Legacy of America’s nuclear power plants — spent fuel and no place to put it

Editor’s note: This article is by Bob Audette of the Brattleboro Reformer, in which it was first published May 19, 2014.

BRATTLEBORO — After Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant is closed and when the site is finally cleaned up — perhaps before the end of the next decade — there will still be a lingering reminder of what existed there since 1972.

As at other nuclear power plant sites around the country, spent nuclear fuel — or nuclear waste, as it used to be called prior to a successful rebranding campaign waged by the nuclear industry — might remain in Vernon long after all other reminders of Yankee are gone.

In fact, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission released last year a revised waste confidence rule that stated impacts would be small if spent fuel had to be stored at nuclear sites “indefinitely.”

Secretary of the Department of Energy Ernest Moniz. Courtesy photo

Secretary of the Department of Energy Ernest Moniz. Courtesy photo

Ernest Moniz, the secretary of the U.S. Department of Energy, was in Vermont last week. During a phone interview with the Reformer, Moniz said his department is focused on developing a way to take care of the
nation’s nuclear waste. However, noted Moniz, DOE needs the go-ahead from Congress.

Senate Bill 1240, which has been in the Energy and Natural Resources Committee since 2013, would establish a new organization to manage nuclear waste, provide a consensual process for siting nuclear waste facilities and ensure adequate funding for managing nuclear waste.

“The legislation has been crafted and is totally consistent with administration policy,” said Moniz. “We certainly hope to see it marked up in committee and hopefully passed.”

In 1983, the Department of Energy entered into contracts with the operators of the nation’s nuclear power plants and agreed to take possession of all nuclear waste produced as a result of their operations. The plan was to move the waste to a centralized storage facility for long-term disposal, and after a siting process, Yucca Mountain in Nevada was chosen. But after $9 billion was invested in the project, the Obama Administration pulled the plug due to local opposition, environmental concerns and pressure from Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader and democrat from Nevada.

Despite all the money spent on Yucca Mountain, said Moniz, it’s not a viable project.

“It certainly did not follow the consent-based process.”

In January of 2012, the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future, of which Moniz was a member, released a report concluding a repository needed to be established as quickly as possible, but not
without local input.

Currently, all the waste produced by the power plants is being stored onsite in either spent nuclear fuel pools or dry casks.

In late August 2013, Entergy announced it would be closing Yankee at the end of 2014 because it was no longer financially viable due to the fact that natural gas has driven down the costs of producing electricity. Late last week, Entergy announced that it would soon be asking for permission to construct an additional dry cask storage facility at Yankee. The pad will be used for the placement of 100-ton dry casks, which will each contain up to 25 tons of spent nuclear fuel once it has cooled down enough to be removed from the fuel pool located inside the plant’s reactor building.

The first storage pad at Vermont Yankee was constructed in 2006 and now holds 13 dry casks, with room for 23 more. Each cask contains 68 fuel assemblies, meaning there are now 884 assemblies in dry cask storage. There are another 2,627 spent fuel assemblies in the pool in the reactor building and another 368 assemblies currently in the reactor vessel. The proposed new pad will be similar in size and storage capacity to the one already on site.

Senate Bill 1240 calls for the construction of a pilot facility for the storage of priority waste; one or more additional storage facilities for the storage of nonpriority nuclear waste; and one or more repositories for the permanent disposal of nuclear waste.

The pilot facility would be used “to demonstrate the safe transportation of spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste … (and) to demonstrate the safe storage of spent nuclear and high-level radioactive waste … at the one or more storage facilities, pending the construction and operation of deep geologic disposal capacity for the permanent disposal of the spent nuclear fuel or high-level radioactive waste.”

If Congress approves Senate Bill 1240, Moniz said it is hoped a pilot facility can be established early in the 2020s. He said a pilot facility should have been part of the nation’s waste storage strategy since 1983.

“We should have been pursuing consolidated storage facilities in parallel with repository development,” said Moniz.

