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Congress Pushes Nuclear Energy, but Has No Clear Plan for Radioactive Waste

Expanding government efforts to support the nuclear power industry would only drag us deeper into the nuclear quagmire.

(Photo: Bjoern Schwarz)

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Federal lawmakers are pushing legislation designed to keep nuclear power in the nation’s energy portfolio for years to come, even though politicians still can’t agree on where to put all the radioactive waste that the industry generates.

The House has already passed a pair of bills supported by nuclear industry groups this year. Rep. Robert Latta’s (R-Ohio) bipartisan proposal would streamline regulatory approvals for “advanced” nuclear reactors and encourage federal agencies to develop facilities for industry researchers. Another bill originally introduced by Randy Weber (R-Texas) directs research initiatives at the Department of Energy towards helping private companies develop this new generation of reactors.

Expanding government efforts to support the nuclear power industry would only drag us deeper into the nuclear quagmire, experts say.

“The real answer is renewable energy and efficient use of electricity, and those bills are just digging more holes,” said Diane D’Arrigo, director of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service’s radioactive waste project, in an interview about the legislation.

Meanwhile, concerns over nuclear waste are on the rise. Last week, a team of scientists with Princeton University and the Union of Concerned Scientists published a report claiming that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), the federal agency charged with nuclear health and safety efforts, has failed to adequately protect the public from the threat of catastrophic fires at dozens of nuclear waste storage sites across the United States.

Currently, many of the nation’s spent nuclear fuel rods are kept in enclosed “cooling pools” at dozens of reactor sites across the country. The pools of water are so densely packed that a fire in one facility could release enough radioactive material to displace millions of people, according to the report.

“We think it is crucial that overstuffed spent fuel pools be reduced by as soon as practical, it’s gone on too long, and it’s an unnecessary risk that poses unacceptable consequences,” said co-author Edwin Lyman, a senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, in an interview.

The report argues that the NRC underestimates the risk these pools pose to the public in the event of an earthquake or terrorist attack. Such a calamity almost happened in 2011 after a major earthquake and tsunami damaged the Fukushima Daichi power plant in Japan and drew international attention to the dangers of nuclear power. If this type of fire had occurred at Fukushima, the disaster there would have been far worse than it was, the scientists said.

To address the waste storage question, the Trump administration and members of Congress recently revived the push to open a permanent nuclear waste storage facility at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, a proposal that activists and political leaders in the state have firmly opposed for years.

Republican lawmakers have also considered diverting federal funding prioritized for permanent storage efforts towards contracts with private companies that have proposed building “interim” nuclear waste dumps in Texas and New Mexico, despite local opposition.

The pro-nuclear efforts come at a particularly troubling time. Early this month, the collapse of a tunnel containing radioactive waste and an investigation into leaking radiation at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington State brought national attention to the dirty environmental legacy of the government’s nuclear weapons program. Last week, lawmakers from Washington demanded a federal review of the cleanup effort at Hanford, where some of the first atomic bombs were developed.

However, another narrative is taking shape on the industry side: Faced with competition from expanding wind and solar industries, the nuclear energy industry is attempting to brand itself as a low-carbon emission alternative to fossil fuels that will be crucial for curtailing the impacts of climate disruption. The Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry group, claims that there is “widespread agreement that nuclear energy is part of the climate change solution” because it emits little air pollution.

While the industry attempts to flaunt its low-emissions credentials, it’s still counting on the government to figure out where to put its radioactive waste. That question remains unanswered on Capitol Hill.

Nuclear power plants produce 2,000 metric tons of spent fuel rods each year, and most are stored in cooling pools near the reactors where they were used. Room is running out in these facilities. The cooling pools were supposed to be a temporary solution, but the government missed its own deadline for establishing a permanent repository for nuclear waste in 1998.

Nobody wants to live near a nuclear waste dump, and activists and lawmakers in Nevada have successfully resisted attempts over the past two decades to establish a permanent nuclear waste storage facility at Yucca Mountain, a site considered sacred by Native American groups.

Yucca Mountain is making headlines once again. The Trump administration’s budget proposal released last week asks Congress for $120 million to restart the licensing process for a Yucca Mountain facility at the NRC, and the House Energy and Commerce Committee recently held a hearing on the issue. However, continued opposition among Nevadans and lingering concerns over the site’s ability to properly contain radioactive waste could once again stall any efforts to establish a permanent dump there for years.

Meanwhile, private companies have proposed building their own waste dumps in Texas and New Mexico to serve as central locations to store waste on an “interim” basis. Eager to remove nuclear waste from his own district in California, Republican Rep. Darrell Issa introduced a bill in January that would fast-track approvals for these sites and change federal law to divert nuclear waste funding in their direction.

Lyman said subsidizing interim storage facilities would divert federal resources away from finding permanent solution.

“We don’t support consolidated interim storage because of the obvious threat it poses to the program for finding a permanent repository,” Lyman said.

D’Arrigo said interim storage proposals face backlash because transporting and storing nuclear waste poses so many threats to the public. (The West Texas proposal has stalled as the company behind it, Waste Control Specialists, waits to be bought out by another firm, EnergySolutions. The Department of Justice has filed an anti-trust suit challenging the merger, according to reports.)

“All this supposedly interim storage does is kick the can down the road again and put the entire country at risk on the roads and rails and waterways [as waste is transported],” D’Arrigo said.

Nuclear proponents claim that, by slashing burdensome regulations and using government resources to support research and innovation, technological advances could help the industry find solutions to its waste storage problems in the future. Lyman does not believe the hype, pointing out that the nuclear power industry has not made an effort to pay for even interim storage solutions on its own.

“There has to be a geologic repository; nuclear power is not going to be viable unless there is a sustainable political and technical disposal solution,” said Lyman, whose organization does not take a position on whether Yucca Mountain should be that solution.

Lawmakers can take action to protect the public in the meantime. Lyman and other advocates say that spent fuel rods should be placed in “dry cask” storage containers that are safer than the cooling pools that currently hold waste at most reactor sites. Last week, Democrats in Congress reintroduced legislation that would require nuclear power companies to move spent fuel rods from cooling pools to dry cask storage within seven years of approving a plan with the NRC.

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