Mounting storage concerns: Who’s responsible?

Mounting radioactive materials are temporarily stored in the US with nothing in site for a long-term solution. Lake Barrett, an independent US-based energy consultant and former deputy director of the DOE’s Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management, shares his insight on the latest progress.


The back story

After 50 years of generating nuclear power and with approximately 67,000 tons of fuel being temporarily stored at about 75 operating and shutdown nuclear facilities, the United States is still at crossroads regarding what will be the nation’s policy for the disposition of its spent nuclear fuel. 

Since 1987, Yucca Mountain in Nevada has been the federal government’s primary choice for a nuclear waste repository. But despite the $10bn spent on the project, doubts linger over the Department of Energy’s (DOE) planned opening of the repository in 2017, after it failed to open it in 1998 – the original deadline established by the Nuclear Waste Policy Act.

A multitude of issues have delayed the project, from Nevada’s opposition to building the repository in their state, to President Obama’s withdrawal of the project’s license application.  The current debate is whether to link or one or more short-term storage facilities or to build a permanent repository, similar to Yucca Mountain. Until a decision is made, however, storage concerns for utilities with used nuclear fuel (UNF) will remain. 

Handling orphan sources

Safety concerns also surround abandoned radioactive materials, known as orphan sources. These sealed sources of radioactive material are usually found in a condition that requires their removal to protect public safety from a radiological threat, or at a place for which a responsible party cannot be readily indentified.

The National Nuclear Security Administration’s Off-Site Source Recovery Project was created for this purpose – to remove excess, unwanted, or abandoned radioactive sealed sources – and has so far recovered more than 29,100 sources from around 1,000 sites across the U.S.

Orphan sources become highly problematic when they are improperly disposed of as scrap metal and taken to metal recyclers, where they could end up in the possession of someone who is not licensed to handle them. For example, if a steel mill melts a sealed source with radioactive material, the source contaminates the metal, the processing equipment and the facility. 

More importantly, mill workers could be exposed to the radiation. Sealed orphan sources containing radioactive materials also become dangerous when used in oil and gas exploration. But before leaving the site, SNF is a burden to have for both operational and closed plants.

“This is a problem even before shutdown, as extra UNF on site is a hindrance to normal operation and is even worse for decontamination and decommissioning (D&D). It is an expensive burden to ensure safety and security protections complicating D&D operations by forcing work around activities – it’s an onsite risk that should not exist”, says Lake Barrett, who ran the DOE’s OCRWM Yucca Mountain office for 10 years and was involved with the early response to the Three Mile Island accident.

Temporary solutions

Until a long-term plan is outlined for a permanent repository, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is considering whether it should continue allowing the storage of radioactive fuel rods on site in stand-alone facilities.

The licensee could be the power plant owner, in which case it would continue to be responsible for the material and its security, or an external company hired by the plant owner to take over decommissioning, as Illinois-based Commonwealth Edison did with the closure of its Zion Nuclear Power Station by appointing EnergySolutions to oversee the process.

Last month, Dominion Resources announced it was shutting down of the one-reactor Kewaunee Power Station in spring 2013, for which it chose the most used decommissioning method, called SAFSTOR. In this procedure, the facility is maintained in a condition that allows radioactivity to decay, after which it is dismantled and the property decontaminated. Dominion, however, had planned ahead. It retained a decommissioning fund of $244m when it bought the plant from Wisconsin Public Service Corp in 2005, and the fund is now worth $517m.

“Fuel is currently being stored at reactors and there will always be some fuel initially stored in their UNF pools for cooling purposes after immediate withdrawal from the reactor”, Barrett tells Nuclear Energy Insider. 

Alarmingly, more than half of US commercial reactor sites have filled their pools to capacity and have had to add dry cask storage facilities.  Dry cask storage can safely handle fuel rods for a century, but should utilities continue building nuclear plants with no solid plan for storing additional waste? 

A geologic repository is crucial

While republicans in the U.S. Congress have been pressing the Obama administration to resume work on the Yucca Mountain disposal project, the plan is opposed by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a democrat from Nevada. 

“The federal government should meet its statutory and contractual obligation to remove UNF from all sites, starting with shutdown sites as soon as possible. It could contract with the industry to provide disposal services, starting with Consolidated Interim Storage, for a place to remove shutdown UNF to. This is what the Blue Ribbon Commission (BRC) recommended and the DOE should start this process immediately,” states Barrett.

Set up by Obama after he halted plans for Yucca, the BRC is urging prompt efforts to develop at least one consolidated storage facility, and the DOE is working on a plan based on BRC’s recommendations.

“We should not lose sight of the fact that consolidated storage is not a complete answer. A repository will be required and should be pursued simultaneously with the development of a consolidated storage facility,” Henry Barron, CEO of Constellation Energy Nuclear Group, said in a testimony before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. 

Similarly, Barrett points out that advanced technologies cannot eliminate the need for eventual permanent disposal of radioactive wastes, and therefore, in all cases, “a geologic repository someplace will be needed for final resolution of the waste management issue.”

In Europe, there is extra pressure thanks to new rules requiring EU countries to have long-term plans in place for dealing with nuclear waste by 2015. Finland, for example, is building its national repository 1,600 feet below ground at Olkiluoto Island. For the next two years, engineers will test water flows and durability of the Onkalo tunnel, and from 2014 bedrock will be blasted away to open the site in 2020, making it the world's first permanent nuclear-waste repository. 

Neighbouring Sweden also expects to start constructing its repository in 2017, and SKB has been tasked with this project, for which it has already submitted a license application. Other countries in Europe, including the UK and Germany, are lagging behind as they search for suitable sites for their geological repositories.

Where will funding come from?

As the US federal government has already collected nearly $30bn in payments and interest for the storage of UNF through the Nuclear Waste Fund (NWF), the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners is now using lawsuits to force the administration to act. 

“Since this (UNF storage) has already been paid for via the utility NWF payments to the US Treasury of around $26bn, the NWF should be the source of funding. This is what it was created for and there is no excuse for not using it for its intended purpose. This again was recommended by the BRC”, says Barrett.

More than 60 lawsuits have been filed against the DOE by energy firms as a result of the federal government’s failure to begin disposing of UNF in 1998 as mandated by the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, and while billions of dollars in damages have been awarded, dozens of lawsuits remain pending.

“There are solutions that this country needs to promptly implement to address our growing nuclear waste problem”, suggests Barrett, who will be speaking at the forthcoming Nuclear Used Fuel Strategy Conference ( 

“Firstly, the NRC and DOE need to restart Yucca Mountain licensing as the law presently states. Secondly, the Administration needs to act to implement the BRC recommendations with proposals to Congress and actions that the DOE can take within existing law. Thirdly, the DOE specifically needs to start the process with states to develop a consensus first phase CIS site. The DOE needs to work with any potential volunteer to create a binding sustainable hosting agreement that meets state and local needs.

Need more than one option

Lastly, Barrett states that the DOE should start the process with states to develop a consensus second repository site. “The DOE needs to send a revised Second Repository report to the Congress, as the need for a repository site is critical and is the heart of a waste disposal system. 

“The NWPA law calls for two repositories. Yucca is the first site and the second repository consensus-siting process should be as the BRC recommends. The need is too important to depend only upon a single Yucca Mountain site”, he concludes.