The bill also calls for the development of the Nuclear Waste Administration, taking the responsibility for moving and storing the nuclear rods and other high-level waste out of the hands of the Department of Energy. The Nuclear Waste Administration would also be responsible for finding a geological repository.

Moniz said that wherever a spent fuel repository is established, it needs to be established with the consent of the hosting community.

“The consent-based approach is very crucial to us,” said Moniz. “The hosting community and the state and the federal government must be aligned if we are given Congressional authority to pursue this work with communities that are interested. We fully expect that there will be multiple interested communities.”

The process is intended to allow prospective host communities to decide whether, and on what terms they will host a nuclear waste facility; is open to the public and allows interested persons to be heard in a meaningful way; is flexible and allows decisions to be reviewed and modified in response to new information or new technical, social, or political developments; and is based on sound science and meets public health, safety, and environmental standards.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., said it’s very important that states are involved in all decisions related to decommissioning, and not just the siting of a spent nuclear fuel storage facility.

Under current rules, public hearings can be held to take input, but in the end, the operator and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission are the only entities that have any real say in how a plant is decommissioned, Sanders said.

“We need to make sure that states that are undergoing decommissioning have a real seat at the table so they can participate in the best way to decommission a plant.”

Mike Twomey, Entergy’s vice president for external affairs, told the Reformer he and other industry executives expect that the federal government will eventually fulfill its obligation to remove the spent fuel from Vermont Yankee and sites around the country.

“Until it does, we are confident that we are storing it safely within the spent fuel pool or in dry cask storage. This has been extensively reviewed by the NRC and we are very confident that both methods
provide safe storage until such a time as the federal government removes the spent fuel.”

Bob Audette can be reached at [email protected], or at 802-254-2311, ext. 160. Follow Bob on Twitter @audette.reformer.

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45 Comments on "Legacy of America’s nuclear power plants — spent fuel and no place to put it"

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Kathy Nelson
2 years 11 days ago
Harry Reid, and his buddy, Barack Obama, have done everything they can to block the opening of Yucca Mountain: http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702304337404579214183070687104 Dirty Harry had land and solar deals with the Chinese that had to be accommodated and giving the nuclear industry headaches made those deals more secure. Help from the oval office sealed the deals and industrial wind moved in and all the campaign donors got their cut. The Feds have been collecting money from we the people since 1982 to be used for a nuclear waste facility and we should be asking where that $40 BILLION is now: http://www.theblaze.com/stories/2014/05/18/you-probably-never-noticed-this-fee-on-your-electric-billbut-it-raised-40-billion-now-wait-until-you-hear-what-the-govt-did-with-it/ The… Read more »
Bob Zeliff
2 years 10 days ago
George W Bush in his campaign and during his administration promised to establish a nuclear waste storage facility. A good idea tha t had been attempted by others for years. W’s administration used “Federal government strong arm techniques” to establish Yucca Mtn facility on federal land. It did not work, the local state and residents rose an have effectively blocked W’s best attempts. The Obama administration is also thwarted in using this site. the WSJ article(Iwas blocked from reading the whole) seems to say that Obama admin wants to stop charging the nuclear plants for this site when they can… Read more »
Kathy Nelson
2 years 10 days ago
Bob, sorry that the Wall Street Journal article was partially blocked. If the Digger will allow here is the whole article from 2013: Harry, Barack and Yucca Mt. They pack the appeals court that just called out their lawlessness. Nov. 22, 2013 7:12 p.m. ET To better understand why Senate Democrats killed the filibuster for presidential appointees, consider their latest legal rebuke. Majority Leader Harry Reid wants to remake the court that is a check on his lawlessness. A three-judge panel of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals this week ruled that the Department of Energy can no longer require… Read more »
Richard Ratico
2 years 10 days ago

So, let’s see if I understand Kathy. She’s for local control when it comes to locating a gas line or wind turbine, but against local control when it comes to siting a nuclear waste dump.

