We're running out of space for nuclear waste

June 29, 1994|By Michael K. Burns

IN JUST four short years, the federal government is supposed to take title to a most undesirable property: radioactive fuel waste from the nation's nuclear power plants.

The feds don't have a storage facility for the tens of thousands of tons of high-level nuclear fuel waste, nor are they expected to have one by the 1998 deadline set by the Nuclear Waste Policy Act. Washington has repeatedly pushed back the deadline for opening a permanent central disposal facility. Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary acknowledges a "moral obligation" for the federal government to accept the waste, hedging on the legalities.

Meanwhile, the used-up but still dangerously radioactive fuel rods are being stored on site at power plants around the country, in pools of treated water or in thick concrete and steel bunkers, even as these sites are running out of room to safely keep the waste.

In 15 years, nuclear power plants in 32 states, including BGE's Calvert Cliffs complex in Southern Maryland, will have exhausted their storage space. All told, some 70 sites will then become "temporary" on-site repositories for the used fuel.

The government has set an optimistic goal of 2010 for construction and operation of a planned permanent underground storage cavern in Yucca Mountain, Nev., which is still under study but nowhere near final approval.

Last year, the Department of Energy began blasting a 200-yard tunnel in the mountain that will permit a boring machine to chisel out space for a subterranean laboratory. The site faces technical and environmental challenges because of concerns about the structural stability and safety of a long-lived, heat-generating waste in a geologically active formation.

Financial and technical management of the project has come under criticism from all sides; Nevada is fighting an all-out battle to cancel the project.

Secretary O'Leary admits that the government badly needs a new strategy for interim storage of spent fuel. The Clinton administration is seeking over $500 million, in special funding and from the $6 billion Nuclear Waste Fund (financed by surcharges on customers of power companies) to proceed with the Yucca Mountain studies.

While not disavowing federal responsibility for dealing with the residue of 40 years of commercial atomic power production, Mrs. O'Leary proposes that the affected states and their utility regulators help to develop a consensus interim strategy.

The National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners insists, however, that the federal energy department begin to remove the spent fuel in 1998 and not try to avoid responsibility by simply paying off utilities to build additional on-site storage.

But some critics believe that on-site storage at these dispersed locations may be the better solution to an admittedly complex dilemma. It avoids long-haul transportation of the dangerous waste and the eventual concentration of so much radioactive refuse in one spot, they argue.

The debate continues over radiation protection standards that would safeguard the hazardous waste for over 10,000 years, the half-life of some hazardous radioactive elements in the spent fuel rods. The National Academy of Sciences recommends this standard for any such permanent central storage facility.

Some key players in the debate believe that time frame is totally unrealistic, given the pressures to find a disposal site in the next few years.

Meantime, individual states are taking action to deal with the problem on an ad hoc basis. Minnesota recently approved additional used fuel storage at the Prairie Island nuclear plant, which was faced with shutting down next year because it had no more approved space. The legislative compromise reflected a broader debate on the future of nuclear power.

The operator, Northern State Power, can add five new storage containers over the next two years, but must look for an alternative disposal site away from the plant and commit to building or buying 550,000 kilowatts of electricity from wind-power and biomass (vegetation) generators.

"Resolution of interim storage for spent nuclear fuel from our country's commercial power plants has reached crisis proportions," said James Howard, chairman of Northern States.

He wants the Department of Energy to open the Savannah River (S.C.) nuclear weapons site to storage of U.S. spent nuclear power fuel -- as it recently did for disposal of waste from eight European research reactors. Another proposal is for temporary storage on native Indian lands, an idea proposed as a jobs and income producer by several tribal-nation leaders.

BGE would have run out of space for spent fuel at Calvert Cliffs had it not gotten permission to build two temporary storage bunkers there in 1992. That temporary capacity will last about 10 years, still short of any new federal facility opening.

Regardless of the future of nuclear power production -- 109 units now provide more than 20 percent of the nation's electricity -- the issue of safe disposal of existing nuclear power waste fuel needs to be addressed now.

"It's not about whether we favor nuclear energy in the future," says Daniel Dreyfus, of the Energy Department's civilian waste program. "Waste has to do with problems that we have to solve no matter where we come from on the equation."

L Michael K. Burns is an editorial writer for The Evening Sun.

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