APS News

APS Panel Report Assesses Nuclear Waste Storage Issues

Approximately 54,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel are stored at operating nuclear power plants and several decommissioned power plants throughout the country.  The APS Panel on Public Affairs (POPA) has recently released a report assessing some of the issues involved in developing one or more consolidated interim storage sites where this nuclear waste could be stored until a permanent repository at Yucca Mountain is opened.

Current storage facilities at reactor sites were not meant to be permanent, but the schedule for opening Yucca Mountain continues to slip. The federal government is incurring increasing liability costs the longer spent fuel remains at reactor sites, and there is concern that continuing to store spent fuel at power plants will make it more difficult to find sites for new nuclear power plants and to build them.

Recently, appropriations committees in Congress have suggested building one or more consolidated interim storage sites for the spent fuel. The POPA Nuclear Energy Study Group examined issues associated with the centralized interim storage of spent nuclear fuel and has issued a technical and programmatic assessment.

“We found no major technical benefit to developing a consolidated interim storage site,” said John Ahearne, one of the study group co-chairs. There may be some programmatic benefits to a consolidated storage site, he said.

One advantage of a consolidated storage site is that it could “relieve impediments to the growth of nuclear power,” the report says. A consolidated site would decouple the private sector nuclear power plant operators from uncertainties inherent in the federal long-term spent fuel management program, the report notes. “The assurance that spent fuel can be removed from a reactor to a storage site may reduce the difficulty in siting new plants,” the report says.

The study group determined that there are no technical barriers to long-term safe and secure interim storage either at nuclear reactor sites or at a consolidated site. “The safety and security risks associated with storage of spent fuel are not appreciably different whether the fuel is stored at plant sites or in one or more consolidated facilities,” the report states.

Even if Yucca Mountain opens as scheduled in 2017, it will take several decades to move all the currently stored spent fuel to the site. Interim storage, either at reactors or at one or more consolidated sites, will still be necessary, the study group reports. The study group also found that there is sufficient storage capacity at current nuclear reactors to hold all spent fuel for the duration of the plant licenses.

If Congress decides to develop a consolidated interim storage facility, there will be challenges in selecting and approving a site. However, the study group suggests that these siting challenges can be overcome by finding ways to make the facility more attractive environmentally and economically to the host community. It would be necessary to make sure a consolidated interim site and the Yucca Mountain repository proceed in a complementary way, in a manner consistent with current Federal strategies for long-term nuclear waste management, the study reports. The Yucca Mountain site must not be delayed by an interim site, and it would be necessary to assure the public that an interim site would not become permanent, the report says.

If the Yucca Mountain repository is not delayed significantly beyond its currently scheduled opening, there is no economic benefit to a consolidated interim storage site, the study finds. “There are no compelling cost savings to the Federal government associated with consolidated interim storage,” the report states. If, however, Yucca Mountain is significantly delayed, Congress would need to request an independent review to determine whether a consolidated interim storage site would be economically attractive, the report says.
The full report is available online  under “Reports and Studies” on the Policy and Advocacy page of the APS web site.

In addition to the nuclear waste storage report, the APS Panel on Public Affairs is conducting research on advancing electricity storage technologies. The POPA Committee on Energy and Environment has recently released a policy supplement on this issue.

The supplement describes promising energy storage technologies and R& D opportunities for developing these technologies. The six technologies are pumped hydropower, compressed air energy storage, batteries, flywheels, superconducting magnetic energy storage, and electrochemical capacitors.

Electricity storage technologies have the potential to reduce the need for reserve power plants, cut the cost of power failures, and enable renewable energy, the supplement says. The committee concludes that the Department of Energy should consider broadening its existing program for electricity storage technologies, while balancing basic research, demonstration projects, and regulatory incentives.

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Contributing Editor: Jennifer Ouellette
Staff Writer: Ernie Tretkoff