Typical NIMBY hypocrisy.

Kathy Nelson
2 years 10 days ago

Richard, do you have something to say to the issue or are you here to offer insults? The Feds have collected $40 Billion for nuclear storage so why isn’t it being done? It would seem you care more about divisive spats and less about the issue at hand.

Jason Farrell
2 years 10 days ago

I’m not absolutely sure why it isn’t being done, but if I had to guess, I suspect it’s because the number of citizens in Nevada who oppose the prospect of the federal government forcing them to host the repository of US nuclear waste far exceeds the vocal minority of those who abhor Vermont’s PSB allowing the development of wind turbines on ridge lines.

Richard Ratico
2 years 10 days ago

The issue at hand IS your NIMBY hypocrisy.

If you lived in Nevada you would sing a very different song.

To answer your question of where the waste should go, I suggest each of you and your pro-nuke posse volunteer a corner of your living rooms for a dry cask storage unit. They stay warm a long time. No need to get that heat pump after all.

Here’s a link to more info on the crisis at Fukushima:
http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/21/world/asia/fukushima-workers-fled-plant-after-accident-despite-orders.html?_r=0

Glenn Thompson
2 years 10 days ago

Richard Ratico, does anyone live anywhere’s near Yucca Mountain? Google Map it and get back to us with that answer?

Richard Ratico
2 years 9 days ago

Glenn,

Even you shouldn’t need a map to realize the people in Nevada live a lot closer to it than you do.

Seems like the NIMBYS in your crowd could relate to that. Please check with them and get back to us.

Here’s the most recent news from Fukushima:
http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/may/21/fukushima-groundwater-pacific-nuclear-power-plant

John Greenberg
2 years 10 days ago

Kathy,

Since Harry Reid’s such a powerful ogre and spent fuel is such benign stuff, I suggest we just fall back on the DOE’s second solution for a nuclear waste dump (pre NWPA): Vermont granite. I assume you, John McClaughry and other nuclear power supporters will welcome it with open arms.

Kathy Nelson
2 years 10 days ago
Where do you think it should be stored, John? There is $40 Billion set aside just for this issue and if not at Yucca Mountain then where? Should it be stored at point of origin, using the money collected to create a storage area for every state that has used nuclear, or should there be a centralized depository? You offer no relevant comment to the issue at hand. Why do you, Richard Ratico and Bob Stannard insist on avoiding an issue by devolving into flinging petty insults? What do you have to offer? The money is available to construct storage… Read more »
John Greenberg
2 years 10 days ago
Kathy, 1) I said NOTHING about you in my comment. How is that “flinging petty insults?” 2) You write: “offers should be made to whichever state wishes to play host.” But Nevada didn’t volunteer Yucca Mountain. In 1982, it had one of the weakest congressional delegations (3 members, little seniority) and Congress chose to shave the waste down its throat. The 1982 bill was known as the “Screw Nevada Act” in some circles. That was after EVERYONE “declined to be a host,” INCLUDING Nevada. 3) Money has never been the basic problem. Ignorance is. We lack sufficient knowledge of our… Read more »
John McClaughry
2 years 9 days ago

This is an ignorant remark, John. I do not want to store nuclear waste in anybody’s granite. I want to reprocess it for new reactor fuel.
You are still stuck on 1970s PUREX reprocessing, where one product is plutonium. There are better ways to reprocess, starting with burning the hot transuranics in a power reactor such as a LFTR or IFR.

Paul Lorenzini
2 years 6 days ago

That is a great idea John! I am not afraid.

Christina MacPherson
2 years 11 days ago

Why do they keep on making the stuff?

