Experts Urge New Accounts for Storage of Spent Nuclear Fuel

With no long-term plan yet in sight for managing the more than 58,000 tons of highly radioactive spent fuel piling up at the nation's nuclear reactors, a group of experts is urging the creation of escrow accounts for utilities to draw on as they store spent fuel on-site in large casks.

Clifford Singer

In effect, the group is calling on Congress and the U.S. government to recognize what already is happening—the storage of large amounts of spent fuel at reactor sites—and to come up with financial mechanisms to help ensure that the waste is kept secure for decades to come.

The expert group was organized by the Program in Arms Control, Disarmament and International Security at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, with the cooperation of the AAAS Center for Science, Technology and Security Policy.

Under the 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act, the United States government was supposed to take title to the nation's spent nuclear fuel and eventually dispose of it in a deep underground repository. The federal government has been collecting 1/10th of a cent on every kilowatt-hour of power generated by nuclear plants as a Nuclear Waste Fund to pay for the eventual shipping and burial of the spent fuel.

But the government failed to take title to the fuel in 1998 as scheduled and is unlikely to do so any time soon. The Obama administration recently eliminated further funding for the planned federal disposal site at Yucca Mountain, Nevada, and licensing of the project is virtually stalled.

The $23 billion currently in the Nuclear Waste Fund is not available to utilities for on-site storage of reactor waste. Given the impasse over long-term disposal of spent fuel, the expert group has concluded that the U.S. government should start placing spent fuel management charges into regulated escrow accounts that would be attached to each commercial nuclear plant. That money could then be used to help pay the cost of on-site storage of spent fuel in dry casks and the subsequent removal and management of the casks.

Clifford E. Singer, a professor in the department of nuclear, plasma and radiological engineering at the University of Illinois, discussed the group's report, “'Plan D' for Spent Nuclear Fuel,” at a 16 November Capitol Hill briefing for congressional staff and others.

“Plan D” refers to the idea of allowing utilities to tap funds in the escrow accounts for using in managing and storing nuclear waste.

As defined by the report, Plan A is to reprocess spent fuel for use in breeder reactors. Current reprocessing technologies produce plutonium, which could be diverted for nuclear weapons purposes. Plan B is deep geologic burial, as envisioned by the project at Yucca Mountain. Plan C is actinide burning, a process to reduce the size of the waste requiring storage. Plan E is building no more nuclear reactors and abandoning potential future spent-fuel reprocessing. Technical, political or cost concerns have essentially eliminated A, B, C and E as options, according to the report, leaving the United States with Plan D “for the foreseeable future at least.”

In addition to recommending establishment of escrow funds to pay for fuel storage at individual reactor sites, the report also suggests allowing the shipment of spent fuel between the reactor sites of different utilities within a state, and financial incentives for states that agree to accept so-called “stranded fuel” shipped from an inoperative reactor in a neighboring state to an operating reactor in their own.

The report also recommends that any state be allowed to ask for much larger financial incentives in return for hosting long-term spent fuel management facilities. One possible approach is to place some of the escrow money into a permanent fund whose investment earnings could be used to compensate residents of a state that agrees to host a spent fuel respository. The arrangement would be analogous to the permanent fund set up by Alaska to compensate residents for bearing the environmental impact of oil drilling in the state. Residents receive an annual payment from the fund, which is financed by a share of oil revenues.

The use of such a permanent fund would give a state more incentive to host a spent-fuel facility, Singer said, than has been the case for Nevada, which stands to reap little financial benefit if the Yucca Mountain repository ever goes forward.

If the federal government does not succeed in licensing a long-term spent fuel management facility in a timely fashion, the report says, Congress should consider turning the job over to a tightly regulated private corporation. The corporation could tap escrow funds to prepare for the licensing of long-term spent fuel management facilities and to pay for the out-of-state shipment of spent fuel to such facilities.

About $10 billion already has been spent on the Yucca Mountain project, Singer said, and there is a real question about “whether that money will buy us much of anything.” There remain many questions about which approaches might be best over the long term for exploiting or disposing of spent fuel.

Fuel reprocessing facilities are of little value in getting rid of nuclear waste unless a nation also builds fast-neutron reactors capable of burning up the reprocessed fuel, according to Ivan Oelrich, acting president of the Federation of American Scientists. He said “Plan D” makes sense for now because “it is a way of systematizing what we already are doing by default.”

There were several skeptical questions at the Hill briefing by industry representatives who asked how the escrow system would work and how companies would handle it on their balance sheets. Singer acknowledged the need for a thorough cost analysis on the proposed escrow system. “The industry needs to tell us to what extent it is practical,” he said.

Still, Singer said, there are clear advantages to a system that provides more resources and incentives for states and utilities willing to grapple with the spent fuel issue in the near term. Since the United States likely will continue to have the world's largest nuclear generating capacity in the coming decades, Singer said, it will be important for it to have a functioning spent-fuel management system.

“If we can't get it sorted out,” he said, “it is hard for us to tell other people how to do it.”