THE nation's nuclear-waste problem would be quickly and painlessly eased if the US Department of Energy (DOE) were required to keep a commitment it made 12 years ago to take spent nuclear fuel from power plants beginning in 1998. The burden on electricity customers would be reduced significantly if DOE developed a central facility to hold the spent fuel until an underground waste repository is ready.
Electricity customers now unfairly pay twice - once to the government for study of a proposed repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, and again for temporary on-site storage of spent fuel at power plants. Congress should rectify this.
The nation's total inventory of spent nuclear fuel, roughly 22,000 tons, is stored at dozens of nuclear plants around the country instead of at one central location. The waste may never leave the plant sites. Twenty states and some state public utility commissions are taking legal action against the federal government. They want to force DOE to honor its commitment under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act to take the spent fuel from utilities unconditionally - especially since no aspect of nuclear-power concerns people more than the disposal of high-level nuclear waste.
Nationally, electricity customers have paid nearly $10 billion into the Nuclear Waste Fund created by the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1983. California ratepayers alone have contributed $358.7 million to the fund. The money was to go for spent-fuel storage and disposal. But DOE has made little progress in establishing an underground repository for the waste; the department's date for opening the facility is not until 2010, even assuming legal and political hurdles are overcome.
Hence, the spent fuel - contained safely and securely in steel rods - continues to be stored temporarily in cooling pools at nuclear plants around the country. By 1998, about two dozen nuclear units will have no more space in their pools. By 2010, over 70 units will be out of room.
As a stopgap measure, a few utilities have received approval from state regulators to store spent fuel in above-ground concrete casks. Other utilities are likely to do the same. Thus, for a growing number of nuclear plants, dry-cask storage could mean the difference between continued operations and shutting down.
There is a better solution to managing nuclear wastes, called monitored retrievable storage (MRS) - developing an interim storage facility where spent fuel from the nation's 110 nuclear plants could be consolidated and stored until a permanent repository begins operation. An MRS would be managed by specially trained staffs. It is a highly successful approach used by other countries.
For example, Sweden has a central storage facility located in a rock cavern. Spent fuel rods from Sweden's 12 nuclear plants are shipped to the cavern after about one year. The Swedish government's plan is to store the spent fuel there for about 30 or 40 years. Transport to a deep geologic repository will begin around the year 2020.
A strategy of this kind is more likely to succeed than our own. It would best serve the interests of utilities and electricity customers. Congress should amend the Nuclear Waste Policy Act to permit development of an MRS so that DOE has a place to store the waste temporarily until a permanent repository is in operation. Also, Congress needs to correct flaws in the 1983 law that are needlessly slowing the study and licensing of a permanent repository.
The disposal of high-level nuclear waste is yet another example of an environmental issue for which there is a sound technical solution that other countries are pursuing. America, too, needs to demonstrate it can keep its promises and follow through with its plans. A good beginning would be for DOE to develop an interim storage facility and accept power plant waste, as it agreed to do years ago. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.