Nuclear waste piles up, and it's costing taxpayers billions
The Bush administration agreed to store nuclear waste from 21 new reactors. But the federal government still can't meet its commitment to find permanent storage.
In the waning days of the Bush administration, the US Department of Energy signed contracts with more than a dozen utilities promising to permanently store nuclear waste from 21 not-yet-built reactors, nuclear watchdog groups reported Wednesday.Skip to next paragraph
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But that "below the radar" DOE commitment was an unreasonable and unnecessary risk to taxpayers given the $1 billion dollars in contractual penalties the agency faced at the time – and the agency's 35-year failure to develop a permanent radioactive waste storage site, the groups said, citing federal contract documents they had obtained.
At the time DOE officials signed the contracts in late 2008, the government faced – and still faces – scores of lawsuits by nuclear utilities seeking compensation because the government has not stored their spent fuel as promised. Instead, the utilities must store it on their own sites. When DOE officials signed the deals, the government had already paid $565 million in damages and faced $790 million in judgments on appeal.
"It was rash for the Bush Administration to sign contracts for new reactors while taxpayers are on the hook for billions due to default on existing waste contracts," Arjun Makhijani, president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research (IEER), one of the watchdog groups, told reporters at a press conference Wednesday. "These new contracts are likely to add billions more in damages at a time when the federal government is struggling with deficit containment.”
Energy Department way behind schedule
The Department of Energy is more than a decade behind schedule in fulfilling its contractual obligations to remove and permanently dispose of highly radioactive spent fuel from the nation's 104 nuclear power reactors.
By 2020, taxpayers will have paid about $12 billion in court judgments against DOE for its failure to find a permanent storage site for highly radioactive spent nuclear fuel, the Congressional Budget Office estimated last year.
The contracts with nuclear power companies would require the government to begin collecting and storing waste no sooner than 2068, the groups reported. But even that seemingly distant date is unlikely to be enough time since by then there would be enough waste to fill more than two Yucca Mountains, the failed storage site that the Obama administration cancelled earlier this month. Some members of Congress are seeking to block the administration from defunding the project.
The Obama administration has signaled its support for expanding nuclear power by expanding federal loan guarantees. But much depends on the administration's new blue ribbon commission tasked with solving the long-term disposal of nuclear waste. The commission is meeting for the first time this week, but its first report is not expected for 18 months. Yet its task is made even more urgent by billions in pending court judgments now stacking up against US taxpayers, nuclear critics say.
"Given that after 35 years of searching, the U.S. has failed to license a single repository, it is reasonable to predict that the siting of two new repositories will take at least 50 years, if not 75 or 100 years," the groups said in their report. "Thus, there is a very real potential for defaults on the new irradiated nuclear fuel contracts signed in 2008-2009."