OSWEGO — The future of nuclear energy in the United States is murky, as is the debate over how the nation — including Oswego County’s three reactors — should deal with the radioactive waste of its electricity production.
After burning at 550 degrees Fahrenheit for several years, the fuel in the cores of nuclear reactors (uranium, in most cases) will experience diminishing returns of energy output. The 700-pound, 14.5’-tall uranium fuel assemblies must be replaced, but what to do with the street lamp-sized chunk of (very) heavy metal that will leak radiation for the next 100,000 years?
For nearly 40 years, federal officials have grappled with the question of nuclear waste disposal. There’s no easy answer.
All the uranium ever burned and extracted from reactors at Exelon’s Nine Mile Point and James A. FitzPatrick nuclear facilities remains at the sites, within sight of the Lake Ontario shoreline in Scriba. After several years in a cooling pool adjacent to the reactor itself, the spent uranium is entombed in steel and concrete silos (known as dry cask storage) at a separate part of the plants’ campuses.
Dry cask storage is “designed to contain radiation, manage heat and prevent nuclear fission. They must resist earthquakes, projectiles, tornadoes, floods, temperature extremes and other scenarios,” according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), which oversees all nuclear plants in the United States. While licensed on a 20-year basis and in most cases built to be effective for more than 100 years, dry cask installations are nevertheless not designed to last forever — unlike the radiation emanating from the uranium.
There’s a lot of science involved in using uranium to power our homes and businesses, but the solution to its waste problem is undeniably a political one.
The federal Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 mandated the Department of Energy to find a solution to the problem of how to collect, transport and store American nuclear waste in a central location. Four decades later, the spent uranium from FitzPatrick and Nine Mile Point’s reactors still sits in Scriba, enjoying its lakeside view.
In 1987, Yucca Mountain, Nevada, was selected from a pool of eight potential sites to host the nation’s geological repository for high-level nuclear waste.
According to the NRC, the Yucca Mountain facility would look basically as follows:
1. Canisters of waste, sealed in special casks, are shipped to the site by truck or train.
2. Shipping casks are removed, and the inner tubes with the waste are placed in steel, multilayered storage containers.
3. An automated system sends storage containers underground to the tunnels.
4. Containers are stored along the tunnels, on their sides.
Unsurprisingly, this was not a universally popular decision with the people of Nye County, Nevada, where Yucca Mountain is located.
NRC documents describe the scenes at the first public hearings in Nye County about the project in 1999 and 2000, after more than a decade of geological studies and environmental impact research.
“The citizens expressed concern about why they felt they couldn’t trust the government and were afraid of being lied to,” read one section of a report prepared by the Center for Nuclear Waste Regulatory Analyses.
In addition to the scientific challenges of building a facility capable of withstanding one million years of natural disasters (an actual court-ordered requirement), the NRC found they had to deal with unexpected human hurdles
“At one of the meetings a local politician attended the meeting with his own television reporter and used the meeting as a venue for grandstanding,” the report said. “His comments off camera to the NRC staff were very complimentary, but on camera he took a much harsher stance.”
U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-NY, has indicated that while she believes a federal repository is the best solution to spent uranium storage, she would not demand the construction of one without the consent of its local communities.
“Senator Gillibrand believes we must find a permanent solution for spent fuel storage and the Department of Energy should work with the states and with Congress to find an acceptable site,” said Gillibrand spokesperson Miriam Cash. “There should be a federal repository for permanently storing civilian nuclear waste and communities in New York should not have to be required to store it on-site for decades.”
Funds for the Yucca Mountain licensing review process finally ran out in 2011 and no meaningful progress has been made since that point, according to federal nuclear officials.
Secretary of Energy Stephen Chu, a member of President Barack Obama’s administration, dubbed Yucca Mountain “off the table” in 2009, but clearly, the table still has room to accommodate its return.
Yucca Mountain sits in the middle of the Nevada desert roughly 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas. Since the site’s selection in 1987 as the national spent fuel repository from a pool of eight other locations, the Department of Energy has run into roadblocks from local and environmental interests and, perhaps most importantly, opposition from Nevada Democrat Harry Reid. Reid represented Nevada in the U.S. Senate for 30 years beginning in 1987 and deftly wielded his influence, including as Senate majority leader, to stifle Yucca Mountain progress until his 2017 retirement. That was the same year President Donald Trump’s first executive budget contained funds to restart the research into a feasible transition from individual reactor site dry cask storage to a national repository system.
Executive budgets are not law, however, and while Trump’s public support for more than $100 million in funding symbolized yet another component in his industry-friendly administration’s larger platform, Congress has yet to approve any of the dollars.
“The political debate rages on,” Rod McCullum of the Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., told The Palladium-Times in a recent interview. “The scientific and technical basis is as strong as ever, but the political will to move forward is as weak as ever.”
Any meaningful change in funding for the Yucca Mountain licensing review would would need to come from Congress, but in a legislative body where in the best of times progress is measured in subatomic increments, the current health crisis has brought all non-COVID-19 discussion to an indefinate halt.
In a statement on the topic of dry cask storage versus a federal repository, U.S. Rep. Anthony Brindisi, D-Utica, expressed support for a “bipartisan solution that identifies and funds a permanent storage solution” and removing the spent uranium from its sites. Brindisi is also a co-sponsor on H.R. 2314, the Nuclear Powers America Act, which provides investment tax credits for nuclear power plants.
Exelon, which operates both FitzPatrick and Nine Mile Point, said via a spokesperson that dry cask storage is “highly secure” and has been “extensively reviewed by the NRC.”
“We are confident that this proven method provides safe storage until such time as the federal government removes the spent fuel,” Exelon’s Alexandria Wallace told The Palladium-Times this week.
The course reversal (and back again) by the federal government isn’t helping matters. As recently as 2018, legislation was proposed funding Yucca Mountain’s review process. For many, the term “nuclear waste” evokes images of leaking barrels of glowing, toxic goo; the boring truth is that spent fuel’s true danger lies more in the quantity than its lack-of-quality. As long as nuclear plants continue to operate in the United States, they will continue to produce waste uranium that must be carefully stored on site in dry cask facilities.
Yucca Mountain’s license application is for a term of 10,000 years. It is unclear if that is a long enough span of time for officials to come to a final decision.
Seth Wallace is the managing editor of The Palladium-Times and a nuclear energy policy enthusiast.