ANS Winter Meeting: Addressing the spent fuel dilemma

December 3, 2021, 11:59AMRadwaste Solutions

The President’s Special Session at the 2021 ANS Winter Meeting and Technology Expo, held Thursday morning, explored the current impasse over the management of spent nuclear fuel in the United States, with leaders from Congress and representatives from the Department of Energy and the U.S. Government Accountability Office sharing the work they are doing in an effort to break that impasse.

While acknowledging the political challenges to finding a permanent solution to the country’s growing inventory of spent nuclear fuel, session participants provided their thoughts on how the United States can develop an integrated spent fuel strategy. ANS president Steve Nesbit, who moderated the session, began by noting that the impasse over spent fuel is one of nuclear power’s most vexing issues, despite our long experience with it. “The volume of the material is small, proven methodologies exist for processing and disposal, yet with few exceptions, all countries have struggled with ultimate disposal of long-lived radioactive material,” he said.


Rep. Mike Levin (D., Calif.): In a live video feed, Levin discussed the work that he and Rep. Rodney Davis (R., Ill.) have done in forming the bipartisan Spent Nuclear Fuel Solutions Caucus in the House of Representatives. Levin, whose Southern California district includes the closed San Onofre nuclear power plant, said, “I think we can all acknowledge that the current system of spent nuclear fuel storage is not sustainable, particularly for sites that no longer have operating reactors and could be redeveloped for other beneficial uses.”

The Spent Nuclear Fuel Solutions Caucus, Levin said, is intended to be a forum for House members to discuss the safe storage, transportation, and disposal of spent fuel across the country. Levin stressed that the caucus is not predicated on a preferred solution to spent fuel management. “It’s not our mission to push one solution over another, but rather we want to create opportunities to coalesce around promising ideas,” he said.

San Onofre’s location in an area with seismic activity and a large population, Levin said, makes it a particularly challenging and risky location to store spent fuel, and that those challenges and risks need to be acknowledged when talking to the public. “They shouldn’t be exaggerated as some may try to do, but they can’t be swept under the rug either,” he said. “Honesty, I believe, is the best way to earn the public’s trust as we pursue solutions for spent fuel.”


Rep. Rodney Davis (R., Ill.): In another live video, Davis agreed that the issue of spent fuel management is a political problem and not a technical one. He added that it is also not a partisan issue. “There is not a Democratic or Republican way to deal with spent nuclear fuel,” he said. “There are right ways and wrong ways.”

Davis also highlighted the need for a working spent fuel management program to ensure that nuclear remains part of the energy mix in the United States. “We have to have a very valuable debate on what nuclear energy means to the future of our entire electricity grid in this country and our ability to provide cost-effective energy to every single American,” he said.


Dave Marroni: In September, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report, Commercial Spent Nuclear Fuel: Congressional Action Needed to Break Impasse and Develop a Permanent Disposal Solution, outlining actions that experts have identified as necessary to develop a solution for commercial spent fuel disposal. Marroni, assistant director of the GAO’s Energy Group, discussed the impetus for the report and highlighted its recommendations.

Among the reasons the GAO undertook the report is the growing taxpayer liability for the continued storage of spent fuel by utilities, Marroni said, noting that taxpayers have paid more than $9 billion so far for the government’s failure to take possession of the fuel. Marroni added that the DOE estimates that figure could grow to $40 billion, depending on when the fuel is ultimately removed. “At the GAO, we take that kind of number very seriously,” he said.

The GAO report offers five recommendations, four for congressional consideration and one for DOE consideration, which, Marroni said, the GAO views as linked. “To really break the current impasse, all five [recommendations] are important and need to be implemented,” he said. “Let’s not pick and choose.”

Marroni added that the recommendations are not new, but rather “a synthesis of the reports over the past 10 years and what we have heard from experts on areas where there seems to be some level of general agreement on what can be helpful to change things.” Marroni emphasized that it will ultimately take congressional action to move things forward.


Kim Petry: “To make nuclear truly sustainable, we need to manage the back end of the fuel cycle,” said Petry, the DOE’s acting deputy assistant secretary of spent fuel and waste disposition. Petry admitted, however, that because of the long history of inaction on nuclear waste, the public has lost faith that the DOE can find an answer. “But we believe we can be part of the solution, and, in fact, that we must,” she said. “We cannot continue to defer this issue for future generations to solve.”

As part of those efforts, Petry pointed to the DOE’s resumption of a consent-based approach to siting disposal facilities, starting with the department’s November 30 issuance of a request for information on a consent-based siting process that would be used to identify sites to store the nation’s spent fuel. Petry said that the questions contained in the request for information are intended to help develop a consent-based siting process, as well as to remove barriers to participation by the public.

Working collaboratively with communities through a consent-based siting process, Petry said, will build trust between the DOE and potential host communities. “We believe that a consent-based siting approach is both the right thing to do and our best chance for success,” she said.

The issue of consent-based siting was further explored during the question-and-answer portion of the session. One question, posed specifically to Petry, was on how the DOE defines “consent.” Petry said that it is a question the DOE continues to discuss in great detail, adding that part of the goal of the department’s request for information on consent-based siting is to better define what consent means.

Marroni agreed that there is no consistent definition of consent but noted that there is general agreement that it would include state governments, tribal organizations, and local communities. “You need to have those key decision-making bodies on board,” he said.

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