Where Should All the Spent Fuel Go?

States, afraid temporary storage will become permanent, pressure US to take nuclear waste off their hands

EACH year, a typical nuclear power plant generates an automobile-sized load of spent fuel. The problem: Uncle Sam is likely to miss a 1998 deadline for opening a temporary parking lot for the highly radioactive waste.

Faced with the prospect of 110 nuclear plants in 32 states becoming de facto dumps for spent fuel, state officials, utility companies, and members of Congress are turning up the heat on the US Department of Energy (DOE). From the courtroom to Capitol Hill, they are pressing the agency to open an interim storage facility by the '98 deadline, while it proceeds with work on a permanent repository.

Yesterday, the Senate opened hearings on one of five related bills introduced in the past few weeks. On Wednesday, DOE officials huddled with utility representatives, lawmakers, and environmental groups in an Arlington, Va., hotel to discuss new approaches to the federal program.

All this comes none too soon for utilities and state officials. By 1998, roughly two dozen nuclear power plants will have filled their original on-site storage facilities -- huge pools of water that keep used fuel assemblies cool, says Jerry Saltzman of the DOE's Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management. ''These pools,'' he adds, ''were never designed for life-of-the-plant storage.''

When many of the existing plants were built, the federal government planned to reprocess the spent fuel and return it to the utilities. But by the late 1970s, amid falling uranium prices and concerns that reprocessed fuel could be stolen and used for nuclear weapons, the Carter administration ended the reprocessing.

In 1982, Congress passed the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, which set the 1998 deadline for opening a temporary storage facility and 2010 for opening a permanent repository. But by mid-decade, the process stalled.

In 1987, Congress tried to jump-start the program by designating Yucca Mountain in Nevada as the lead candidate for a permanent site; and, at the DOE's request, linked siting and licensing of an interim repository to that of a permanent facility.

Yet DOE mismanagement, delays in getting environmental permits in Nevada, and a tight-fisted Congress combined to slow the effort to study Yucca Mountain's suitability as a permanent repository, which in turn slowed efforts to find an interim site.

With nowhere to send spent fuel, plants either could be forced to shut down or fight expensive, divisive, and potentially losing battles to expand on-site storage. Six plants around the country have started to store spent fuel in specially designed above-ground containers.

By 2010, plants in nearly every state with a nuclear utility will be forced to use above-ground storage if no interim facility is built by then, Mr. Saltzman says. Meanwhile, Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary has suggested that the department will be lucky to have a permanent repository by 2013.

ALL this, utilities say, forces ratepayers to pay twice for storage: once, through levies on utilities under the NWPA to help pay for storing nuclear waste; and twice, through levies utilities say they'll have to charge for building additional storage sites.

''Utilities have a big political problem,'' says Dwayne Weigel, assistant director of the General Accounting Office's science and energy division, particularly since opponents of nuclear energy see the waste issue as a means of trying to shut down plants.

Several measures now before Congress try to handle those problems by reaffirming the DOE's responsibility to take the waste in 1998, and by designating Yucca Mountain as the site for both a temporary and a permanent repository.Other bills seek to free money from a fund established by the NWPA to help pay for additional storage sites. Utilities have paid $10 billion into the find since it began, says Saltzman; the DOE has spent about $4 billion.

Yet another measure would halt work at Yucca Mountain entirely and send the whole process back to a committee of scientists for advice on how to proceed.

While Congress legislates, others litigate. Twenty-seven states and 19 utilities have sued the DOE in an effort to get it to meet what plaintiffs argue is a contractual obligation to accept the waste in '98, says Evan Wollacott, vice chairman of the Connecticut Department of Public Utilities Control.

Yet to some, all this smacks of false urgency. ''We're now at the absurd point where ratepayers are suing taxpayers'' -- who are one and the same people, says Robert Pollard, a nuclear safety engineer with the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington.

Spent fuel in dry-cask storage, if done properly, is safer than fuel in a spent-fuel pool, and both are safer than at a reactor,'' he says, referring to the 200-ton steel-and-concrete casks used for above-ground storage.

''Moving it now accomplishes nothing of value,'' he says. ''Utilities say that the DOE has nothing to show for the $4 billion it's spent, but it does. We've got reports; digging is going on. They have to determine if Yucca Mountain is suitable for storing material for 10,000 years. A wide range of scientific disciplines is involved. If it takes three or four years extra to find out, it's time well spent.''

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