Ever since nuclear power plants began to generate electricity in the 1950s, the single most-pressing problem has been where to store waste that remains dangerously radioactive for at least 10,000 years.
Some 40 years later, the federal government's reply - we'll handle it - has yet to result in a solution. To utilities operating nuclear plants, the problem has grown more urgent recently: 17 reactors in 10 locations across the country have run out of room in water-filled temporary storage pools. Their owners have had to buy huge concrete-and-steel casks to store the radioactive fuel rods that no longer can be used. This year, 27 more reactors are expected to run out of pool space, forcing them to look for storage options that could cost billions.
Now, dozens of nuclear utilities and state agencies are tired of waiting for a federal solution. At a press conference in Washington yesterday, the group announced that it is suing the Department of Energy (DOE) because the agency has not taken the waste - as it said it would - by Jan. 31.
The latest volley in a 16-year legal battle, the suit is just one way that nuclear utilities are seeking to find a solution to this mounting concern. Some are joining forces to build private temporary storage sites in the West, others are expanding their own "dry casks" to house the waste at the plant. But as the federal government continues to look for a site suitable for storing huge amounts of spent fuel permanently, the lawsuit has heightened debates about the buildup of nuclear waste and the prospect of shipping it across the country.
Basically, the suit seeks a court order forcing the DOE to begin moving the spent fuel from reactors nationwide.
"The DOE is able, authorized, and obligated" to take the waste, insists Michael McCarthy, administrator of the Nuclear Waste Strategy Coalition - an organization of state regulators, attorneys general, and utilities. "The only thing left to do is move it."
Supporters of the lawsuit say that growing numbers of Americans are paying too much money on their electric bills as nuclear plants are forced to pass the cost for expensive storage on to consumers.
But the DOE says that its hands are tied. Agency officials counter that they can't move the nuclear waste anywhere until Congress and the president approve a site for a permanent repository.
It's a complex debate that dates back to 1982. Back then, Congress required the DOE to begin work toward building a permanent repository and start taking waste by Jan. 31, 1998. Currently, the DOE's effort focuses on Yucca Mountain in Nevada. But any Washington-based solution stands at least a decade away - the construction of a federal interim site was outlawed by a 1987 agreement, and President Clinton has promised to veto the legislation now going through Congress that would require the DOE to build an interim storage site at Yucca Mountain.
For the utilities, the arguments for moving the waste to DOE territory are largely economic. First, they note that since 1982, they have been required to pay $600 million a year to a trust fund that pays for the government's search for a permanent repository. That means that they and their ratepayers are buying storage twice: once through contributions to the trust and once through buying new storage casks for current waste.
Without waste removal, utilities worry that they will be responsible for monitoring and safeguarding the waste long after a plant closes. In some cases, the lack of storage space could force such closings ahead of schedule.
One plant, the Prairie Island nuclear plant in Red Wing, Minn., faces that prospect. Bound by agreements with the state, Prairie Island has agreed not to expand its dry-cask storage further. But without outside storage, it could face a shutdown in 2007, well ahead of its license expiration.
While industry opponents sympathize with ratepayers being forced to pay twice, they have little patience with the utilities' other economic arguments. "They could just stop making this stuff," says Michael Marriotte, executive director of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service in Washington. "Dealing with the waste is part of the cost of doing business. Utilities will have to decide if it's financially worthwhile."
Moreover, he is concerned about the safety risks of transporting the radioactive material over the nation's railways and highways.
Faced with these obstacles, many in the nuclear industry are working to establish privately run storage sites. In Utah, the Skull Valley band of Goshutes, a native American tribe, has agreed to host a temporary storage site on their reservation capable of holding 40,000 metric tons of spent fuel.
Last week, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission held a preliminary round of hearings. If approved, the facility could be ready to receive waste in 2002.
Meanwhile, in Wyoming, a site near the city of Riverton is under consideration for another facility to open in 2002. It would be capable of holding 40,000 metric tons of fuel.