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.
(Page 2 of 2)
"I don't see how these contracts are any different than contracts entered into back in the 1980s – there was no used-fuel repository at that time either," says Steve Kerekes, a spokesman for the Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry group. "One could argue this is just the government continuing to take steps to honor its commitment."Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures Nuclear power around the world
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
In response to the watchdog groups' report, the DOE issued this statement Thursday, March 25:
"The Department is fully committed to ensuring that the Nation meets our long-term storage obligations for nuclear waste. That is why Secretary Steven Chu established the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future to conduct a comprehensive review of policies for managing the back end of the nuclear fuel cycle and to provide recommendations for developing a safe, long-term solution to managing the Nation’s used nuclear fuel and nuclear waste. Liability depends on when the government takes used nuclear fuel, and not on whether the fuel is taken to a Yucca Mountain or any other specific location. As we work to develop this safe, long-term solution, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has said that used fuel can be safely stored in dry casks for decades."
Millions every year to store nuclear waste
Today nuclear power companies pay about $750 million annually in fees to cover the cost of disposing of nuclear waste, but must store it at their own sites. So far, they have paid more than $16 billion into a fund for long-term waste disposal services they haven't yet seen from the DOE, the CBO reported last year.
Under contracts signed with electric utilities under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, DOE by 1998 was supposed to begin taking waste from company storage sites and sending it to a disposal facility. After the government missed its 1998 deadline to start collecting waste, electric utilities began suing the government for damages.
About 63,000 tons of spent fuel has already been generated by existing reactors that will produce another 42,000 tons in the future, the watchdog groups said. Add to that another 21,000 metric tons that could be expected to be generated by 21 new reactors that DOE placed under contract, and the total reaches 126,000 metric tons – enough to fill Yucca Mountain twice.
The contract documents show the US government will be required to begin taking possession of spent fuel from the new reactors 50 years after a new reactor begins operating, the groups estimated.
That might seem like plenty of time. Yet, the US has already tried unsuccessfully for 35 years to find just one site, says Kevin Kamps, a spokesman for Beyond Nuclear. The DOE knew, or should have known, it would be highly risky to commit itself to finding several storage sites in that time frame, he says.
"Fifty-three years into commercial nuclear power ... the US still has no safe, sound, permanent storage plan for high-level radioactive waste," he told reporters. Meanwhile, the spent fuel stacking up at the sites is a terrorist target, he and others said.
Editor's note: This story was updated Thursday March 25 with a statement from the US Department of Energy.