Opponents of building a centralized repository for the nation's high-level
nuclear waste rejoiced when NBC announced it would air a blockbuster television
movie about a runaway train headed for Denver and carrying a nuclear bomb
and "deadly nuclear waste." After all, images of nuclear waste speeding
past bedroom windows across the country in the dead of night had proven
far more politically potent than warnings about the proposed repository
site in the Nevada desert. But before "Atomic Train" aired, the nuclear
waste had been transformed into generic "hazardous material," as promoted
on the network's web site, and dialogue was dubbed such that it was "biomedical
waste" hurtling toward the good people of Denver. NBC's parent company,
General Electric, which also has a substantial nuclear subsidiary, was
quickly fingered as the source of the changes. This heavy-handed response
is a good indication of the sensitivity and controversy that continues
to dog the issue of nuclear-waste disposal.
Federal policy-makers have come to view underground nuclear waste disposal as a political problem that is getting solved in geologic time. Efforts to establish permanent disposal sites have been hampered by strident political opposition, conflicting scientific assessments, legal battles, and bureaucratic snafus. But the recent opening of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in Carlsbad, N.M., demonstrates that solutions can be found.
After receiving its first shipment of transuranic radioactive waste from cleanup of the nation's nuclear weapons complex at the bedded-salt site in March, WIPP is now distinguished as the world's first deep-geologic repository. The shipment came more than two decades after WIPP was initially proposed and over a decade after it was originally scheduled to begin receiving waste. And it was the easy one.
The proposed high-level nuclear waste repository site at Yucca Mountain in Nevada is the tough one. The initial timetable for accepting waste into Yucca Mountain has become a major obstacle. The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 required the Department of Energy (DOE) to begin accepting spent nuclear fuel from electric utilities in January 1998, when a repository was targeted to open. Although the U.S. Geological Survey and others had testified at the time that such a deadline for opening a geologic repository was virtually unattainable, nuclear utilities successfully argued that they faced a crisis over storing spent fuel and that the date was easy to meet. As early as 1989, however, DOE set the repository's opening for 2010, a date that is still the official target.
A Liability Crisis
The nuclear industry in general, and electric utilities in particular,
have much at stake in the debate over when to store nuclear waste at Yucca
Mountain. After the 1998 deadline passed, nuclear utilities sued DOE for
failure to take the waste off their hands as promised. Although DOE argued
that the waste acceptance date was contingent on a completed repository,
the courts have decided in favor of the utilities.
According to the Justice Department, the potential damages from eleven lawsuits currently pending is $8.5 billion with many more suits possible. That figure is well over three-quarters of the remaining cost of opening the repository itself. It is also more money than is currently in the Nuclear Waste Fund, established to pay for the disposal program through a per-milliwatt charge on nuclear-generated electricity.
Facing this tremendous liability, Energy Secretary Bill Richardson has proposed that DOE take title and legal responsibility for the waste - currently stored at 72 reactors in 33 states - but leave the waste where it is until a permanent repository can accept it. In return, utilities would be required to waive their liability claims. Richardson estimates the cost of his proposal to be $2-3 billion between now and 2010.
Congress Favors Interim Storage
The utilities' response to the Richardson proposal has been lukewarm
at best. Instead, the utilities favor legislation proposed in each of the
past three Congresses that would speed up the waste-acceptance process
by establishing an above-ground interim storage facility adjacent to Yucca
Mountain. Under current law, an interim facility cannot be sited until
a final decision has been made about the permanent repository, thus preventing
the interim facility from becoming a de facto permanent facility.
Current law also prohibits the interim facility from being sited in the
same state as the permanent repository - a small concession made to Nevada
when Yucca Mountain was chosen in 1987 as the sole site to be considered
for the repository.
In both the 104th (1995-96) and 105th (1997-98) Congresses, bills for interim storage failed to muster the votes to overcome a promised presidential veto. The Clinton administration has consistently opposed changing the current arrangement, arguing that placing an interim facility at Yucca Mountain before a final decision is made would pre-judge the site. Similar legislation on interim storage is now pending in the 106th Congress. The Commerce Committee has passed H.R. 45 in the House and Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Frank Murkowski R-Ark.) has introduced S. 608 in the Senate. The administration has opposed these bills based on the interim-storage provisions and because the bills provide no liability protection. In response, H.R. 45 has been amended to encourage nuclear utilities with pending claims against the government to drop their suits in exchange for DOE stewardship of the spent fuel. H.R. 45 also waives future DOE liability from the utilities if it does not meet the deadlines outlined in the legislation. Senate Energy Committee Ranking Democrat Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) is developing legislation along the lines of the Richardson proposal, and Murkowski has signaled a willingness to postpone a vote on S. 608 pending negotiations with Bingaman.
Shifting Economic Forces
Even as the nuclear utilities continue to press publicly for interim
storage to take waste off their hands as quickly as possible, some observers
say that the underlying pressure to move the waste may be waning. Such
a shift would remove a significant amount of the pressure to get the waste
into the ground, allowing more time for careful characterization of the
Yucca Mountain site. For many years now, the conventional wisdom has been
that high-cost nuclear power plants are a liability for utilities. The
federal Energy Information Administration projects that nuclear power generation,
which currently provides 20 percent of the nation's electricity, will produce
less than half that share in coming decades.
That assessment may change, however, as environmental restrictions and electricity deregulation remake the energy landscape. Increasingly strict controls on sulfur and nitrogen emissions are threatening to raise the cost of coal-fired plants. This trend, coupled with the possibility of carbon emission controls designed to combat the threat of global warming, could make emissions-free nuclear plants quite appealing to coal-intensive utilities. As these utilities start purchasing nuclear plants, or event start building new ones, their principal concern will be the certainty of the transaction's total cost. For a nuclear power plant, most of that cost is related to spent fuel. Many utilities may opt for the easily quantified costs of on-site, dry-cask storage rather than the highly variable potential costs of transfer, interim storage, and disposal.
Of course, such a scenario remains highly speculative, as does the course of future congressional action. In the meantime, DOE completed a major viability assessment for Yucca Mountain in December (Geotimes, March 1999) and is moving ahead with final investigations necessary to determine the site's suitability by 2001. If DOE decides to go ahead, it will apply for a license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission the following year and start building the repository. Considering the many forces acting on this project, DOE will have its hands full keeping this particular train on course.
AGI Director of Government Affairs