A fateful day for nuclear waste policy: January 31, 1998

January 26, 2023, 3:12PMNuclear News

Next week will mark 25 years since January 31, 1998, a familiar date to most in the nuclear community, and revisited in today’s #ThrowbackThursday post with an article from the March 1998 issue of Nuclear News. “Those in the nuclear power industry are aware of the significance of the date January 31, 1998. ln the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982, that date was set as the deadline for the U.S. government—more specifically, the Department of Energy—to begin taking possession of and responsibility for spent nuclear fuel from nuclear power plants nationwide” (NN, March 1998, p. 59).

But veterans of the industry and readers of Nuclear News in the late ’90s will know that blowing past the deadline was no surprise at all. In essentially every issue of NN in 1997 there were updates about the policy deadline and the multiple lawsuits that utilities had brought against the DOE to settle the issue of spent nuclear fuel ownership in court. NN editor in chief Gregg Taylor didn’t pull punches in his editorials during that stretch of issues, either.

In his December 1997 editorial, he opined, “It has been obvious for a long, long time that the issue of radioactive waste, whether high-level or low-level, is not a technical problem—it is a political problem. Unfortunately, however, that is not a ‘mere’ problem” (p. 3). The dramatic “soap opera,” Taylor said, of the government’s inability to implement a timely disposition of spent nuclear fuel had a long “checkered history of Washington's flip-flops” that were an “embarrassment to our democracy.” Prior to the 1998 deadline, it was clear that the issue wasn’t going to be solved by engineers but by lawyers, which led Taylor to include in his March 1998 editorial a witticism from a European nuclear engineer who said, “[In Europe], if we have a big problem at a nuclear power plant, we hire 20 engineers; in America, you hire 20 lawyers" (p. 3).

These court fights, which argued that the DOE had a legal obligation to take ownership of spent nuclear fuel by January 31, 1998, and the passage of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1997 led to the article “Deadline Comes and Goes, No Real Solution Yet in Sight,” from the March ’98 issue of NN (and reprinted below)—which includes a statement from Lake Barrett, who was acting director of the Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management at the time of the deadline (come back to Nuclear Newswire next week for more from Barrett about this infamous deadline). The article is just one of many showing the chaotic state of our domestic waste policy. Readers of Nuclear News can continue down the historical rabbit hole by searching through past articles in the NN archive, available to all ANS members.

Deadline comes and goes, no real solution yet in sight

As the deadline for the DOE to take spent commercial fuel from nuclear power plant sites passed, industry representatives made clear their frustration and displeasure.

Those in the nuclear power industry are aware of the significance of the date January 31st, 1998. ln the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982, that date was set as the deadline for the U.S. government-more specifically, the Department of Energy-to begin taking possession of and responsibility for spent nuclear fuel from nuclear power plants nationwide.

Sixteen years later, the deadline came and went, amid a flurry of news conferences and declarations of indignation from nuclear industry organizations and nuclear utilities. And although Lake Barett, acting director of the Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management, has indicated that the DOE "is committed to fulfilling its obligation to dispose of the nation's spent nuclear fuel" (see Barrett's complete statement in the adjoining box), the government has no definitive plan in place to carry out the terms of the contracts it signed with utilities in 1983. And, President Bill Clinton still promises to veto the legislation passed last year [The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1997] by both the Senate (S. 104; NN, May 1997, p. 17) and the House of Representatives (H.R. 1270; NN, Dec. 1997 , p. 46) that would establish a centralized interim storage facility at the Nevada Test Site, to be operational by 2002-2003.

A coalition of states on February 2 submitted a request to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit that it enforce earlier decisions holding the DOE responsible for the removal of the spent fuel from plant sites. In the request, the states asked the court to issue a writ of mandamus ordering the DOE to begin spent fuel removal, and for permission to begin escrow payments, rather than utilities' paying the required fee into the Nuclear Waste Fund.

"Federal courts have twice found DOE able, authorized, and obligated to remove and store spent nuclear fuel piling up at nuclear power plants," declared Kris Sanda, Minnesota Public

Service Commissioner and founding member of the Nuclear Waste Strategy Coalition. "DOE's failure strands high-level radioactive waste in 34 states," she added, "and makes the federal government liable for costs estimated in Congressional hearings to range up to $40 billion to $80 billion. . . ."

The action of the states follows a November 14 decision by the Appeals Court. Although the court did not issue the broad writ of mandamus the plaintiffs had asked for then, the decision did clearly note the DOE's obligation to meet its January 31, 1998, deadline for spent fuel disposal (NN, Dec. 1991, p. l7).

Differing views

Those who support the idea of a centralized spent fuel/high-level waste repository-utility executives and industry organizations, in particular blame the government for the current situation. "American taxpayers and electricity consumers have a right to be outraged by the federal government's failure to perform," said Joe F. Colvin, president and chief executive officer of the Nuclear Energy Institute.

Mary Ann Lynch, vice president of Law and Government Affairs for Maine Yankee, noted that the federal government has accepted high-level waste from foreign countries for years, but has no policy or storage site for spent fuel from its own commercial nuclear plants. "I suspect this default by the DOE is very disturbing to utility ratepayers in Maine who recognize that federal foot-dragging is forcing citizens to pay three times to store this nuclear waste," she said.

Antinuclear groups put a different spin on the default, saying that the utilities are trying to foist responsibility off onto the federal government, and that there is really no urgency to moving spent fuel from plant sites. They argue that transporting the spent fuel from current storage to a centralized facility would be dangerous. And, of course, Nevada politicians are not in favor of embracing the rest of the country's nuclear waste within its borders. "If it's so safe," said Sen. Harry Reid (D.), "leave it where it is." Moving the waste from plant sites, however, was part of the deal the government signed with nuclear utilities in 1982.

The DOE itself seems a bit confused about its position. During a talk at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., on February 12, Energy Secretary Federico Peña stated that the department would not be meeting its legal obligation to accept commercial spent fuel for storage by the January 3 1, 1 998, deadline because "we don't have the physical capability to take this waste." This is contradictory to what John Bryson, Justice Department attorney, stated at hearings in September 1997 (NN, Nov. 1991, p.71). He admitted then, under questioning by Jay Silberg, the attorney for the utilities in the case, that the federal government did have the physical capability to begin accepting spent fuel by the deadline.

In the meantime, the new legislation passed by both the House and Senate last year that would establish an interim spent fuel storage site awaits discussion and markup by a House-Senate conference committee. And the Clinton administration still promises its veto.

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