While President Obama's plan to find alternatives to storing high-level nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain, Nev., is grabbing headlines, another problem has begun threatening license applications for new reactors.
What can be done with low-level nuclear waste?
There are dwindling places to put low-level nuclear waste -- contaminated resins, filters, wood, paper, plastics, pipes, structural steel and pressure vessels that can be hazardous for up to 500 years. And nuclear-power opponent groups are filing and winning legal fights to force utilities to present disposal plans for low-level waste before they can build a new reactor.
"I'm going to argue low-level waste is a bigger issue than high-level waste right now," Edward Sproat, then-director of the Energy Department's Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management, warned at a Center for Strategic and International Studies event last fall.
While the nuclear industry is unhappy about Yucca Mountain's impending demise, officials recognize it will not immediately threaten the 17 license applications filed for new reactors. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has determined that spent fuel can be stored on-site for the next century and is reviewing a possible extension of that.
But the low-level waste problem is already affecting reactor applications.
The Southern Alliance for Clean Energy this month won a legal contention from the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board against Southern Nuclear Operating's Vogtle reactor license application for Georgia. The same contention has already been granted in reviews of the Tennessee Valley Authority's Bellefonte application in Alabama; Unistar's Calvert Cliffs, Md., application; and Dominion Power's North Anna application in Virginia.
Advocacy groups plan to similarly contest Progress Energy's Levy County, Fla., application and have already filed against Detroit Edison's Fermi application.
Sara Barczak, program director for the Southern Alliance, said the focus on low-level waste represents a significant shift for regulators and utilities. "I think most people, when they see 'low level,' they say, 'Oh, low level of radioactivity,' but the definition of low level is so broad," she said.
U.S. low-level waste comes from a wide range of places, including hospitals and laboratories, but the greatest -- and most toxic -- volume is produced by the Energy Department and the 104 commercial nuclear reactors.
Toxic for up to 100 years, Class A waste has just three storage options -- sites at Clive, Utah; Richland, Wash.; and Barnwell, S.C. Only Richland and Barnwell accept Class B waste, which is toxic for up to 300 years, and Class C, toxic up to 500 years.
But there is another complication: Barnwell closed its gates to all states but Connecticut, New Jersey and South Carolina last summer. And Richland only accepts waste from 11 states in the Northwest and Rocky Mountain compacts.
That means 36 states with reactors, hospitals and other industry with radioactive materials have no place to send much of their waste.
Existing disposal facilities have adequate capacity for most low-level radioactive waste and are accessible to waste generators in the short term, but constraints on the long-term disposal of class B and C wastes have become clear, according to a report by the Government Accountability Office last year.
"The nuclear industry has really been hiding their head in the sand about the waste for all issues," said Michael Mariotte, executive director of the nonprofit Nuclear Information and Resource Service, which opposes nuclear power.
Mariotte said utilities that want to build new reactors have known for 10 years that Barnwell would close but failed to include on-site storage or options for handling low-level radioactive waste in their license applications.
"There is a very clear issue that utilities have to figure out what they are going to do," Mariotte said. "Just from a regulatory standpoint, on the high-level waste, they can point to the waste confidence rule, but they don't have a counterpart for low-level waste."
Utilities have a simple, short-term option, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry group. "They are going to have to, they will end up filing plans to store on-site," said Doug Walters, senior director for new plants at NEI.
Walters said most existing nuclear power plants are already considering building on-site storage for low-level waste. Moreover, he said, most of the new reactors would be built on the same sites as current reactors.
But that approach is not that simple, nuclear foes say. It is likely to increase the already hefty cost of building reactors and increase the complaints of regulators and nearby communities that are already upset at the storage of spent fuel rods, Mariotte said.
Another possible solution would involve opening more waste disposal sites. But permitting a dump site for Class B and Class C material is almost as difficult as siting a high-level waste dump.
In 1980, Congress passed a law that made states responsible for disposal of their own wastes, but states were encouraged to form compacts to locate one low-level radioactive waste site for several states. The law also excluded low-level waste from the Interstate Commerce Clause, so shipments across state lines are not allowed unless approved by individual states or compacts.
Since the law passed, the Clive, Utah, facility has been the only waste site created. North Carolina and Nebraska pulled out of compacts after being chosen as disposal sites, and Michigan was expelled by the Midwest compact for failing to site a dump.
There is also little incentive for companies to try to license and develop new low-level waste sites, because nuclear plants, which generate most of that waste, have managed to dramatically reduce their volume and store more on site, according to Todd Lovinger, executive director of the Low-Level Radioactive Waste Forum, a nonprofit that is helping state compacts comply with the low-level waste law.
The low-level waste volume stands to rise somewhat if some new reactors come on line, but not significantly, said Mitch Singer, a spokesman for NEI.
Texas regulators in January granted a license to Waste Control Specialists LLC for a new low-level waste dump in Andrews County, which is at the New Mexico line. The site is licensed to take waste from Texas, Vermont and the federal government, but there are concerns that it could open to other states with no place to put their wastes. THe company says its current waste stream is sufficient, spokesman Ricky Dailey said.
The lack of storage space for low-level radioactive waste has grabbed attention on Capitol Hill.
Lawmakers started getting involved after the operator of the Clive, Utah, Class A storage site filed a license in 2007 to import 20,000 tons of Italian low-level waste.
The Italian waste would take up less than 1 percent of total volume at the EnergySolutions facility, and CEO Steve Creamer promised to limit total foreign imports to 5 percent of the facility.
But Reps. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.) and Jim Matheson (D-Utah) say the Italian waste could just be the beginning of the low-level waste influx. They have introduced a bill banning foreign import of low-level radioactive waste unless there is an exemption from the president.
"We are going to run out of waste space here," Gordon told reporters after introducing the bill this session. "Of 104 nuclear power plants in this country, 94 have no other place to go but Utah."
This story was corrected on March 19.
Want to read more stories like this?
E&E is the leading source for comprehensive, daily coverage of environmental and energy politics and policy.
Click here to start a free trial to E&E -- the best way to track policy and markets.