CHAMPAIGN, Ill. - Fifty thousand dry casks of spent nuclear fuel have nowhere to go for long-term storage. Yucca Mountain in Nevada appears to be all but dead as an option.
So now is the time to create specific institutions, funds and financial incentives to manage the spent fuel at the power plants where it was produced, according to a recent report produced from a consensus of nuclear experts from seven Midwestern universities.
That consensus was reached during a workshop at the University of Illinois, an appropriate site since Illinois produces more nuclear power than any other state, in a region of nuclear power-producing states.
The workshop, held in March, was the latest step in a project that began with interviews with dozens of congressional staff, from both sides of the aisle, according to Clifford Singer, a professor of nuclear engineering and of political science at Illinois, and one of three writers of the report, produced by the university's Program in Arms Control, Disarmament and International Security (ACDIS).
The interviews were followed with a June 2008 workshop with national policy experts and advocates in Washington, D.C., which was then followed with additional interviews with congressional staff. Those later interviews revealed a need for additional input from the states that generate spent nuclear fuel, Singer said, and faculty from nuclear engineering programs seemed a natural starting point.
Despite fears to the contrary, dry casks of spent fuel are a minor safety and security concern compared with other facilities and materials at a nuclear power plant, Singer said. "The spent nuclear fuel in dry casks is a negligible addition to the overall hazard on the site," he said.
The presence of the casks requires little more quality control or security than should be in place to manage the reactor and spent fuel stored in wet pools, Singer said. Also, dry casks, made mostly of concrete and steel, are built to be almost impenetrable, and the material inside becomes less hazardous over time.
"If you're OK with the reactor there, then you should be OK with the dry cask storage there. And if you're not, then you should be trying to get rid of the reactor, not worrying about the dry cask storage," Singer said.
As a consequence of the current situation, with long-term storage in limbo, the U.S. government is losing lawsuits over its failure to take title to spent nuclear fuel, with its total liability estimated at about $11 billion over the next decade, according to the report. Additional millions are being spent to manage spent fuel "stranded" at plants no longer in operation. More spent fuel is being stored longer in wet pools at plants, where it is more vulnerable to sabotage, rather than being moved to dry casks.
With no resolution to the issue, the report also says, legal restrictions in many states regarding the storage of spent fuel also stand in the way of new plant construction. And U.S. influence may suffer internationally on issues of climate change, nuclear nonproliferation, and the future of nuclear technology.
The report is titled " 'Plan D' for Spent Nuclear Fuel," with the D referring to extended dry cask storage primarily at power plants as one of five alternatives for spent nuclear fuel management.
Plan A, as defined by the report, is reprocessing spent fuel for use in breeder reactors. Plan B is deep burial as called for in the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982, which led to the project at Yucca Mountain. Plan C is actinide burning, a process to reduce the size of the waste requiring storage. Plan E is building no more nuclear reactors and abandoning potential future spent-fuel reprocessing.
Technical, political or cost concerns have essentially eliminated A, B, C and E as options, according to the report, leaving the U.S. with Plan D "for the foreseeable future at least."
Among its recommendations, the report suggests setting up regulated escrow funds for utilities for the costs of managing spent fuel in dry casks. It also suggests allowing the shipment of spent fuel between the reactor sites of different utilities within a state, and financial incentives for states to agree to accept spent fuel shipped from an inoperative reactor in a neighboring state to an operating reactor in their own.
Another recommendation suggests that any state be allowed to ask for much larger financial incentives for cooperating on hosting long-term spent-fuel management facilities, possibly setting up a permanent fund from which it can tap earnings from interest.
This contrasts with the arrangements made for Yucca Mountain, Singer said, through which the state reaps little financial benefit from hosting the site.
Currently utilities "have no incentive to do anything but sue the federal government for not solving the problem," Singer said.
The suggested funds, along with other recommendations, "basically would marketize the system," he said. "The utility would have the motivation to move the spent fuel offsite when, and only when, it's economically advantageous to do so, within the safety regulations set by the government."
According to Singer, Plan D is not just the only option remaining, but "what we should have been doing all along." In dealing with spent nuclear fuel, it's not practical to think you can "put it in a can, put it in a hole in the ground, and walk away," he said.
"It is both difficult and unnecessary to try to engineer a facility at this point for long-term storage for tens of thousands of years," Singer said. "About a century from now, people should have a much better idea how to design such facilities and more perspective on whether spent fuel should be placed in them permanently, or with access for potential future reprocessing."
"The problem we face here is we have an engineering problem that is going to be addressed with future engineering solutions, but we still need, in the present, to devise the institutional structures to give people the confidence that there'll be a framework for now for managing these things."
The challenge is similar to that faced in maintaining Europe's massive cathedrals over many centuries, Singer said. "What keeps those things up is not the original engineering," he said, but rather the institutional structure put in place to constantly maintain them.
The other authors of the report were Rodney Ewing, a professor in the departments of geological sciences and of nuclear engineering and radiological sciences at the University of Michigan, and Paul P.H. Wilson, a professor in the department of engineering physics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
The other universities represented at the March 16 workshop, in addition to Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin, were Iowa State University, Missouri University of Science and Technology, Purdue University and the University of Missouri.
The project was funded throughout by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, through its Science, Technology and Security Initiative.