DOE team crafting strategy for moving, storing reactor waste

By Hannah Northey | 10/20/2015 01:22 PM EDT

The Obama administration is preparing plans for transporting used reactor fuel to temporary storage sites and creating a federal corporation to oversee the process, according to sources and documents obtained by Greenwire.

The Obama administration is preparing plans for transporting used reactor fuel to temporary storage sites and creating a federal corporation to oversee the process, according to sources and documents obtained by Greenwire.

The Department of Energy has assembled a team of a dozen or so staffers to "lay the groundwork" for transporting spent reactor fuel from closed nuclear power plants to not-yet-identified interim storage sites, team leaders said in a Sept. 2 presentation to the Office of Nuclear Energy.

The goal is to build a "foundation" for the organization that would oversee waste disposal, documents say.


The administration launched the "Nuclear Fuel Storage and Transportation Planning Project" three years ago under a strategy to build a pilot interim storage site by 2021, a larger interim site by 2025 and a new geologic repository by 2048.

The Sept. 2 presentation provides a new window into those plans.

Andrew Griffith, DOE’s associate deputy assistant secretary for fuel cycle technologies in the Office of Nuclear Energy, will lead the effort. He’ll report to John Kotek, the acting assistant secretary of nuclear energy, who’s being vetted today by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee for the full-time appointment (E&E Daily, Oct. 19).

Other key team members: Mark Nutt, a nuclear engineer at Argonne National Laboratory; Rob Howard, a senior project engineer at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory; and Melissa Bates, a DOE engineer who works on nuclear fuels and transportation.

In the near term, the group has been tasked with developing options for interim storage, establishing a database to characterize material that would go into the new waste management system, finding ways for the public to comment on storage and transportation options, and preparing for a pilot interim waste-storage facility.

DOE lists 13 closed nuclear plants where almost 18,000 used nuclear fuel assemblies are being held in dry storage casks — large concrete vessels — waiting for final disposal.

The department has expressed interest in moving forward with interim storage as a way to stave off costly lawsuits DOE faces for failing to uphold 1980s agreements to take possession of waste piling up at reactors across the country. Damages could be more than $20 billion by 2020 and up to $500 million annually after 2020, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute.

There have been rumors about the DOE team and the administration’s focus on finding temporary solutions for the country’s 70,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel circulating among industry officials for several weeks.

One industry source praised DOE for its effort to find storage options for reactor fuel after disassembling the Yucca Mountain, Nev., repository program five years ago.

"Since 2010, the department hasn’t done a great deal on the back end of the fuel cycle, when Yucca was halted," the source said. "This is finally seeing some action on their part to move forward. While not with Yucca Mountain, which the industry, of course, would like … they’re beginning to plan and think about consolidated storage."

The presentation raises the question of whether DOE is considering proposals for interim storage in Texas and New Mexico, the source said.

Waste Control Specialists, a Dallas-based company whose former owner, billionaire Harold Simmons, once dubbed President Obama the most "dangerous man in America," unveiled plans earlier this year to build the nation’s first private, temporary storage site for spent reactor fuel in arid West Texas.

And in New Mexico, Holtec International Inc. has proposed an underground storage facility to store casks of used fuel.

But the industry source also made clear Yucca Mountain must be part of the DOE package.

"The two — consolidated storage and Yucca — they can go forward together. And if they go forward, they need to do so together," the source said. "Consolidated storage is not a solution in itself. You need the repository, but the repository isn’t going to be open for a couple decades at least."

Legal authority

As DOE inches toward resolving the country’s waste issues, it faces constraints.

DOE has been warned by government watchdogs that it lacks clear legislative authority for consolidated interim storage or permanent disposal at a site other than Yucca Mountain. Nor can the department transport spent reactor fuel to temporary sites, the Government Accountability Office has said.

GAO also found the department would need to buy new equipment and fund costly upgrades if it were to pursue moving nuclear waste by rail.

"The federal government’s ability to site, license, construct and operate a consolidated interim storage facility not tied to Yucca Mountain depends on new legislative authority," according to a GAO report to a House subcommittee.

A Republican congressional aide agreed DOE faces constraints under the 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act, and the department’s activities on interim storage could trigger concern on the Hill as GOP lawmakers and the Nuclear Energy Institute have called for a federal thumbs-up or -down on Yucca Mountain before any other option is pursued.

"I think there would be concern about how far and what exactly they’re trying to do that goes beyond the limits of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act," the aide said. "It’s important DOE maintain a semblance of activity on the used fuel management program, but there are limits to how much generic work can be done in this space until you actually start. Whether it’s interim or whether they want to move toward a repository, they need to have legal authority to do that."

But DOE is aiming to align its activities with the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future, a presidential panel that called on Congress three years ago to develop nuclear storage sites and dumps.

The commission also warned that narrowly focusing on the development of Yucca Mountain would exacerbate a policy impasse that has stranded nuclear waste across the country (Greenwire, Feb. 1, 2012).

A DOE spokesman said the team is part of a strategy the department unveiled in March for tackling defense and commercial nuclear waste separately (E&ENews PM, March 24).

"Based on this announcement a team has been developing plans and performing technical analysis of various components of an integrated waste management system, as well as evaluating the Department’s next steps in the consent-based siting process," Bartlett Jackson said in an email.

"The Department believes that siting of any facility for storage or disposal of nuclear waste should be done in a consent-based fashion consistent with the phased, adaptive, and consent-based approach that has been endorsed by the National Academies and the [Blue Ribbon Commission] and is an essential element of the administration’s Strategy for the Management and Disposal of Used Nuclear Fuel and High-Level Radioactive Waste."