For more than 20 years, the government's plan to dispose of highly radioactive spent fuel piling up at U.S. nuclear power reactors has been to haul it to Yucca Mountain and entomb it in a maze of tunnels.
But this year, more than a decade before the first shipment was ever expected to arrive at the mountain, 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas, and years before a license could have been approved for the project, the Obama administration halted funding, saying the Nevada site was "not an option."
That prompted a group of university experts on nuclear waste policy to explore another plan.
That plan, they hope, will chart the course for a soon-to-be-chosen Department of Energy blue ribbon panel to follow as it sets out to develop a new national nuclear waste strategy.
The experts realized that if putting the nation's nuclear waste in Yucca Mountain was Plan B, then the Obama administration's decision to ditch the project has created Plan D.
And Plan D calls on Congress to change the law so that the mirage that ratepayers see in the $23 billion Nuclear Waste Fund is converted to escrow accounts. That way, utilities will have funding to keep the waste safe and secure for decades in states where it is now without relying on Congress to appropriate money for above-ground storage of the waste.
That's what the experts from three Midwestern universities wrote in a new report based on a consensus of scholars who attended workshops at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
While the task for Congress to change the Nuclear Waste Policy Act is "substantial," the 29-page report concludes, "it is a far less formidable one than either trying to license promptly a second U.S. repository or forcing the radioactive material produced in U.S. reactors in this century to fit into Yucca Mountain."
"Ultimately, shuffling paper will prove easier than moving mountains," wrote Clifford Singer, Rodney Ewing and Paul Wilson, who are nuclear engineering professors, respectively at universities in Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin.
The report describes Plan A as reprocessing spent fuel for use in breeder reactors. Plan A is moot because no such reactors have been licensed or built in the United States and they're not unlikely to be built in the near future.
A prototype, the Clinch River Breeder Reactor in Tennessee, was authorized in 1970. But after cost overruns and other setbacks including concerns for nuclear weapons proliferation, Congress terminated the project in 1983.
Plan B is burial of the waste as was the course for Yucca Mountain until the Obama administration, at the urging of U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., eliminated funding for it at the onset of a long-sought licensing review by nuclear regulators.
Plan C is reprocessing used fuel through burning plutonium and other long-lived isotopes in reactors to reduce the space needed for deep underground storage.
Plan D is holding 77,000 tons of spent fuel in dry casks above ground "until it becomes clearer whether reprocessing will precede permanent disposal."
Plan E is to build no more nuclear power reactors and abandon spent fuel reprocessing altogether.
"We've been doing Plan D all along but we have to regularize the process," Singer said Thursday in a phone call from Illinois, the state holding the most spent fuel.
He said "a large number" of congressional staff were consulted for the report.
In a statement from his spokesman, Reid said the report "makes some good points about why Yucca failed as a nuclear waste strategy and what our nation can do to manage nuclear waste in a safe and sensible way that doesn't dump the waste in Nevada."
Nevada officials have contended all along that the Yucca Mountain site is dangerously flawed by geologic hazards from earthquake faults and potential volcanic activity. On top of that, water trickling through cracks in the ridge poses a risk for eventually corroding metal containers and carrying potentially deadly, radioactive remnants into the environment beyond the site.
"This is exactly the type of discussion our country needs to have as we leave Yucca for the history books," Reid said about the Plan D report.
A key part of Plan D is to set up escrow funds for utilities to finance costs of keeping spent fuel in dry casks for decades.
Nuclear utility advocates have argued that the $23 billion that ratepayers put into the Nuclear Waste Fund for building a repository and hauling spent fuel to Yucca Mountain should be returned if Yucca Mountain won't be licensed. The Nuclear Energy Institute, the lobbying arm of the nuclear power industry, called for suspending the collection of payments to the fund in a July 8 letter to Energy Secretary Steven Chu.
Nuclear power ratepayers since 1983 have been paying one-tenth of a cent per kilowatt-hour into the fund for the government to begin disposing of the waste in 1998. The fund has raised $29.7 billion in fees and interest, of which $7.1 billion has been spent.
With Yucca Mountain lagging far off that schedule, utilities filed lawsuits that as of May totaled 71 to recover damages resulting from the delay.
The bill taxpayers will have to foot for the government not accepting the waste will be $12.3 billion by 2020, the Energy Department's acting radioactive waste chief, Christopher Kouts, told the House Budget Committee on July 16.
That would be at least $2 billion more than the $10 billion the department has spent studying the Yucca Mountain site for more than 20 years and submitting a license application. The Yucca Mountain project through completion would cost an estimated $96 billion.
Meanwhile the ratepayers' fund has been "invested in U.S. Treasury instruments," Kouts said.
According to Singer, the fund has been used like the Social Security trust in that it can vanish or reappear at the whim of lawmakers who appropriate the money, or courts that can direct the government to release it.
The Nuclear Waste Fund, he said, "is a number on a piece of paper. It disappears from people who pay it and then you get a promise from the government they will take title of the waste."
The report lists five reasons why the Nuclear Waste Policy Act should be changed, including lawsuits; fuel stranded at inoperative reactor sites; the need for research and development of used fuel recycling; preventing sabotage and accidents of spent fuel densely packed in wet pools, and to allow building of new reactors.
"Even if licensed, Yucca Mountain will not start accepting spent fuel for a long time. Second, nuclear reactors will soon produce more spent fuel than Yucca Mountain will be licensed to receive. And third, it may be difficult to license Yucca Mountain at all, much less to amend the license for it to take more spent fuel," the report states, describing the need for Plan D.
Contact reporter Keith Rogers at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0308.