Several legislatures of states with nuclear power plants are considering stopping or reducing payments to the federal government for nuclear waste management until the proposed Yucca Mountain, Nev., repository opens or another solution to the waste problem emerges.
Since the February release of President Obama's budget blueprint, which signaled the likely demise of the Yucca Mountain plan, pro-nuclear lawmakers in Congress have grumbled about the uncertainty such a move would bring. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), for one, threatened to promote a measure to return waste-removal fees paid by electric ratepayers.
But at least four states are trying now to take matters into their own hands.
Maine lawmakers passed a resolution yesterday asking the federal government to immediately reduce fees paid by electricity customers for managing spent nuclear fuel. The resolution also urges the expedited establishment of two federally licensed interim storage facilities that would take possession of the waste and create an independent panel to assess the long-term prospects for handling military and civilian nuclear wastes.
Since 1982, U.S. nuclear-power ratepayers have paid a tenth of a cent per kilowatt-hour into a federal fund that now holds about $30 billion. The fund can be used only to build the repository.
The Department of Energy has spent about $13.5 billion on the Yucca Mountain project since 1983 and had contracted with utilities to begin taking spent fuel in 1998. The partial breach of contracts leaves DOE liable for about $11 billion based on plans for the repository opening in 2020. That liability would escalate for each year the waste is not removed from nuclear plant sites, DOE says.
So far, Maine has paid $65.5 million of its $185 million obligation for its only nuclear plant, the Yankee Nuclear Power Station, which the state closed in 1997. There are currently 64 casks of used nuclear fuel on the decommissioned site awaiting disposal, says the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), the nuclear industry's policy arm.
NEI said Maine's frustration may be just the beginning of a national revolt.
"We were pleased to see this resolution adopted by the Maine Legislature. It clearly recognizes the important issues now facing the country in light of the situation with the Yucca Mountain repository," said John Keeley, an NEI spokesman.
"We hope Maine calling for a reduction of the waste fee and movement on interim storage will incentivize the administration and Congress to take up those issues," he said. "It's easy to understand the frustration that led to this resolution."
Other state proposals
Other states, which are obligated to pay much more than Maine, are considering even stronger measures to pressure the Obama administration and Congress. There are about 55,000 tons of civilian high-level waste in more than 120 locations in 39 states waiting for disposal.
Minnesota state Rep. Joe Atkins introduced legislation that would hold Minnesota waste-fee payments -- about $13 million per year -- in escrow until DOE "can show that a federal repository is operating and currently accepting such material." Minnesota has paid about $659 million, including interest, into the fund.
Atkins' proposal has passed the energy committee and is awaiting consideration by the state House of Representatives.
Atkins wants all lawmakers in nuclear states and the National Conference of State Legislatures to support similar measures. "If enough states follow suit, we might finally get an answer on Yucca Mountain -- moving 55,000 tons of nuclear waste to a safe and permanent storage place we've been waiting on for decades," he said in a statement.
The Michigan Senate also has a bill that would establish a nuclear waste escrow account. The state Senate has another resolution urging DOE and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission "to do everything necessary to allow the Yucca Mountain repository to begin accepting high-level nuclear waste." Michigan has paid $656 million into the waste fund.
"The construction of new nuclear power plants, which are needed to provide clean and reliable baseload power, is being hampered by the unresolved issue of spent nuclear fuel," the Michigan bill, S.R. 9, says. "In order to realize the many benefits of nuclear power, the nation must address the issue of high-level nuclear waste."
A proposed South Carolina resolution, meanwhile, supports the qualification of a repository at Yucca Mountain.
South Carolina currently holds commercial waste and defense high-level waste at the Savannah River Site -- a DOE laboratory specializing in the nuclear fuel cycle -- and the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Plant is being built there. The state could be a prime candidate for an interim or long-term repository if Yucca is abandoned.