MJ Farmer
2 years 10 days ago

I recently saw a show on the history channel that says the new nuclear reactors can consume much of the waste.

http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2012/jul/30/fast-breeder-reactors-nuclear-waste-nightmare

John McClaughry
2 years 10 days ago
“Spent” light water reactor fuel rods contain 95% of their initial nuclear energy. The accumulated spent fuel rods could power the American economy for decades, if only the federal government (think Jimmy Carter) would encourage reprocessing instead of forbidding it. The most promising version is burning the transuranics and U 238 through a Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor. Every component of the LFTR has been tested for years, but there is no operating LFTR because the light water reactor makers (GE, Westinghouse) have blocked its development for 40 years. There is no “nuclear waste problem”. There is a government problem, whereby… Read more »
John Greenberg
2 years 10 days ago
John McClaughry conveniently ignores the REASONS Jimmy Carter rejected reprocessing: namely, that it represents a major risk of nuclear proliferation in a world which hardly needs more incentives to go nuclear (think Pakistan & Iran, not to mention the then-recent experience of India’s bomb). The US government also spent over $1 Billion on the Clinch River Project, one of the many subsidies to nuclear power its supporters would prefer to ignore. By the time it was finally cancelled by Congress during the Reagan administration, the original $400 million estimate for the project had grown to $8 billion according to GAO.… Read more »
Kathy Nelson
2 years 10 days ago

“McClaughry blames the US government for blocking thorium reactors. Since according to John, they’re the latest and greatest technology, why aren’t the Chinese, French, Japanese, and Brits using them to solve THEIR waste problems?”

John, you should study the issue of thorium reactors a bit more closely:

http://www.the-weinberg-foundation.org/learn/thorium/

Plutonium, which is a worry in the issue of proliferation, can be used in the thorium fuel mix and thereby eliminated.

John Greenberg
2 years 10 days ago

Kathy,
I repeat the question: if thorium is so wonderful, and being blocked in the US, then why aren’t OTHER COUNTRIES using it? My studying it more closely isn’t going to answer the question.

Kathy Nelson
2 years 10 days ago
John Greenberg
2 years 10 days ago
Two points stand out here: 1) Kathy Nelson lists 3 countries which are EXPLORING – not building, and certainly not operating – thorium reactors. Unless she has some other examples to present, then, there are NO countries actually using a thorium reactor (which is what I said above). It is worth noting that MANY countries are exploring fusion too, but no one is actually producing electricity using that process either. 2) John McClaughry told us that “there is no operating LFTR because the light water reactor makers (GE, Westinghouse) have blocked its development for 40 years.” But Norway’s test is… Read more »
Glenn Thompson
2 years 9 days ago

I know the likes of Greenberg, Stannard, and Ratico aren’t going to like my prediction, but the energy source of the future will be nuclear not wind and solar. The technology advancements of solar and wind is limited. The technology potential of Nuclear is unlimited!

There are so many articles like this one out there! Read and learn!

http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn25581-complex-fusion-reactor-takes-shape-as-start-date-slips.html?full=true#.U3ywsvRDu8Y

Richard Ratico
2 years 9 days ago

Glenn,

It looks like you’re the one who needs to learn a thing or two. You might begin by trying to grasp the difference between fission and fusion.

You get an A+ for enthusiasm though.

One of the beautiful things about solar and wind is their simplicity. No rocket science or cracking atoms is required.

Progress is made every day in the development of modules that are more efficient. Cost effective storage solutions will be available long before the first thorium reactor goes online, if one ever does.

John Greenberg
2 years 9 days ago

Glenn,

You are certainly welcome to your opinions, but here are some facts that might interest you about recent history.

Nuclear power generation in the US peaked in 2007 at 806,425 GWH. By 2013, it had declined slightly to 789,017.

Renewable generation, not including hydro was 105,238 in 2007 and 253,328 in 2013.

Put differently, from 2007 to 2013 nuclear production shrank by a bit more than 2% while renewable production 240%.

