Management of spent nuclear fuel would be a good idea

Since the dawn of the era of commercial nuclear power, the prevailing paradigm has been the “once-through” model which assumes after fuel bundles have cooled off, they can be shipped to a geological storage site for permanent burial. 

It’s a 19th century idea that like burning coal, once you’ve gotten the primary energy out of something, the rest is ash.  The physics of nuclear energy present a different model.  In terms of energy efficiency, this model is and always has been the result of short-term political punting. 

It’s still going on with Senate Majority Leader Sen.Harry Reid (D-Nev.) who made it clear to President Obama the price for passage of his key legislative priorities depends on stopping the Yucca Mountain site.  True to his word, Reid stripped appropriation bills of funds for the Department of Energy and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.  What the White House got in return is problematic at best. 

In a burst of opportunistic election year strategy, Reid shoved aside the deep negotiations over energy and climate bill in favor of an immigration reform measure. Reid, who is up for re-election, calculated his supporters are more interested in immigration and perhaps also realized he’d ridden the anti-Yucca horse as far as it would carry him.

This brings us to the Blue Ribbon Commission (BRC) which is chartered to come up with policy for management of spent nuclear fuel. It has been called the “anything but Yucca Mountain commission.”  In fact, the BRC faces a much larger problem.  The U.S. is going to need a significant number of new reactors to meet new demand for electricity and to reduce the growth of greenhouse gases. 

This means the charter for the BRC inevitably includes figuring how to provide for interim storage of spent fuel, recycling, and then final burial of the remaining much smaller volume of waste products. It is called lifecycle management.

Politicians like Reid don’t like this idea because they are used to seeking advantage by slicing and dicing an issue to create wedges that appeal to or block the interests of various groups. They also like the short term political calculus of the election cycle.

Get spent fuel out of the government

So what does a solution look like?  Thomas Sanders, (right) now the immediate past president of the American Nuclear Society (ANS), offered some sage advice to the BRC last November.  The solution is to get spent nuclear fuel management out of the hands of the government.  He proposes to create an independent entity which has six key features.

  • As a federally chartered corporation like TVA, it is self-governed by a board that focuses on long range strategy which looks far beyond the needs of the next election cycle.
  • It has the authority to actually do something including managing the spent fuel, wherever it is located, recycling it, and burying the remaining waste.
  • It uses the money in the nuclear waste fund and it is not subject to annual appropriations
  • It remains subject to environmental regulations issued by federal agencies including EPA and the NRC.
  • it would implement U.S. nonproliferation policies as part of its management of spent fuel.

Since then Sen. George Voinovitch (R-Ohio) has introduced legislation to implement these ideas.  The Bill S.3322 is co-sponsored by Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Sen. Lisa Mukowski (R-AK). 

So far the THOMAS system at the Library of Congress does not list any Democratic senators as co-sponsors.  However, the concepts in the bill enjoy support from the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI)(press release) as well as other industry and professional organizations.

For instance, on May 25 NEI's CEO Marvin Fertel told the BRC "the federal government’s used nuclear fuel program should be transferred to an entity with a management and financing structure that is able to function in the presence of inevitable political and policy uncertainty."

Would this idea work in practice?

Would the FEDCORP concept fly with Congress and would it work?  How would all the gears mesh and work together? I spoke at length this week with a senior industry expert on spent fuel management. Because of the vast responsibilities this person holds in the nuclear industry, the interview took place on background.  For the purpose of this blog post, I’m calling the source “Sedona” since so far as I know this person has nothing to do with Arizona.

What Sedona told me is that the bill would use the TVA model to create a government corporation with a nine-member bipartisan board confirmed by the Senate. It would have the long-term mission of managing the nation’s growing inventory of spent nuclear fuel.

Funding and costs

It would be funded by having access to the Nuclear Waste Fund.  Utilities have paid $30 billion into it since 1982.  FEDCORP’s budget would not be subject to the congressional appropriation process. Because it would be off-budget, it would not be calculated as part of federal spending by CBO.

FEDCORP would be established with the technology-neutral mission of taking over the Department of Energy’s responsibilities for managing spent nuclear fuel.  However, it could not merely manage spent fuel in dry casks at reactors.  It would be chartered to do real work.  That includes actively managing the spent fuel and getting a reprocessing program operating in the U.S. 

"This isn't about MOX fuel, Sedona said. "When you reprocess spent fuel you get better results by not throwing away the energy potential in it and disposal of the remaining radioactive material is much easier."

Sendoa said that while reprocessing and subsequent disposal costs are higher than the once through system we have now, the additional costs might impact rate payers by as little as $0.50/month. The costs of disposing of a smaller volume of radioactive waste will be less than putting all spent fuel in Yucca Mountain. 

Scope and schedule

These assumptions drive the need for FEDCORP to come up with either a centralized interim storage site or several regional sites.  The development of spent fuel reprocessing isn’t a technical challenge so much as it is a politically charged one.  Because FEDCORP is off-the-books in terms of the annual appropriations cycle, it would have the ability to do the planning and other ground work necessary to tackle the multi-year challenges of creating an interim storage solution and building one or more reprocessing plants.

How soon could such an entity start work?  Sedona noted that the legislation doesn’t have to wait for the BRC to produce its interim report.  Congress could move ahead if the legislation gains the necessary support from Senate Democrats. 

Sedona estimates  that assuming FEDCORP is chartered in 2012, it could be operational in 18 months and have an implemented interim storage solution with 10 years.  Work on design and licensing of a reprocessing plant would also be well along by then.

Opponents of nuclear energy have historically used the lack of a comprehensive solution for spent fuel issue as a stopper for future development of new nuclear reactors.  Senator Voinovitch said in a recent statement the passage of this bill would resolve that issue and create thousands of jobs not only for the new reactors the nation needs, but also to manage the spent fuel. The difference would be management as a prevailing paradigm rather than politics.