The Legal Problems of Spent Nuclear Fuel Disposal

Article excerpt

COMMENT

I. INTRODUCTION

The United States nuclear power industry produced 753.9 billion kWh of electricity in 2000.(1) This made up almost 20% of all energy consumed in the United States that year.2 The U.S. nuclear power industry also produced about 2,000 metric tons of extremely hot, highly radioactive Spent Nuclear Fuel (SNF), which added to the approximately 40,000 metric tons already produced through 1999.(3) The question of what to do with this waste has plagued state and federal authorities since the nuclear industry began in the 1950's, and will continue for tens of thousands of years until a solution is found.4 The federal government addressed this issue when it passed the Nuclear Waste Policy Act in 1982.(5) Lawmakers concluded that it was the responsibility of the federal government to take and dispose of the SNF at the expense of the various utilities.6 For several years the Utilities poured billions of dollars into this program and maintained smaller onsite storage facilities believing their waste would be transported away in the not-to-distant future, but almost four years after the date disposal was supposed to begin, no SNF has been moved from the Utilities' on-site storage.7

As the SNF disposal program became increasingly behind schedule, the Utilities' problems began to compound. As SNF began to fill up small storage facilities, the Utilities began to realize that at a certain date in the near future their plants would produce more waste than could legally be stored in their facilities, thus forcing the power generation to be halted.8 IMAGE FORMULA4

They also began to wonder if their multi-billion dollar investment into the disposal program would ever pay off. These fears caused the Utilities to file suit against the Department of Energy (DOE). The solution to the question of what to do with SNF is more complicated now than before 1982.(9) The Nuclear Waste Policy Act (NWPA) is more than a decade behind schedule and the probable results of the Utilities' lawsuits will create more problems than they solve.

A. Spent Nuclear Fuel

SNF is the byproduct of a controlled nuclear reaction that takes place in a nuclear power plant. Nuclear plants operate by splitting atoms, which causes a great deal of heat.10 Water is pumped through the reactor core to be heated, and then released as steam into a turbine, thus creating electricity. "The fresh fuel rod, which emits relatively little radioactivity, contains uranium that has been slightly enriched in the isotope U-235."11 Eventually, after several years of producing heat, the rods begin to decay and must be removed. By this point, they become very hot and highly radioactive.12 The process of decay comes about:

[a]fter nuclear fission has taken place in the reactor, many of the uranium atoms in the fuel rods have been split into a variety of highly radioactive fission products; others have absorbed neutrons to become radioactive plutonium, some of which has also split into fission products. Radioactive gases are also contained in the spent fuel rods.13

This process creates a product that is extremely hot and "remains dangerously radioactive for tens of thousands of years."14 After these rods are withdrawn from the reactor, they are stored in on-site pools of water to contain radiation and to keep them from overheating.15

The amount of waste stored in these on-site pools has been growing for a number of years.16 The typical large commercial nuclear reactor produces about twenty to thirty metric tons of SNF a year.17 U.S. reactors produce about 2,000 metric tons annually.18 Approximately 40,000 metric tons of SNF is currently stored on-site at seventy plants around the nation.19 "As a result, the total amount of [SNF] is expected to reach 60,000 IMAGE FORMULA10

metric tons by 2010... and almost 80,000 metric tons by 2020. …