Source: US EIA (DOE) Net Generation by Energy Source: http://www.eia.gov/electricity/monthly/epm_table_grapher.cfm?t=epmt_1_1

Paul Richards
2 years 10 days ago
The government regulated the health insurance industry for years, still does. They had/have the tools to make or break it. It’s the same situation with nuclear energy. They control it. They have chosen not to make use of the new nuclear technologies that would solve many of our energy and environmental problems. (You don’t get something for nothing) Instead they force us to continue to use outdated nuclear technologies. They use these outdated technologies as an example of why we should not use it any more. They would rather us clear cut mountains and forests to install wind turbines and… Read more »
John Greenberg
2 years 10 days ago

Yup, Paul,

Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan were BIG promoters of wind turbines, solar panels, “total worldwide redistribution of wealth” and so forth. Both George Bushs too. Richard Nixon, who planned on 1000 reactors too.

That also explains why the Japanese, Germans, French, and Chinese prefer outdated technologies.

2 years 10 days ago
As someone who follows the issue closely in Washington, I should probably point out that S. 1240, the nuclear waste legislation referred to in the article, is dead for this session of Congress. There is absolutely no chance it will pass, mostly because some on the GOP side insist on pursuing Yucca Mountain despite the fact that it isn’t going to happen (sort of the polar opposite of some continuing to oppose Obamacare, which already has happened and isn’t going to go anywhere). In both cases, reality is simply not recognized. Environmentalists opposed S. 1240 because it would begin massive… Read more »
John McClaughry
2 years 9 days ago
My legendary patience is challenged when trying to push past John Greenberg’s sneers to get to relieving his ignorance. Anybody can burn thorium in a light water reactor. It’s been done now and then for years. The Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor does not contain water. The Norwegian Thor Toshiba reactor is an existing heavy water reactor. The article that John Greenberg quotes from also says: “And in 2011 they [China] announced plans to build a thorium, molten salt reactor. ” There are also LFTR projects under way in India,the Czech Republic and South Africa. The US has the greatest storehouse… Read more »
John Greenberg
2 years 9 days ago
John, Let me know when you can show me where spent nuclear fuel is being successfully disposed of in any way at all: by geological disposal, by burning it in a thorium reactor, by running it through a linear accelerator (which, if memory serves me, was an earlier “solution” you were pushing), by shooting it into space: whatever. Any example you care to provide will be fine, so long as it actually represents an EXISTING and complete solution: that is, as long as ITS waste products are ALSO disposed of safely. Nuclear proponents have told us for decades that there… Read more »
John McClaughry
2 years 9 days ago

Actually your memory did fail you. I don’t believe I have ever advocated using a linear accelerator to reduce nuclear waste – although it strikes me as theoretically possible.
The French plant at La Hague has managed nuclear waste – reprocessing and vitrification – for over 30 years. See Ch 23 of William Tucker’s Terrestrial Energy (2008).

Richard Ratico
2 years 7 days ago
“Managed” is something of a stretch it seems. But stretching the truth IS what you do best. “A major argument made for reprocessing is that it would dramatically reduce the volume of radioactive waste. A number of serious biases have been found, however, in official comparisons. Under past and current industrial conditions, there is no clear advantage for the reprocessing option — either in terms of waste volumes or repository area. Depending upon assumptions, the underground volume required for spent MOX fuel and vitrified waste can be smaller or larger than that required for direct disposal of spent LWR fuel.… Read more »
John Greenberg
2 years 6 days ago

Not to mention that the French are still looking for a place to put La Hague’s waste. In other words, the “solution” has merely changed the problem, not solved it.

Paul Lorenzini
2 years 9 days ago

John, you are very very determined to kill nuclear energy. What form’s of energy are you a supporter of? We need to know.

John Greenberg
2 years 6 days ago

I wrote a detailed response, but it got lost in cyberspace. I support most forms of renewable energy, but give highest priority to conservation (using less) and efficiency (using it better).

Matt Fisken
2 years 6 days ago

that’s weird. I actually read it. Where’d it go?

