Nuclear Plants Closing Early Leave Decades of Toxic Waste Stranded

  • U.S. government has no permanent repository for spent fuel
  • 76,000 metric tons of waste stored at commercial sites

The San Onofre Nuclear plant south of San Clemente, California.

Photographer: David McNew/Getty Images

Midway between San Diego and Los Angeles, the San Onofre Nuclear Plant waits to be dismantled. After more than 40 years of protests, lawsuits and safety scares, its two concrete-encased reactors, jutting from the pristine California coastline, are powered down and its massive steam turbines, once deafening, are quiet.

For the activists who fought to close the plant, the victory is bittersweet.

The reactors will disappear, but 1,600 metric tons of radioactive waste remain. While some is stacked in steel-lined casks, and the rest is submerged in cooling pools, all of it is trapped in a political and regulatory limbo that keeps it from going anywhere anytime soon. And San Onofre isn’t alone: More than 76,000 metric tons of waste is stranded at dozens of commercial sites, just as the U.S. approaches a critical mass of nuclear-plant retirements.

“Many were surprised to learn that when the plant is decommissioned, the fuel has nowhere to go," said David Victor, chairman of the San Onofre Community Engagement Panel tasked with overseeing the closure.  "The problem is, nobody is in charge."

Under a 1982 law, the U.S. government, not the utilities, is responsible for disposing of radioactive waste that can take thousands, even hundreds of thousands, of years to degrade. But more than a half-century after nuclear energy powered the first American home, the U.S. Department of Energy still doesn’t have a permanent solution for the waste left behind.

It’s a problem that will only get worse. On Oct. 24, the Fort Calhoun Nuclear Generating Station near Blair, Nebraska, became the fifth nuclear plant to close in five years. Of 119 reactors in the U.S., 20 are now being decommissioned and a half-dozen more are expected to close prematurely, nudged out by cheap natural gas and growing use of renewables.

Beyond that, "the big wave of retirements really starts coming in around 2030," Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz warned last month at an event in Washington.

Among experts, the nuclear waste debate invariably turns on the fleeting nature of human institutions in dealing with an element that the Environmental Protection Agency has said must be isolated for 10,000 years to protect humans and the environment from toxic radiation.

“The problem with federal agencies is that the management structure changes every few years,” said Allison Macfarlane, a former chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), which licenses and regulates civilian use of radioactive material. “In hundreds of years, will these institutions be there, will they care, will they pay?"

That’s one issue. A second is where exactly to put the waste.


Deep Underground

The safest thing to do is to bury it deep underground, below the water table and within a stable rock formation. Congress picked such a site in 1987: a desert ridge in Southern Nevada known as Yucca Mountain. The site abuts a nuclear weapons testing ground where 928 atomic tests were conducted between 1951 and 1992.

While a few Nevada counties agreed with the selection, the state government didn’t, and the Yucca solution soon devolved into a decades-long political fight that crossed party lines and spanned presidential administrations. In 2010, President Barack Obama finally scrapped the plan altogether, declaring the site unworkable.

Moniz, whose agency has primary authority for disposing of the waste, is hoping to overcome the problem, at least for the short term, by using interim storage sites built by the private sector, he testified before Congress in September. Last month, the DOE for the first time began soliciting public comments on that proposal.

But plans for two private facilities are already facing flak.

Advocates Protest

Last month, a collection of anti-nuclear, environmental and consumer advocates demanded in a letter that the commission dismiss a license application by Dallas-based Waste Control Specialists LLC that offered up such a plan. The Texas facility, which the company said could be in place by the end of 2021, would store as much as 40,000 metric tons of waste, for as long as 40-years.

In their letter, the plan’s opponents argue that the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 bars the federal government from taking responsibility for interim waste in the absence of a federal repository.

“I think it’s a rather hollow argument to say the least,” said Chuck McDonald, spokesman for Waste Control Specialists, adding that the company couldn’t comment on the groups’ criticism of the NRC and the Energy Department.

McDonald said the concept of interim storage came out of the Obama Administration’s Blue Ribbon Commission on nuclear waste. “This idea didn’t come from Waste Control, it came from the federal government,” he said.

Cutting Costs

Allowing an interim site “lets the utilities off the hook,” making them less inclined to push for a permanent solution, said Mindy Goldstein, an Emory University law professor who co-authored the letter. Another concern: “Private owners will be cutting costs at every turn to maximize profits,” said Tom Smith, director of the Texas office for Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy group.

“That’s an inaccurate and unfair assumption that minimizes the oversight role of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the U.S. Department of Energy, who both have a pretty good track record as does Waste Control Specialists,” company spokesman McDonald said.

The other company proposing to host the waste, Holtec International Corp., declined to comment on the letter. “We have remarkable support,” said Ed Mayer, program director for Holtec, which plans to store 120,000 tons of waste at its facility in New Mexico. The support comes from the counties where the facility would be located as well as nearby cities and state officials, Mayer said.

Holtec will submit its application for a license in March 2017, with the site expected to be in service by 2022, he said.

Meanwhile, the Energy Department remains decades away from developing a permanent repository, according to John Kotek, an assistant secretary at the agency. An interim solution could be working in “a 5 to 10-year range,”  Kotek said by telephone. “It’s a multi-decade effort to get to permanent disposal.”

Consent-Based Siting

Part of the delay stems from a years-long Energy Department initiative aimed at getting volunteers to host a permanent repository. "Consent-based siting is absolutely essential," Energy Secretary Moniz said. "We never said it would be easy, we just said you’re not gonna get there without it."

In the meantime, the waste will stay at San Onofre and other commercial sites, where residents worry about the integrity of the containers that hold it. At nearly every meeting of the San Onofre Community Engagement Panel, residents line up to ask whether sea air might cause corrosion in the casks, what the chance of leakage is, and who’s responsible if the casks degrade. Their next meeting is November 10.

Maureen Brown, a spokesperson for Southern California Edison, which operates San Onofre, said the company supports moving the spent fuel offsite as soon as possible, but for now it’s secure. "Until the federal government does its legally mandated job and provides a storage facility for used nuclear fuel, SCE will continue to safely store the fuel on site," she said.

As the amount of waste grows, so does the government’s liability. For decades, utilities have sued the DOE for defaulting on a statutory obligation to dispose of spent nuclear fuel. The U.S. has paid more than $5 billion to settle these suits, which companies use to fund temporary management of the waste. The government’s estimated total liability is $29 billion.

"That’s probably low, because it’s getting more expensive to store this stuff," said Rod McCullum, senior director of decommissioning programs at the Nuclear Energy Institute. "It’s a direct hit on the taxpayer whenever the government loses one of these lawsuits."

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