish, with seemingly no solution in sight.
Increased interest in nuclear power’s role in meeting growing energy needs without the use of fossil fuels, however, along with calls from the Biden administration for a new consent-based program for siting a permanent repository, offers some hope that a path exists for making real progress in addressing the back end of the nuclear fuel cycle.
Both frustration with the lack of progress on the nuclear waste issue and optimism that a solution is within reach were expressed during the June 16 panel session “Near Term Action on Nuclear Waste” at the 2021 ANS Virtual Annual Meeting.
“We are very hopeful and optimistic for action in the near term, as well as the long term, but it tends to be a bit of a mess,” said Brett Rampal, of the Clean Air Taskforce. Rampal served as cochair of the session, along with Steve Nesbit, ANS vice president/president-elect and founder of LMNT Consulting.
McMurrian: Starting the panel discussion was Katrina McMurrian, executive director of the Nuclear Waste Strategy Coalition, a nonpartisan membership organization seeking the removal and disposal of used fuel and HLW from U.S. reactor sites. McMurrian made a point to highlight the government’s inaction in taking possession of used fuel and HLW and removing it from commercial power reactor sites. She noted that as of 2020, that inaction has cost U.S. taxpayers around $8.6 billion in liability.
Moreover, stranded used fuel is a burden on those communities hosting a nuclear power plant, either operational or decommissioned, where used fuel and HLW are being stored. “We talk about the need for consent for a place to move spent fuel, but communities like Prairie Island [Minnesota] emphasize that they never consented to indefinite storage, " she said.
McMurrian added that opportunities for action exist under the Biden administration, which has indicated its support for nuclear energy in meeting its clean energy goals, as well its support of a new consent-based siting process. McMurrian also said she was happy to hear energy secretary Jennifer Granholm acknowledge the need for a long-term disposal solution in her remarks during the opening plenary session of the Annual Meeting on June 14. “We definitely will keep reminding her of that,” McMurrian said.
Davis: While noting current trends favoring nuclear development, Edward Davis, of the United States Nuclear Industry Council, posed the question, “Are we better off today than we were 40 years ago, when the Nuclear Waste Policy Act was passed?” Answering his own question, Davis said, “Marginally.”
Davis, who has more than 40 years of nuclear industry experience, said he is by nature an optimistic person. “But after 40 years of effort, I think I’m entitled to a small degree of skepticism,” he said.
To establish a viable path forward for dealing with used fuel and HLW, Davis recommended that the United States establish an independent nuclear waste management authority or corporation outside the purview of Congress and the Department of Energy. “I don’t think we can expect to make any major progress with the status quo with regard to the way the nuclear waste program is managed today,” he said.
Davis also recommended offering “significant incentives” to communities willing to host a permanent disposal facility, saying that the government already pays a lot of money to keep used fuel at reactor sites. “Pay me now or pay me later,” he quipped.
McCullum: Offering the most upbeat assessment of the state of HLW management was the panel’s final speaker, Rod McCullum, senior director of used fuel and decommissioning at the Nuclear Energy Institute.
McCullum said his optimism is based on the instinct survival of humans and the need to decarbonize energy production. “Decarbonization is an existential issue for the human race, and I think most human beings know that,” he said. “Our desire to survive will drive us to solutions on used fuel.”
As an example of the human survival instinct, McCullum shared on his screen a shot of Chicago’s Wrigley Field, packed with 25,000 baseball fans. McCullum, who was at the game, said he was struck by how the people, who had just endured the pandemic, stayed in the stadium after the game had ended just to sing the Cub’s victory song together.
“It is testament to how strong the human survival instinct is, that when you survive something really challenging, this is what you get,” he said of the joy he felt among the fans that day.
McCullum also shared reasons why he feels optimistic about finding a solution to the nuclear waste issue, including plans by General Motors to increase its production of electric vehicles; secretary Granholm’s remarks, mentioned earlier, regarding nuclear development and waste management; the pursuit of the Natrium advanced reactor project at a retired coal plant in Wyoming; and Google’s pledge to make its data centers, which consume large amounts of electricity, carbon-free.
“The momentum here is very strong,” he said.