Curtis Sinclair
2 years 9 days ago

It is possible to store nuclear waste safely. Nature has done it at the Oklo Fossil Reactors. Fifteen natural fission reactors have been found in three different ore deposits at the Oklo mine in Gabon, West Africa. These are collectively known as the Oklo Fossil Reactors. Most of the fission by-products at Oklo have remained exactly where they were produced or have moved only a few meters in 1.7 billion years.

http://web.archive.org/web/20090825013752/http://www.ocrwm.doe.gov/factsheets/doeymp0010.shtml

John Greenberg
2 years 9 days ago
Curtis, The article you link to actually confirms the point I made above: “… if a repository were to be built at Yucca Mountain, SCIENTISTS WOULD COUNT ON THE GEOLOGY OF THE AREA TO CONTAIN RADIONUCLIDES GENERATED BY THESE WASTES WITH SIMILAR EFFECTIVENESS.” (Emphasis added) The problem is knowing precisely what aspects of “the geology of the area” are essential in order to achieve this end, and then finding sites which have (and retain over millennia) these characteristics (assuming OTHER sites exist). My comments above were not meant to suggest that this is impossible. They WERE intended to show why… Read more »
Paul Richards
2 years 9 days ago
The bottom line is that you don’t get something for nothing. If the “renewable energy” sources, methods, components etc. were held to similar scrutiny as nuclear is we would all be huddling around fires (with catalytic converters of course) to stay warm and riding horses to get around. IMHO given the potential of nuclear energy we should be spending a lot more time and energy (NPI) on the possibilities of expanding its use. Instead it seems we are doing just the opposite. We are not headed towards any long term solutions to our energy needs. Just more land gobbled up… Read more »
Richard Ratico
2 years 9 days ago

Paul,

This is no doubt why the Japanese have shut down every reactor in the country and are building out solar as fast as they can. Seems the triple meltdown there gobbled up quite a bit of land.

“At the most dire moment of the crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant three years ago, nine-tenths of the employees, including executives, panicked and fled the plant following an explosion.”

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/22/opinion/credibility-questions-on-fukushima.html?_r=0

Jane Palmer
2 years 9 days ago

Yikes, this article reminds me of the time we bought a couple of piglets home before we had a secure pen to keep them in. We spent most of the summer chasing them around the farm. Better to plan a safe place BEFORE you bring the piggies home.

2 years 9 days ago
I’m joining this discussion late because I just returned from presenting Energy Cost Innovation [about the liquid fluoride thorium reactor, LFTR] to Google. These folks understand why such liquid fuel reactors can produce clean energy, save the environment, and spark economic growth with cheaper energy in both the developing and industrialized nations. China just increased its $350 million budget to accelerate LFTR development. Three US companies and one Canadian company are designing such power plants. One, Transatomic Power in Cambridge MA intends to power its liquid fuel reactor with spent fuel from today’s LWRs (like Vermont Yankee). Such modern reactors… Read more »
Paul Richards
2 years 9 days ago
Thank you Robert Hargraves for bringing a level headed, realistic response to this discussion. You are right; it’s all about perception and politics. We can thank the liberal state run media and the liberal educators of our children for the false perceptions. They have made up their minds and closed them to any further consideration of nuclear energy regardless of any new technology. The politicians would have nothing to beat us over the head with if there were actually a solution to our energy problems so they keep it going by instituting one failed policy after another. It raises money… Read more »
Richard Ratico
2 years 8 days ago

Paul,

Looks like you’ve got a book to sell.

“The problem is all perceptual and political. Politicians love to exaggerate radiation hazards then pass a law to pacify their frightened, grateful constituent voters.”

That’s a pretty glib statement from someone who expects their plan be taken seriously.

Try telling that to the Japanese who are busy bagging all the radioactive topsoil in Fukushima.

Paul Richards
2 years 7 days ago

“Try telling that to the Japanese who are busy bagging all the radioactive topsoil in Fukushima.”
That’s like using the 1929 Ford Model A as an example of why cars crashing at 100 miles an hour are dangerous. New nuclear technology is suppressed, not in use anywhere.

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