IT'S increasingly doubtful that we will meet our responsibilities to store high-level wastes from nuclear power plants. Not because of any lack of will on the part of Congress, but a flaw in the Nuclear Waste Policy Act. Today, high-level wastes from nuclear plants - primarily spent fuel rods - are stored safely at more than 70 reactor sites, but the amount of spent fuel at commercial plants is increasing. We need to be concerned about this, regardless of whether we support or oppose nuclear power development, or even if every plant in operation today were closed tomorrow. There is no immediate safety hazard. But long-term on-site storage is impractical, because so many above-ground sites have to be kept under constant custodial care.
Congress understood that we owe it to future generations to isolate the wastes for thousands of years. Current policy, adopted in 1987 amendments to the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, calls for the Department of Energy (DOE) to build a repository beneath Yucca Mountain in Nevada if the site is acceptable. DOE's current date for opening the repository is not until the year 2010. However, DOE is unable to drill exploratory shafts and conduct other tests, because of legal opposition from the state of Nevada.
There is a solution to storing nuclear wastes, called Monitored Retrievable Storage (MRS) - an interim storage facility where spent fuel could be consolidated, packaged, and stored until the repository began operating. This solution was outlined in a report presented by the Monitored Retrievable Storage Commission, on which I served with Frank Parker of Vanderbilt University and Alex Radin, the former executive director of the American Public Power Association. An MRS would give us greater flexibility in storing spent nuclear fuel, a highly successful approach used by other countries.
For example, Sweden has a central storage facility for spent fuel from its 12 nuclear power plants. It's located in a rock cavern 25 meters below the surface, and consists of cooling ponds to hold the fuel rods. According to the waste disposal policy of the Swedish government, the spent fuel is shipped to the central storage facility after about one year at the reactor sites, where it will stay for 30 or 40 years. Transport to a deep geologic repository is not to begin until about 2020.
A strategy of this kind is more likely to succeed than our own. Presently, Monitored Retrievable Storage construction can't start until geohydrological tests have been completed at Yucca Mountain, and the site has been fully characterized. That's not all. The interim storage facility can't accept spent fuel until after construction of the Yucca Mountain repository has begun. What's more, if the repository program hits a snag, work on the storage facility must stop as well.
The Nuclear Waste Policy Act's rigid requirements to complete the repository before the interim facility can accept spent fuel guarantees that the spent fuel will continue to be stored at the reactor sites. Congress needs to correct these flaws by separating development of the MRS program from the repository. Construction of a permanent repository would be the ideal solution.
Without action by Congress, the very concept of central storage of high-level waste might even be lost as a practical possibility. An impasse, increasingly plausible, would be the worst possible outcome. Clearly, making changes to the Nuclear Waste Policy Act to end the contradictions and confusions are in order, and significant as the US considers a new national energy strategy. After all, Congress recently resolved the divisive issue of acid rain when it rewrote the Clean Air Act. Why not do the same for spent nuclear fuel?