Nuclear Solutions: The U.S. Government Has Failed to Meet Its Commitment to Do a Difficult Job Right

By Williams, James M. | Forum for Applied Research and Public Policy, Summer 1999 | Go to article overview

Nuclear Solutions: The U.S. Government Has Failed to Meet Its Commitment to Do a Difficult Job Right


Williams, James M., Forum for Applied Research and Public Policy


In the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, passed by Congress in 1982 after extensive debate, the nation made a commitment to permanently dispose of the highly radioactive and long-lived wastes generated in the production of commercial nuclear power. The job was to be done by the federal government to ensure it would be handled safely, equitably, and at the expense of the commercial nuclear power industry and its ratepayers.

Seventeen years and $7 billion later, with the program still in the "design and evaluation" phase, it is fair to question our national commitment to pay for a program to dispose of spent nuclear fuel. We know today that tradeoffs are necessary, since no program for managing spent fuel will be completely safe or entirely equitable. The questions are how tradeoff issues will be addressed, and whether the parties can be relied upon to be resilient in providing an assurance of safety and consideration of equity.

Spent Nuclear Fuel

The wastes involved are spent fuel from commercial nuclear reactors--assemblies of up to 15 rods filled with nuclear fuel pellets, which have been used to power the nation's 121 commercial reactors. Through 1998, about 135,000 such assemblies weighing 38,000 metric tons have been discharged from nuclear plants. Another 160,000 assemblies weighing 45,000 metric tons will be discharged as the nation's nuclear reactors operate through their license terms. (1)

Since their discharge, most assemblies have been stored in spent fuel pools at reactor sites, some for as long as 35 years. Some assemblies have been canistered and removed from pools to be stored "dry" in heavy metal casks or concrete bunkers, also at reactor sites. This storage, wet or dry, is at the expense of nuclear utilities and their ratepayers and is part of a utility's obligation under its license for commercial operations.

But, under the 1982 Act, the federal government was to begin accepting commercial spent fuel in January 1998, thus beginning a process to relieve utilities of their onsite storage burden, free pool capacity to support ongoing reactor operations, and allow the decommissioning of reactor sites as reactors reach their license terms.

Spent fuel is highly radioactive. Even 10 years after its discharge from nuclear reactors, it is 200 times more radioactive per unit volume than the high-level wastes from U.S. nuclear weapons production, about 20,000 times more radioactive than the transuranic wastes being disposed of at the U.S. Department of Energy's $19 billion repository near Carlsbad, New Mexico, and over 100,000 times more radioactive than the low-level wastes disposed of at commercial sites in the United States. (2) Commercial spent fuel discharges through 1994--about one-third of the projected total--contained almost 60 times the radioactivity released in 900 underground detonations at the Nevada Test Site and more than 100,000 times the radioactivity released at Hiroshima in 1945. (3)

The nation has many nuclear waste management problems--spent fuel from defense reactors, high-level transuranic wastes from weapons production, low-level wastes at defense and commercial sites, uranium mill tailings, wastes generated in the decommissioning of nuclear reactors. Among all of these, commercial spent fuel represents a tiny fraction in terms of volume, but perhaps 90 percent in terms of radioactive content. This percentage, which reflects the status at the end of 1994, is likely to increase over time. (4)

Delicate Fabric

Morris Udall, the Arizona congressman who was a key participant in the negotiations leading to the 1982 act, called it a "delicate fabric of agreements" on issues of responsibility, safety, equity; and costs: (5)

* The Atomic Energy Act of 1954, which paved the way for the development of commercial nuclear power in the United States, left the federal government responsible for the long-term management of its wastes. …

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