The question “What about the waste?” is typically thrown out by the antinuclear crowd as an attempt to bog down the discussion of nuclear development. However, with renewed interest in nuclear power—and new advanced reactors in particular—what to do about used nuclear fuel is coming to the fore as a question that needs resolving.
The question of nuclear waste, and whether it should be called that, was the subject of the executive session “Used Fuel: Going Somewhere?” held on June 14 during the 2023 Annual Meeting of the American Nuclear Society in Indianapolis, Ind.
ANS past president Steve Nesbit (2021–2022), who chaired the panel session, began by noting that while still the law of the land, the Yucca Mountain Project in Nevada remains in limbo and operating power reactors in the United States have no place to send their spent nuclear fuel (SNF). “[Used fuel] continues to be stored safely and securely at the nuclear power reactor sites, but I think we all know and appreciate that is not the long-term solution we want,” he said.
Disposal standards: In a sign that some progress is being attempted, if not made, on the back end of the fuel cycle, ANS recently released a draft report recommending new generic public health and safety standards for the permanent disposal of commercial used fuel and high-level radioactive waste (HLW) at future geological repository projects in the United States. That report and its recommendations were outlined by John Kessler, president of J. Kessler and Associates and an author on the draft report, who noted that the ANS Special Committee on Generic Standards for Disposal of High-Level Radioactive Waste hopes to issue a final report toward the end of July.
Kessler noted that the current U.S. geologic repository standards, codified in 40 CFR Part 191, Environmental Radiation Protection Standards for Management and Disposal of Spent Nuclear Fuel, High-Level and Transuranic Radioactive Wastes, by the Environmental Protection Agency, are out of date and in many cases inconsistent with international standards. “We, along with other organizations, recognize the need for a modern, transparent standard,” Kessler said, adding that the ANS committee used existing Yucca Mountain repository standards as a starting point for its recommendations.
One of the recommendations Kessler described is retaining the concept of basing the characteristics of the potentially exposed individual on current practice and behavior. “We have no idea what humans are going to be doing and what the biosphere will look like thousands to tens of thousands of years from now,” he said. “We are proposing continuing to calculate the dose to a reasonably maximally exposed individual that has the diet and living style of the people that are there.”
Kessler used the analogy of television families the Waltons, the Flintstones, and the Jetsons in terms of who would likely receive the most dose and why. “We settled on the Waltons, [who were] capable of accessing groundwater for multiple uses, but we assumed they were not able to detect radiation in the groundwater or do something about it,” he said, “whereas the Flintstones don’t have much access to groundwater and the Jetsons, we’re assuming, could fix anything.”
One of the changes the ANS committee would like to see, Kessler said, is limiting the period for quantitative standards to 10,000 years. “We all agreed on, at least on our committee, that the quantitative estimates over extremely long time periods are false precision,” he noted, adding that ANS is introducing qualitative standards for repository performance beyond 10,000 years.
Consent-based siting: Following Kessler, the Department of Energy’s Kim Petry discussed progress the federal government is making in managing the back end of the fuel cycle. Petry, who is acting deputy assistant secretary in the DOE’s Office of Spent Fuel and Waste Disposition, highlighted the DOE’s efforts in initiating a consent-based siting process for one or more consolidated interim storage facilities for SNF.
Petry began by noting that, in line with direction and funding from Congress, the DOE currently is not actively pursuing a repository, but it is expected that SNF and HLW will eventually be disposed of in a geologic repository. She also noted that the DOE is engaged in research and development on the extended storage of used nuclear fuel, aging management, and waste transportation.
Maintaining that the DOE is committed to a consent-based siting approach that enables broad participation and prioritizes equity and environmental justice, Petry said the process is broken down into three stages: planning and capacity building (currently underway); site screening and assessment (expected to last 4 years); and negotiation and implementation (expected to last 4–5 years).
Petry also highlighted the DOE’s June 9 announcement that it has awarded nearly $26 million to university, nonprofit, and private-sector groups to work with communities interested in the DOE’s consent-based siting approach. ANS was one of the recipients of those awards.
Stakeholders’ view: Katrina McMurrian, executive director of the Nuclear Waste Strategy Coalition (NWSC), which represents the interests of utilities, consumer advocates, regulators, and state and tribal governments, among others, followed Petry with a perspective of those who are bearing the brunt of the federal government’s inaction on SNF.
“We were formed in late 1993 by leaders from three states who were already concerned at that time that the government wasn’t going to meet its 1998 deadline to begin removing spent nuclear fuel from those utility sites. And boy, were they right,” McMurrian said, noting that January 31 marked the 25th anniversary of the day the DOE was to begin receiving SNF.
McMurrian said that her organization is excited about the DOE’s consent-based siting initiative and is hopeful that it will lead to volunteer sites, but that NWSC is skeptical about some of its aspects.
First, she expressed her organizations doubt about whether consent is the appropriate standard for a nuclear waste facility, which they consider to be critical nuclear infrastructure. “I just can’t help but point out that we are required to have consent on facilities in the nuclear waste space, but with respect to other energy facilities or important things that this nation needs, we often find some way to get those sited,” she said.
McMurrian also said the NWSC is not sold on the DOE’s ability to maintain consistent progress in consent-based siting through changing leadership and election cycles, and whether interim storage is feasible without concurrent progress made on permanent disposal.
To help advance HLW disposal, McMurrian recommended that the DOE seek the support of Congress where it can, but also be “bold in doing what you can without congressional direction.” McMurrian also recommended that the DOE clearly tell Congress and others to refrain from defining consent with the law. “There are some bills out there that try to do that, and I think that is a mistake,” she said.
Finally, McMurrian exhorted the nuclear community to help find a solution to the used fuel that is currently stranded at sites across the country. “There is no doubt in my mind that it is safe where it is stored for quite a long period of time,” she said of the fuel. “But that does not mean it is right to leave it there. The host communities didn’t consent for that, and quite frankly, it is the government’s obligation to remove it and allow those sites to be used for something else.”
ANS Annual Meeting coverage on Nuclear Newswire: