The Long, Long Con: Seventy Years of Nuclear Fission; Thousands of Centuries of Nuclear Waste

From here to eternity: a small plaque on the campus of the University of Chicago commemorates the site of Fermi's first atomic pile--and the start of the world's nuclear waste problem. (Photo: Nathan Guy via Flickr)

From here to eternity: a small plaque on the campus of the University of Chicago commemorates the site of Fermi’s first atomic pile–and the start of the world’s nuclear waste problem. (Photo: Nathan Guy via Flickr)

On December 2, 1942, a small group of physicists under the direction of Enrico Fermi gathered on an old squash court beneath Alonzo Stagg Stadium on the Campus of the University of Chicago to make and witness history. Uranium pellets and graphite blocks had been stacked around cadmium-coated rods as part of an experiment crucial to the Manhattan Project–the program tasked with building an atom bomb for the allied forces in WWII. The experiment was successful, and for 28 minutes, the scientists and dignitaries present observed the world’s first manmade, self-sustaining nuclear fission reaction. They called it an atomic pile–Chicago Pile 1 (CP-1), to be exact–but what Fermi and his team had actually done was build the world’s first nuclear reactor.

The Manhattan Project’s goal was a bomb, but soon after the end of the war, scientists, politicians, the military and private industry looked for ways to harness the power of the atom for civilian use, or, perhaps more to the point, for commercial profit. Fifteen years to the day after CP-1 achieved criticality, President Dwight Eisenhower threw a ceremonial switch to start the reactor at Shippingport, PA, which was billed as the first full-scale nuclear power plant built expressly for civilian electrical generation.

Shippingport was, in reality, little more than a submarine engine on blocks, but the nuclear industry and its acolytes will say that it was the beginning of billions of kilowatts of power, promoted (without a hint of irony) as “clean, safe, and too cheap to meter.” It was also, however, the beginning of what is now a, shall we say, weightier legacy: 72,000 tons of nuclear waste.

Atoms for peace, problems forever

News of Fermi’s initial success was communicated by physicist Arthur Compton to the head of the National Defense Research Committee, James Conant, with artistically coded flair:

Compton: The Italian navigator has landed in the New World.
Conant: How were the natives?
Compton: Very friendly.

But soon after that initial success, CP-1 was disassembled and reassembled a short drive away, in Red Gate Woods. The optimism of the physicists notwithstanding, it was thought best to continue the experiments with better radiation shielding–and slightly removed from the center of a heavily populated campus. The move was perhaps the first necessitated by the uneasy relationship between fissile material and the health and safety of those around it, but if it was understood as a broader cautionary tale, no one let that get in the way of “progress.”

A stamp of approval: the US Postal Service commemorated Eisenhower's initiative in 1955.

A stamp of approval: the US Postal Service commemorated Eisenhower’s initiative in 1955.

By the time the Shippingport reactor went critical, North America already had a nuclear waste problem. The detritus from manufacturing atomic weapons was poisoning surrounding communities at several sites around the continent (not that most civilians knew it at the time). Meltdowns at Chalk River in Canada and the Experimental Breeder Reactor in Idaho had required fevered cleanups, the former of which included the help of a young Navy officer named Jimmy Carter. And the dangers of errant radioisotopes were increasing with the acceleration of above-ground atomic weapons testing. But as President Eisenhower extolled “Atoms for Peace,” and the US Atomic Energy Commission promoted civilian nuclear power at home and abroad, a plan to deal with the “spent fuel” (as used nuclear fuel rods are termed) and other highly radioactive leftovers was not part of the program (beyond, of course, extracting some of the plutonium produced by the fission reaction for bomb production, and the promise that the waste generated by US-built reactors overseas could at some point be marked “return to sender” and repatriated to the United States for disposal).

Attempts at what was called “reprocessing”–the re-refining of used uranium into new reactor fuel–quickly proved expensive, inefficient and dangerous, and created as much radioactive waste as it hoped to reuse. It also provided an obvious avenue for nuclear weapons proliferation because of the resulting production of plutonium. The threat of proliferation (made flesh by India’s test of an atomic bomb in 1976) led President Jimmy Carter to cancel the US reprocessing program in 1977. Attempts by the Department of Energy to push mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel fabrication (combining uranium and plutonium) over the last dozen years has not produced any results, either, despite over $5 billion in government investments.

In fact, there was no official federal policy for the management of used but still highly radioactive nuclear fuel until passage of The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982. And while that law acknowledged the problem of thousands of tons of spent fuel accumulating at US nuclear plants, it didn’t exactly solve it. Instead, the NWPA started a generation of political horse trading, with goals and standards defined more by market exigencies than by science, that leaves America today with what amounts to over five-dozen nominally temporary repositories for high-level radioactive waste–and no defined plan to change that situation anytime soon.

When you assume…

When a US Court of Appeals ruled in June that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission acted improperly when it failed to consider all the risks of storing spent radioactive fuel onsite at the nation’s nuclear power facilities, it made specific reference to the lack of any real answers to the generations-old question of waste storage:

[The Nuclear Regulatory Commission] apparently has no long-term plan other than hoping for a geologic repository. . . . If the government continues to fail in its quest to establish one, then SNF (spent nuclear fuel) will seemingly be stored on site at nuclear plants on a permanent basis. The Commission can and must assess the potential environmental effects of such a failure.

The court concluded the current situation–where spent fuel is stored across the country in what were supposed to be temporary configurations–“poses a dangerous long-term health and environmental risk.”

The decision also harshly criticized regulators for evaluating plant relicensing with the assumption that spent nuclear fuel would be moved to a central long-term waste repository.

A mountain of risks

The Nuclear Waste Policy Act set in motion an elaborate process that was supposed to give the US a number of possible waste sites, but, in the end, the only option seriously explored was the Yucca Mountain site in Nevada. After years of preliminary construction and tens of millions of dollars spent, Yucca was determined to be a bad choice for the waste:

[Yucca Mountain's] volcanic formation is more porous and less isolated than originally believed–there is evidence that water can seep in, there are seismic concerns, worries about the possibility of new volcanic activity, and a disturbing proximity to underground aquifers. In addition, Yucca mountain has deep spiritual significance for the Shoshone and Paiute peoples.

Every major Nevada politician on both sides of the aisle has opposed the Yucca repository since its inception. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has worked most of his political life to block the facility. And with the previous NRC head, Gregory Jaczko, (and now his replacement, Allison Macfarlane, as well) recommending against it, the Obama administration’s Department of Energy moved to end the project.

Even if it were an active option, Yucca Mountain would still be many years and maybe as much as $100 million away from completion. And yet, the nuclear industry (through recipients of its largesse in Congress) has challenged the administration to spend any remaining money in a desperate attempt to keep alive the fantasy of a solution to their waste crisis.

Such fevered dreams, however, do not qualify as an actual plan, according to the courts.

The judges also chastised the NRC for its generic assessment of spent fuel pools, currently packed well beyond their projected capacity at nuclear plants across the United States. Rather than examine each facility and the potential risks specific to its particular storage situation, the NRC had only evaluated the safety risks of onsite storage by looking at a composite of past events. The court ruled that the NRC must appraise each plant individually and account for potential future dangers. Those dangers include leaks, loss of coolant, and failures in the cooling systems, any of which might result in contamination of surrounding areas, overheating and melting of stored rods, and the potential of burning radioactive fuel–risks heightened by the large amounts of fuel now densely packed in the storage pools and underscored by the ongoing disaster at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi plant.

Indeed, plants were not designed nor built to house nuclear waste long-term. The design life of most reactors in the US was originally 40 years. Discussions of the spent fuel pools usually gave them a 60-year lifespan. That limit seemed to double almost magically as nuclear operators fought to postpone the expense of moving cooler fuel to dry casks and of the final decommissioning of retired reactors.

Everyone out of the pool

As disasters as far afield as the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and last October’s Hurricane Sandy have demonstrated, the storage of spent nuclear fuel in pools requires steady supplies of power and cool water. Any problem that prevents the active circulation of liquid through the spent fuel pools–be it a loss of electricity, the failure of a back-up pump, the clogging of a valve or a leak in the system–means the temperature in the pools will start to rise. If the cooling circuit is out long enough, the water in the pools will start to boil. If the water level dips (due to boiling or a leak) enough to expose hot fuel rods to the air, the metal cladding on the rods will start to burn, in turn heating the fuel even more, resulting in plumes of smoke carrying radioactive isotopes into the atmosphere.

And because these spent fuel pools are so full–containing as much as five times more fuel than they were originally designed to hold, and at densities that come close to those in reactor cores–they both heat stagnant water more quickly and reach volatile temperatures faster when exposed to air.

A spent fuel pool and dry casks. (Both photos courtesy of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission)

A spent fuel pool and dry casks. (Both photos courtesy of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission)

After spent uranium has been in a pool for at least five years (considerably longer than most fuel is productive as an energy source inside the reactor), fuel rods are deemed cool enough to be moved to dry casks. Dry casks are sealed steel cylinders filled with spent fuel and inert gas, which are themselves encased in another layer of steel and concrete. These massive fuel “coffins” are then placed outside, spaced on concrete pads, so that air can circulate and continue to disperse heat.

While the long-term safety of dry casks is still in question, the fact that they require no active cooling system gives them an advantage, in the eyes of many experts, over pool storage. As if to highlight that difference, spent fuel pools at Fukushima Daiichi have posed some of the greatest challenges since the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami, whereas, to date, no quake or flood-related problems have been reported with any of Japan’s dry casks. The disparity was so obvious, that the NRC’s own staff review actually added a proposal to the post-Fukushima taskforce report, recommending that US plants take more fuel out of spent fuel pools and move it to dry casks. (A year-and-a-half later, however, there is still no regulation–or even a draft–requiring such a move.)

But current dry cask storage poses its own set of problems. Moving fuel rods from pools to casks is slow and costly–about $1.5 million per cask, or roughly $7 billion to move all of the nation’s spent fuel (a process, it is estimated, that would take no less than five to ten years). That is expensive enough to have many nuclear plant operators lobbying overtime to avoid doing it.

Further, though not as seemingly vulnerable as fuel pools, dry casks are not impervious to natural disaster. In 2011, a moderate earthquake centered about 20 miles from the North Anna, Virginia, nuclear plant caused most of its vertical dry casks–each weighing 115 tons–to shift, some by more than four inches. The facility’s horizontal casks didn’t move, but some showed what was termed “cosmetic damage.”

Dry casks at Michigan’s Palisades plant sit on a pad atop a sand dune just 100 yards from Lake Michigan. An earthquake there could plunge the casks into the water. And the casks at Palisades are so poorly designed and maintained, submersion could result in water contacting the fuel, contaminating the lake and possibly triggering a nuclear chain reaction.

And though each cask contains far less fissile material than one spent fuel pool, casks are still considered possible targets for terrorism. A TOW anti-tank missile would breach even the best dry cask (PDF), and with 25 percent of the nation’s spent fuel now stored in hundreds of casks across the country, all above ground, it provides a rich target environment.

Confidence game

Two months after the Appeals Court found fault with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s imaginary waste mitigation scenario, the NRC announced it would suspend the issuing of new reactor operating licenses, license renewals and construction licenses until the agency could craft a new plan for dealing with the nation’s growing spent nuclear fuel crisis. In drafting its new nuclear “Waste Confidence Decision” (NWCD)–the methodology used to assess the hazards of nuclear waste storage–the Commission said it would evaluate all possible options for resolving the issue.

At first, the NRC said this could include both generic and site-specific actions (remember, the court criticized the NRC’s generic appraisals of pool safety), but as the prescribed process now progresses, it appears any new rule will be designed to give the agency, and so, the industry, as much wiggle room as possible. At a public hearing in November, and later at a pair of web conferences in early December, the regulator’s Waste Confidence Directorate (yes, that’s what it is called) outlined three scenarios (PDF) for any future rulemaking:

  • Storage until a repository becomes available at the middle of the century
  • Storage until a repository becomes available at the end of the century
  • Continued storage in the event a repository is not available

And while, given the current state of affairs, the first option seems optimistic, the fact that their best scenario now projects a repository to be ready by about 2050 is a story in itself.

When the Nuclear Waste Policy Act was signed into law by President Reagan early in 1983, it was expected the process it set in motion would present at least one (and preferably another) long-term repository by the late 1990s. But by the time the “Screw Nevada Bill” (as it is affectionately known in the Silver State) locked in Yucca Mountain as the only option for permanent nuclear waste storage, the projected opening was pushed back to 2007.

But Yucca encountered problems from its earliest days, so a mid-’90s revision of the timeline postponed the official start, this time to 2010. By 2006, the Department of Energy was pegging Yucca’s opening at 2017. And, when the NWPA was again revised in 2010–after Yucca was deemed a non-option–it conveniently avoided setting a date for the opening of a national long-term waste repository altogether.

It was that 2010 revision that was thrown out by the courts in June.

“Interim storage” and “likely reactors”

So, the waste panel now has three scenarios–but what are the underlying assumptions for those scenarios? Not, obviously, any particular site for a centralized, permanent home for the nation’s nuclear garbage–no new site has been chosen, and it can’t even be said there is an active process at work that will choose one.

There are the recommendations of a Blue Ribbon Commission (BRC) convened by the president after Yucca Mountain was off the table. Most notable there, was a recommendation for interim waste storage, consolidated at a handful of locations across the country. But consolidated intermediate waste storage has its own difficulties, not the least of which is that no sites have yet been chosen for any such endeavor. (In fact, plans for the Skull Valley repository, thought to be the interim facility closest to approval, were abandoned by its sponsors just days before Christmas.)

Just-retired New Mexico Senator Jeff Bingaman (D), the last chair of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, tried to turn the BRC recommendations into law. When he introduced his bill in August, however, he had to do so without any cosponsors. Hearings on the Nuclear Waste Administration Act of 2012 were held in September, but the gavel came down on the 112th Congress without any further action.

In spite of the underdeveloped state of intermediate storage, however, when the waste confidence panel was questioned on the possibility, interim waste repositories seemed to emerge, almost on the fly, as an integral part of any revised waste policy rule.

“Will any of your scenarios include interim centralized above-ground storage?” we asked during the last public session. Paul Michalak, who heads the Environmental Impact Statement branch of the Waste Confidence Directorate, first said temporary sites would be considered in the second and third options. Then, after a short pause, Mr. Michalak added (PDF p40), “First one, too. All right. Right. That’s right. So we’re considering an interim consolidated storage facility [in] all three scenarios.”

The lack of certainty on any site or sites is, however, not the only fuzzy part of the picture. As mentioned earlier, the amount of high-level radioactive waste currently on hand in the US and in need of a final resting place is upwards of 70,000 tons–already at the amount that was set as the initial limit for the Yucca Mountain repository. Given that there are still over 100 domestic commercial nuclear reactors more or less in operation, producing something like an additional 2,000 tons of spent fuel every year, what happens to the Waste Confidence Directorate’s scenarios as the years and waste pile up? How much waste were regulators projecting they would have to deal with–how much spent fuel would a waste confidence decision assume the system could confidently handle?

There was initial confusion on what amount of waste–and at what point in time–was informing the process. Pressed for clarification on the last day of hearings, NRC officials finally posited that it was assumed there would be 150,000 metric tons of spent fuel–all deriving from the commercial reactor fleet–by 2050. By the end of the century, the NRC expects to face a mountain of waste weighing 270,000 metric tons (PDF pp38-41) (though this figure was perplexingly termed both a “conservative number” and an “overestimate”).

How did the panel arrive at these numbers? Were they assuming all 104 (soon to be 103–Wisconsin’s Kewaunee Power Station will shut down by mid-2013 for reasons its owner, Dominion Resources, says are based “purely on economics”) commercial reactors nominally in operation would continue to function for that entire time frame–even though many are nearing the end of their design life and none are licensed to continue operation beyond the 2030s? Were they counting reactors like those at San Onofre, which have been offline for almost a year, and are not expected to restart anytime soon? Or the troubled reactors at Ft. Calhoun in Nebraska and Florida’s Crystal River? Neither facility has been functional in recent years, and both have many hurdles to overcome if they are ever to produce power again. Were they factoring in the projected AP1000 reactors in the early stages of construction in Georgia, or the ones slated for South Carolina? Did the NRC expect more or fewer reactors generating waste over the course of the next 88 years?

The response: waste estimates include all existing facilities, plus “likely reactors”–but the NRC cannot say exactly how many reactors that is (PDF p41).

Jamming it through

Answers like those from the Waste Confidence Directorate do not inspire (pardon the expression) confidence for a country looking at a mountain of eternally toxic waste. Just what would the waste confidence decision (and the environmental impact survey that should result from it) actually cover? What would it mandate, and what would change as a result?

How long is it? Does this NRC chart provide a justification for the narrow scope of the waste confidence process? (US Nuclear Regulatory PDF, p12)

How long is it? Does this NRC chart provide a justification for the narrow scope of the waste confidence process? (US Nuclear Regulatory PDF, p12)

In past relicensing hearings–where the public could comment on proposed license extensions on plants already reaching the end of their 40-year design life–objections based on the mounting waste problem and already packed spent fuel pools were waived off by the NRC, which referenced the waste confidence decision as the basis of its rationale. Yet, when discussing the parameters of the process for the latest, court-ordered revision to the NWCD, Dr. Keith McConnell, Director of the Waste Confidence Directorate, asserted that waste confidence was not connected to the site-specific licensed life of operations (PDF p42), but only to a period defined as “Post-Licensed Life Storage” (which appears, if a chart in the directorate’s presentation (PDF p12) is to be taken literally, to extend from 60 years after the initial creation of waste, to 120 years–at which point a phase labeled “Disposal” begins). Issues of spent fuel pool and dry cask safety are the concerns of a specific plant’s relicensing process, said regulators in the latest hearings.

“It’s like dealing with the Mad Hatter,” commented Kevin Kamps, a radioactive waste specialist for industry watchdog Beyond Nuclear. “Jam yesterday, jam tomorrow, but never jam today.”

The edict originated with the White Queen in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, but it is all too appropriate–and no less maddening–when trying to motivate meaningful change at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The NRC has used the nuclear waste confidence decision in licensing inquiries, but in these latest scoping hearings, we are told the NWCD does not apply to on-site waste storage. The Appeals Court criticized the lack of site-specificity in the waste storage rules, but the directorate says they are now only working on a generic guideline. The court disapproved of the NRC’s continued relicensing of nuclear facilities based on the assumption of a long-term geologic repository that in reality did not exist–and the NRC said it was suspending licensing pending a new rule–but now regulators say they don’t anticipate the denial or even the delay of any reactor license application while they await the new waste confidence decision (PDF pp49-50).

In fact, the NRC has continued the review process on pending applications, even though there is now no working NWCD–something deemed essential by the courts–against which to evaluate new licenses.

The period for public comment on the scope of the waste confidence decision ended January 2, and no more scoping hearings are planned. There will be other periods for civic involvement–during the environmental impact survey and rulemaking phases–but, with each step, the areas open to input diminish. And the current schedule has the entire process greatly accelerated over previous revisions.

On January 3, a coalition of 24 grassroots environmental groups filed documents with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (PDF) protesting “the ‘hurry up’ two-year timeframe” for this assessment, noting the time allotted for environmental review falls far short of the 2019 estimate set by the NRC’s own technical staff. The coalition observed that two years was also not enough time to integrate post-Fukushima recommendations, and that the NRC was narrowing the scope of the decision–ignoring specific instructions from the Appeals Court–in order to accelerate the drafting of a new waste storage rule.

Speed might seem a valuable asset if the NRC were shepherding a Manhattan Project-style push for a solution to the ever-growing waste problem–the one that began with the original Manhattan Project–but that is not what is at work here. Instead, the NRC, under court order, is trying to set the rules for determining the risk of all that high-level radioactive waste if there is no new, feasible solution. The NRC is looking for a way to permit the continued operation of the US nuclear fleet–and so the continued manufacture of nuclear waste–without an answer to the bigger, pressing question.

A plan called HOSS

While there is much to debate about what a true permanent solution to the nuclear waste problem might look like, there is little question that the status quo is unacceptable. Spent fuel pools were never intended to be used as they are now used–re-racked and densely packed with over a generation of fuel assemblies. Both the short- and long-term safety and security of the pools has now been questioned by the courts and laid bare by reality. Pools at numerous US facilities have leaked radioactive waste (PDF) into rivers, groundwater and soil. Sudden “drain downs” have come perilously close to triggering major accidents in plants shockingly close to major population centers. Recent hurricanes have knocked out power to cooling systems and flooded backup generators, and last fall’s superstorm came within inches of overwhelming the coolant intake structure at Oyster Creek in New Jersey.

The crisis at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi facility was so dangerous and remains dangerous to this day in part because of the large amounts of spent fuel stored in pools next to the reactors but outside of containment–a design identical to 35 US nuclear reactors. A number of these GE Mark 1 Boiling Water Reactors–such as Oyster Creek and Vermont Yankee–have more spent fuel packed into their individual pools than all the waste in Fukushima Daiichi Units 1, 2, 3, and 4 combined.

Dry casks, the obvious next “less-bad” option for high-level radioactive waste, were also not supposed to be a permanent panacea. The design requirements and manufacturing regulations of casks–especially the earliest generations–do not guarantee their reliability anywhere near the 100 to 300 years now being casually tossed around by NRC officials. Some of the nation’s older dry casks (which in this case means 15 to 25 years) have already shown seal failures and structural wear (PDF). Yet, the government does not require direct monitoring of casks for excessive heat or radioactive leaks–only periodic “walkthroughs.”

Add in the reluctance of plant operators to spend money on dry cask transfer and the lack of any workable plan to quickly remove radioactive fuel from failed casks, and dry cask storage also appears to fail to attain any court-ordered level of confidence.

Interim plans, such as regional consolidated above-ground storage, remain just that–plans. There are no sites selected and no designs for such a facility up for public scrutiny. What is readily apparent, though, is that the frequent transport of nuclear waste increases the risk of nuclear accidents. There does not, as of now, exist a transfer container that is wholly leak proof, accident proof, and impervious to terrorist attack. Moving high-level radioactive waste across the nation’s highways, rail lines and waterways has raised fears of “Mobile Chernobyls” and “Floating Fukushimas.”

More troubling still, if past (and present) is prologue, is the tendency of options designed as “interim” to morph into a default “permanent.” Can the nation afford to kick the can once more, spending tens (if not hundreds) of millions of dollars on a “solution” that will only add a collection of new challenges to the existing roster of problems? What will the interim facilities become beyond the next problem, the next site for costly mountains of poorly stored, dangerous waste?

Hardened: The more robust HOSS option as proposed in 2003. (From "Robust Storage of Spent Nuclear Fuel: A Neglected Issue of Homeland Security" courtesy of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service)

Hardened: The more robust HOSS option as proposed in 2003. (From “Robust Storage of Spent Nuclear Fuel: A Neglected Issue of Homeland Security” courtesy of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service)

If there is an interim option favored by many nuclear experts, engineers and environmentalists (PDF), it is something called HOSS–Hardened On-Site Storage (PDF). HOSS is a version of dry cask storage that is designed and manufactured to last longer, is better protected against leaks and better shielded from potential attacks. Proposals (PDF) involve steel, concrete and earthen barriers incorporating proper ventilation and direct monitoring for heat and radiation.

But not all reactor sites are good candidates for HOSS. Some are too close to rivers that regularly flood, some are vulnerable to the rising seas and increasingly severe storms brought on by climate change, and others are close to active geologic fault zones. For facilities where hardened on-site storage would be an option, nuclear operators will no doubt fight the requirements because of the increased costs above and beyond the price of standard dry cask storage, which most plant owners already try to avoid or delay.

The first rule of holes

Mixed messages: A simple stone marker in Red Gate Woods, just outside Chicago, tries to both warn and reassure visitors to this public park. (Photo: Kevin Kamps, Beyond Nuclear. Used by permission.)

Mixed messages: A simple stone marker in Red Gate Woods, just outside Chicago, tries to both warn and reassure visitors to this public park. (Photo: Kevin Kamps, Beyond Nuclear. Used by permission.)

In a wooded park just outside Chicago sits a dirt mound, near a bike path, that contains parts of the still-highly radioactive remains of CP-1, the world’s first atomic pile. Seven decades after that nuclear fuel was first buried, many health experts would not recommend that spot (PDF) for a long, languorous picnic, nor would they recommend drinking from nearby water fountains. To look at it in terms Arthur Compton might favor, when it comes to the products of nuclear chain reactions, the natives are restless. . . and will remain so for millennia to come.

One can perhaps forgive those working in the pressure cooker of the Manhattan Project and in the middle of a world war for ignoring the forest for the trees–for not considering waste disposal while pursuing a self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction. Perhaps. But, as the burial mound in Red Gate Woods reminds us, ignoring a problem does not make it go away.

And if that small pile, or the mountains of spent fuel precariously stored around the nation are not enough of a prompt, the roughly $960 million that the federal government has had to pay private nuclear operators should be. For every year that the Department of Energy does not provide a permanent waste repository–or at least some option that takes the burden of storing spent nuclear fuel off the hands (and off the books) of power companies–the government is obligated to reimburse the industry for the costs of onsite waste storage. By 2020, it is estimated that $11 billion in public money will have been transferred into the pockets of private nuclear companies. By law, these payments cannot be drawn from the ratepayer-fed fund that is earmarked for a permanent geologic repository, and so, these liabilities must be paid out of the federal budget. Legal fees for defending the DoE against these claims will add another 20 to 30 percent to settlement costs.

The Federal Appeals Court, too, has sent a clear message that the buck needs to stop somewhere at some point–and that such a time and place should be both explicit and realistic. The nuclear waste confidence scoping process, however, is already giving the impression that the NRC’s next move will be generic and improbable.

The late, great Texas journalist Molly Ivins once remarked, “The first rule of holes” is “when you’re in one, stop digging.” For high-level radioactive waste, that hole is now a mountain, over 70 years in the making and over 70,000 tons high. If the history of the atomic age is not evidence enough, the implications of the waste confidence decision process put the current crisis in stark relief. There is, right now, no good option for dealing with the nuclear detritus currently on hand, and there is not even a plan to develop a good option in the near future. Without a way to safely store the mountain of waste already created, under what rationale can a responsible government permit the manufacture of so much more?

The federal government spends billions to perpetuate and protect the nuclear industry–and plans to spend billions more to expand the number of commercial reactors. Dozens of facilities already are past, or are fast approaching, the end of their design lives, but the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has yet to reject any request for an operating license extension–and it is poised to approve many more, nuclear waste confidence decision not withstanding. Plant operators continue to balk at any additional regulations that would require better waste management.

The lesson of the first 70 years of fission is that we cannot endure more of the same. The government–from the DoE to the NRC–should reorient its priorities from creating more nuclear waste to safely and securely containing what is now here. Money slated for subsidizing current reactors and building new ones would be better spent on shuttering aging plants, designing better storage options for their waste, modernizing the electrical grid, and developing sustainable energy alternatives. (And reducing demand through conservation programs should always be part of the conversation.)

Enrico Fermi might not have foreseen (or cared about) the mountain of waste that began with his first atomic pile, but current scientists, regulators and elected officials have the benefit of hindsight. If the first rule of holes says stop digging, then the dictum here should be that when you’re trying to summit a mountain, you don’t keep shoveling more garbage on top.

A version of this story previously appeared on Truthout; no version may be reprinted without permission.

Edison Con? San Onofre Nuclear Plant Owner Proposes Reactor Restart

Containment domes or shell game? (Aerial view of San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station by Jelson25 via wikipedia)

Southern California Edison (SCE), the operator of the troubled San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS), has proposed to restart one of the facility’s two damaged reactors without repairing or replacing the parts at the root of January’s shutdown. The Thursday announcement came over eight months after a ruptured heat transfer tube leaked radioactive steam, scramming Unit 3 and taking the entire plant offline. (Unit 2, offline for maintenance, revealed similar tube wear in a subsequent inspection; Unit 1 was taken out of service in 1992.)

But perhaps more tellingly, Edison’s plan–which must be reviewed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission–was issued just weeks before the mandated start of hearings on rate cuts. California law requires an investigation into ratepayer relief when a facility fails to deliver electricity for nine months. Support of the zombie San Onofre plant has cost California consumers $54 million a month since the shutdown. It has been widely believed since spring that Unit 3 would likely never be able to safely generate power, and that the almost identical Unit 2 was similarly handicapped and would require a complete overhaul for its restart to even be considered.

Yet, calls for more immediate rate rollbacks were rebuffed by Edison and ignored by members of the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC). Despite studies that showed SONGS tube wear and failure was due to bad modeling and flawed design, and a company pledge to layoff of one-third of plant employees, San Onofre’s operators claimed they were still pursuing a restart.

Thursday’s proposal for that restart does not directly engage any of the concerns voiced by nuclear engineers and watchdog groups.

When SONGS installed new turbines in 2010 and 2011, it did not replace “like with like”–that would have required a costly custom machining of parts no longer routinely manufactured. Instead, San Onofre’s owners moved to “uprate” their generators–cramming in more transfer tubes to increase output–with the nuclear industry equivalent of “off the shelf” parts. It was a transparently profit-driven decision, but more crucially, it was a major design change that should have required a lengthy license-amendment process at the NRC.

Federal regulators, however, took on faith industry assurances that changes were not that big a deal, and approved San Onofre’s massive retrofit without an extensive investigation into the plan.

What is now understood to have happened is that the design of new parts for San Onofre was based on flawed computer models that failed to anticipate new fluid dynamics, increased vibration, and more rapid wear in the numerous thin, metal, heat transfer tubes. It’s a flaw that presumably would have turned up in a more rigorous regulatory review, and, again, a problem not directly addressed by Edison’s restart plan.

Rather than repair or replace the tubes and turbines, San Onofre’s owners propose to simply plug the most severely degraded tubes in Unit 2 and then run that reactor at 70 percent power. After five months, Unit 2 would be shut down and inspected. (There was no plan offered for the future of Unit 3.)

Why 70 percent? Edison said it believes that would lessen vibration and decrease the rate of wear on the heat transfer tubes. Does that make any scientific sense? Not in the eyes of nuclear engineer Arnie Gundersen, who has produced three studies on San Onofre’s problems:

Restarting San Onofre without repairing the underlying problems first turns Southern California into a massive science experiment. Running at the reactor at a 30 percent reduction in power may not fix the problems but rather make them worse or shift the damage to another part of the generators. It’s a real gamble to restart either unit without undertaking repairs or replacing the damaged equipment.

S. David Freeman, former head of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, as well as the Tennessee Valley Authority, and now a senior advisor to Friends of the Earth, is even more pointed:

Neither of the reactors at San Onofre are safe to operate. While Edison may be under financial pressure to get one up and running, operating this badly damaged reactor at reduced power without fixing or replacing these leaky generators is like driving a car with worn-out brakes but promising to keep it under 50 miles an hour.

That is the scenario now before the NRC. An experimental roll of the dice within 50 miles of 8.4 million California residents, offered up with a “trust us” by the same folks who got the modeling dangerously wrong last time, versus multiple studies calling into question the viability of a plant that already has a long history of safety and engineering problems. Regulators are at least talking as if they understand:

“The agency will not permit a restart unless and until we can conclude the reactor can be operated safely,” NRC Chairman Allison Macfarlane said. “Our inspections and review will be painstaking, thorough and will not be rushed.”

The right words, but hardly reassuring ones given the commission’s past actions (or inactions) on San Onofre and numerous other dangerous events across the nation’s aging nuclear fleet.

The sting that keeps on stinging

But does NRC approval really matter to Southern California Edison, at least in the short run?

Operating only one of San Onofre’s reactors at two-thirds of its proposed output for five months sometime next year–which is the best-case scenario–does not provide a meaningful addition to California’s near- or long-term energy outlook. (California officials are already making plans for another year without San Onofre.) In addition, San Onofre has other problems to address, such as aforementioned staffing issues, new seismic evaluations required in the wake of the Fukushima disaster, newfound safety lapses, and ongoing concerns about the quality of the concrete used to plug 28-foot holes in both reactors’ containment domes (the holes were cut for installation of the new turbines, inquiries about the strength and durability of the concrete were made a year ago, but, to date, the NRC has not released a report).

But Thursday’s proposal does provide Edison with a modicum of cover going into an October 9 public information session and the upcoming debate over whether California consumers should still have to pay for a power plant that provides no power.

Indeed, billing for services not rendered could be considered a profit center for the US nuclear industry. San Onofre is but one case; ratepayers in Florida are also familiar with the scam.

The same day SCE submitted its SONGS plan, attorneys for the Florida Public Service Commission (PSC), Progress Energy and Florida Power & Light (FPL), appeared before the Florida Supreme Court to defend an “advance fee” that has allowed the utilities to soak Sunshine State ratepayers for upwards of $1 billion. The money collected, and additional fees approved last year by the PSC, are slated for the construction of new nuclear reactors in Levy County and at Turkey Point.

The court challenge was brought by the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, which contends there is little evidence Progress or FPL can or ever really intend to build the new facilities. Indeed, FPL has spent some of its takings on existing operations, while Progress has blown hundreds of millions of dollars trying to repair its Crystal River nuclear plant, which has been offline since 2009, and likely will never return to service.

What do attorneys for the utilities say when challenged on these points? That their intent is borne out by the fact that both are still seeking construction and operating licenses from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

There is no indication NRC approval on those projects is imminent (in fact, no NRC approvals of any projects are imminent), nor are there any guarantees that the projects could be fully financed even with licenses and all that ratepayer cash.

But, be it for future fantasies or current failures, from Florida to California, electricity consumers are paying higher prices to perpetuate the myth of a nuclear renaissance and balance the books of the nuclear industry. . . while industry officials, lobbyists and favored politicians pocket a healthy share.

And not satisfied with that cushy arrangement, San Onofre’s operators are also pushing for permission to move its ratepayer-financed decommissioning fund into riskier investment properties. The industry promises this will bring higher yields, but, of course, it also chances bigger losses–and it guarantees larger fees, which would be passed on to Southern California consumers upon CPUC approval.

None of these actions–not the investment games, the rate hikes or the experiment with San Onofre’s damaged reactor–are actually about providing a steady supply of safe, affordable energy. These are all pecuniary plays. Across the country and across the board, nuclear operators seem more interested in cashing in than putting out.

More prudent for governments and utility commissions, and more beneficial for ratepayers, of course, would be to stop paying the vig to nuclear’s loan sharks, stop throwing good money after bad in a sector that is dying and dangerous, and start making investments in truly clean, truly renewable, and increasingly far more economical 21st Century energy technologies.

Until that happens, the most profitable thing about nuclear power will continue to be the capacity to charge for a service that might never be provided. Private utilities have understood this for a long time; ratepayers are becoming painfully aware of it, too. The question is, when will government regulators and utility commissions understand it–or at least fess up to being in on the con?

* * * *

Stop the Madness! Or at least learn more about it. Join me on Saturday, October 13, at 5 PM Eastern time (2 PM Pacific) when I host an FDL Book Salon chat with Joseph Mangano, author of Mad Science: The Nuclear Power Experiment.

San Onofre, 1968 – 2012

San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, dead at 44. (photo: Joe Wolf)

San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, the twin-reactor power plant that spread its isotopic glow across coastal communities from Los Angeles to San Diego, was declared dead last week. SONGS, as it was affectionately known, was 44, though many of its parts are considerably younger.

Originally conceived as a single Westinghouse pressurized water reactor in 1964, San Onofre was officially commissioned on January 1, 1968. Two additional units were brought online in the early 1980s. The original Unit 1 was closed permanently in 1992, and stands as a radiant monument to nuclear’s 20th Century aspirations.

With its proximity to seismic fault lines and a history of accidents, security breaches and safety complaints, SONGS has long been deemed one of the most difficult siblings in its nuclear family. Units 2 and 3 have been offline since January of this year due to a leak of radioactive steam from a heat transfer tube. Subsequent inspections of the tubes–completely redesigned and replaced when SONGS got an extreme makeover in 2010 and 2011–revealed alarming rates of wear previously unseen at any similar facility. Both reactors have been considered too damaged to simply restart since the initial discovery.

Though multiple scientists, engineers, public interest groups and government agencies diagnosed San Onofre’s troubles as terminal early in the year, Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric, SONGS’ “guardians” held out hope (or more likely just put on a brave face for the sake of family and friends–also known as “shareholders”) that their beloved ward could be revived. A decision last month to remove the nuclear fuel from Unit 3 made it hard to maintain that façade, and news late last week that the utilities were planning for a 2013 summer without any power produced or transferred by San Onofre made it clear that even SONGS’ oldest friends understood it was time to “pull the plug,” as electrical types are wont to say.

San Onofre is survived by its California cousin, Diablo Canyon, and 100 other frail and faltering nuclear reactors nationwide. At the time of this writing, funeral arrangements have still not been made official.

* * * *

And there’s the rub. While it is the present reality and the obvious future, the final shuttering of San Onofre has not been made official. Not by its operators, and not yet even by the California Public Utilities Commission. Acknowledging the nuclear plant’s demise would trigger a review process that would result in rate reductions for Edison and SDG&E customers. Those reviews will kick in automatically in a couple of months because SONGS has failed to generate a single kilowatt of electricity from February on, but the owner-operators of the plant have fought to drag the process out to its longest legal limit, despite the widespread understanding that a restart of even one reactor is at best very far off and likely just never to be.

The head of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Allison Macfarlane, has asked for a letter from Edison detailing the “root causes” of the leak and tube degradation. Edison said that letter would be delivered by the end of the first week in October. That letter will not contain any kind of a plan for a restart of Unit 2 (no one is talking about restarting Unit 3), and the NRC will have to review Edison’s report for months before there is any possibility of repair work (realistically, there should be no possibility of repair to Unit 2, since its damage is comparable to the essentially condemned third unit, but this is how these things play out, and, sadly, stranger things have happened).

Meanwhile, Edison has announced it will cut San Onofre’s workforce by one-third (730 jobs), another clear signal that nothing like a restart will be happening any time in the predictable future.

With this reality universally understood and effectively acknowledged by all parties, the NRC should stop wasting resources on any plan for a restart, and start asking the tough questions about decommissioning SONGS. And it borders on corrupt that SCE and SDG&E are still charging ratepayers $54 million a month for service not rendered, with no promise that it ever will be. The California PUC should remove San Onofre from the utilities’ rate base now.

Shockingly, some on the CPUC are looking to make this scandalous situation worse. Over the life of San Onofre, utilities customers have paid into a decommissioning fund–and though the balance in that account now approaches $3 billion, it is still considered underfunded by at least 25 percent. And now, one commissioner, Tim Simon, a former securities industry attorney, is publicly advocating lifting limits on how that money could be invested, arguing that riskier bets would yield higher returns. This suggestion was voiced last week, after the decision was made to remove the fuel from Unit 3, after the NRC made it clear that a restart of Unit 2 was far from guaranteed, and, of course, over eight months after SONGS stopped generating power altogether. It also comes after the NRC announced a delay in any final decisions on relicensing until the government developed a new radioactive waste disposal scheme, a process expected to take at least two years.

Consumer advocate Matt Freedman of The Utility Reform Network (TURN) sees this idea for what it is–socialized risk, privatized return:

“It‘s a maxim of retirement planning that as you get closer to your own personal retirement, your investments get more conservative,” Freedman said, “not more risky. But in this case, Commissioner Simon is suggesting that as these units near their retirement, that we should begin to invest more of the money in very risky investments.”

Freedman said the proposal on the table appears designed to benefit investment managers who would charge higher fees for new categories of investments. He said without a lot of time to ride out market fluctuations, ratepayers could be left on the hook for any depletion of the fund caused by market drops.

Naturally, San Diego Gas & Electric finds Simon’s idea appealing, but in the same breath, the company notes such a move means higher fees–fees that could be passed on to ratepayers with CPUC approval. It appears to be another sign that the utilities are looking to cash in before San Onofre officially is forced to check out.

But in times of trouble, responsibility ultimately rests with the family (aka the shareholders) to confront the hard truths. Owners of Edison and SDG&E stock should demand that the boards of these companies stop wasting shareholders’ money and everyone’s time and get on with divesting from their dirty, dangerous, and expensive involvement with nuclear power.

A public wake–also known as a public meeting–will be held for San Onofre by the NRC on October 9 from 6 to 9:30 PM at the St. Regis Monarch Beach Hotel in Dana Point. Mourning attire optional.

NRC Halts License Approvals Pending New Guidelines on Nuclear Waste

A nuclear spent fuel pool. (photo: NRCgov)

The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission announced Tuesday it would suspend the issuing of new reactor operating licenses, license renewals and construction licenses until the agency crafted a plan for dealing with the nation’s growing spent nuclear fuel crisis. The action comes in response to a June ruling by the US Court of Appeals that found the NRC’s “Waste Confidence Decision”–the methodology used to evaluate the dangers of nuclear waste storage–was wholly inadequate and posed a danger to public health and the environment.

Prior to the court’s ruling, the Commission had evaluated licensing and relicensing with the assumption that spent fuel–currently stored on site at nuclear power plants in pools and dry casks–would soon be moved to a central long-term waste repository. As previously noted, that option was once thought to be Yucca Mountain, but after years of preliminary work and tens of millions of dollars wasted, Yucca was found to be a poor choice, and the Obama Department of Energy and the NRC ended the project. The confirmation of new NRC Chair Allison Macfarlane–considered a nuclear waste expert and on record as a Yucca Mountain critic–focused even more attention on the country’s lack of realistic plans for safe, permanent waste storage.

The release from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission [PDF] put it this way:

Waste confidence undergirds certain agency licensing decisions, in particular new reactor licensing and reactor license renewal.

Because of the recent court ruling striking down our current waste confidence provisions, we are now considering all available options for resolving the waste confidence issue, which could include generic or site-specific NRC actions, or some combination of both. We have not yet determined a course of action.

In recognition of our duties under the law, we will not issue licenses dependent upon the Waste Confidence Decision or the Temporary Storage Rule until the court’s remand is appropriately addressed.

What this means in real terms remains to be seen. No licenses or renewals were thought imminent. Next up were likely a decision on extending the life of Indian Point, a short drive north of New York City, and a Construction and Operation License for Florida’s Levy County project, but neither was expected before sometime next year. Officially, 19 final reactor decisions are now on hold, though the NRC stressed that “all licensing reviews and proceedings should continue to move forward.”

Still, this should be read as a victory for the originators of the suit that resulted in the June ruling–the Attorneys General of Connecticut, New Jersey, New York and Vermont in coordination with the Prairie Island Indian Community of Minnesota and environmental groups represented by the National Resources Defense Council–and most certainly for the millions of Americans that live close to nuclear plants and their large, overstuffed, under-regulated pools of dangerous nuclear waste. Complainants not only won the freeze on licensing, the NRC guaranteed that any new generic waste rule would be open to public comment and environmental assessment or environmental impact studies, and that site-specific cases would be subject to a minimum 60-day consideration period.

While there is still plenty of gray area in that guarantee, the NRC has (under pressure) made the process more transparent than most similar dealings at the agency. The commission has also, at least for the moment, formally acknowledged that the nation’s nuclear reactor fleet faces a very pressing problem.

The US has 72,000 tons of radioactive waste and generates an additional 2,000 tons every year. Spent fuel pools at individual sites are already so full they pose numerous threats, some eerily similar to the ongoing disaster at Fukushima. Dry cask storage poses other problems and much additional expense. And regional interim waste storage facilities, an idea possibly favored by Macfarlane, is problematic for many reasons, not the least of which is that no sites have yet been designated or built.

But nuclear plant operators, already burdened by the spiraling costs of a poorly maintained and aging inventory, are desperate to have the federal government take the waste problem off their backs–and off their books. Whether that is even technically feasible, let alone politically of fiscally possible, remains to be seen. But the NRC has at least recognized–or at least been forced to recognize–that the nuclear industry should not be allowed to create waste indefinitely without a plan to safely secure what is already on hand.

Court Says Regulators Must Evaluate Dangers of Nuclear Waste

A nuclear spent fuel pool. (photo: NRCgov)

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission acted improperly when it failed to consider all the risks of storing spent radioactive fuel onsite at the nation’s nuclear power facilities, so ruled a federal court on Friday.

In a unanimous ruling (PDF), a three-judge panel of the US court of appeals for the District of Columbia found that the NRC’s “Nuclear Waste Confidence Decision”–the methodology used for evaluating the dangers of long-term waste storage–was woefully inadequate:

[The Nuclear Regulatory Commission] apparently has no long-term plan other than hoping for a geologic repository. . . . If the government continues to fail in its quest to establish one, then SNF (spent nuclear fuel) will seemingly be stored on site at nuclear plants on a permanent basis. The Commission can and must assess the potential environmental effects of such a failure.

Writing for the court, Judge David Sentelle made no bones about the shortcomings of the NRC’s magical, one-size-fits-all method of assuming a future solution for the nuclear waste storage crisis. Spent fuel “poses a dangerous long-term health and environmental risk,” he said.

The suit was brought by the attorneys general of Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, and Vermont, in coordination with the Prairie Island Indian Community of Minnesota and environmental groups represented by the National Resources Defense Council.

The decision harshly criticized regulators for evaluating plant relicensing with the assumption that spent nuclear fuel–currently stored onsite in pools and dry casks–would be moved to a central long-term waste repository. As discussed here before, the only option seriously explored in the US was the Yucca Mountain site in Nevada. After years of preliminary construction and tens of millions of dollars of dollars spent, Yucca was determined to be a bad choice for the waste, and the Obama administration’s Department of Energy and the NRC halted the project.

Despite the wishful reporting of some nuclear advocates, the Yucca repository is nowhere near ready, and even if it were an active option, the facility would be many years and maybe as much as $100 million away from completion. Still, the nuclear industry and its acolytes have challenged the administration to spend any remaining money in a desperate attempt to keep alive the fantasy of a solution to their waste crisis.

Such zombified hopes, however, do not qualify as an actual plan, according to the courts.

The judges also chastised the NRC for its generic assessment of spent fuel pools, currently filled many times over capacity at nuclear plants across the United States. Rather than examine each facility and the potential risks specific to its particular storage situation, the NRC had only evaluated the safety risks of onsite storage by looking at a composite of past events. The court ruled that the NRC must appraise each plant individually and account for potential future dangers. Those dangers include leaks, loss of coolant, and failures in the cooling systems, any of which might result in contamination of surrounding areas, overheating and melting of stored rods, and the potential of burning radioactive fuel–risks heightened by the large amounts of fuel in the storage pools and underscored by the ongoing disaster at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi plant.

The decision has immediate ramifications for plants in the northeast seeking license extensions–most notably Entergy’s Indian Point facility, less than an hour’s drive from New York City, and their Vermont Yankee plant, which is operating despite seeing its original license expire in March.

New York’s Attorney General Eric Schneiderman released a statement, which reads, in part:

This is a landmark victory for New Yorkers, and people across the country living in the shadows of nuclear power plants. We fought back against the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s rubber stamp decision to allow radioactive waste at our nation’s nuclear power plants to be stored for decades after they’re shut down – and we won. The Court was clear in agreeing with my office that this type of NRC ‘business as usual’ is simply unacceptable. The NRC cannot turn its back on federal law and ignore its obligation to thoroughly review the environmental, public health, and safety risks related to the creation of long-term nuclear waste storage sites within our communities.

And William Sorrell, Vermont’s AG, concurred:

This outcome illustrates how important it is for states to work together on environmental matters of national importance. Today’s decision is a major victory for New York, Vermont, and all other states that host nuclear power plants. The court confirmed what Vermont and other states have said for many years now—that the NRC has a duty to inform the public about the environmental effects of long-term storage of spent nuclear fuel, particularly when it is occurring at nuclear power plants that were never designed to be long-term storage facilities.

Indeed, plants were not designed nor built to house nuclear waste long-term. The design life of most reactors in the US was originally 40 years. Discussions of the spent fuel pools usually gave them a 60-year lifespan. That limit seemed to double almost magically as nuclear operators fought to postpone the expense of moving cooler fuel to dry casks and of the final decommissioning of retired reactors.

But, as reported here last fall, outgoing NRC chief Gregory Jaczko was exploring the possibility of using onsite storage for 200 to 300 years. How these metrics will change when the new head regulator, Allison Macfarlane, is confirmed is not yet known–but Macfarlane is on record as both a Yucca skeptic and an advocate for regional interim waste storage facilities. That plan, however, has many critics, as well, can only take fuel already cool enough to be removed from pools, and, of course, has not been so much as sited or designed, let alone constructed.

While no nuclear plants will close today as a result of this decision, it should also be noted–because some reports assume otherwise–that this finding does not mean Yucca Mountain must open, either. The ruling does, however, underscore the waste crisis–and it is a crisis–faced by the US nuclear industry. No only is it generating approximately 2000 tons of new waste every year that will need an eternal resting place, pools at some plants are so full it actually complicates refueling and maintenance (since fuel needs to removed from reactors and kept cool for both procedures). Plant operators are desperate to have the federal government take on the costs and the risks of waste storage.

But without anything even close to a plan for a long-term repository, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission cannot assume a solution, says the court. Instead, it must look at reality–something the entire country would best be advised to do when evaluating the future of this dirty, dangerous and expensive energy source.

House Postpones Witch Hunt While Nuclear Industry Awaits Results of Latest Power Play

The Salem Nuclear Power Plant is in New Jersey, not Salem, MA, but you get the idea. (photo: peretzp)

In case you were wondering what it was all about–“it” being the dealings of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission actually making the popular news for a few months–the House Committee on Energy and Commerce indefinitely postponed its Thursday hearing on the “politicization of the [NRC] and the actions and influence of Chairman Jaczko.” Gregory Jaczko, of course, announced his resignation on May 21, and President Obama nominated Allison Macfarlane as his replacement three days later.

Though stressing that his committee would keep an eye on the NRC, “including a full review of the inspector general’s pending report” on the “breakdown in collegiality at the commission,” Chairman Fred Upton (R-MI) did not schedule a new hearing.

And there is no apparent update from Darrell Issa (R-CA), chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, and, until about the third week of last month, one of the loudest and most persistent critics of workplace morale at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Before Jaczko’s resignation, Issa, too, was promising more hearings. Instead, Issa has turned again to attacking loan guarantees for renewable energy projects (and so, attempting. . . again. . . to make Solyndra an issue in the presidential election)–which also serves his masters (as in, largest campaign contributors) in the nuclear industry just fine, thank you.

Meanwhile, things are suddenly moving on the Senate side. Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has given a more public blessing to the suspected private deal discussed here during the weeks leading up to Jaczko’s move. Because Dr. Macfarlane is considered an opponent of the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository, Senator Reid has agreed to put aside his vocal objections to a second term for NRC commissioner Kristine Svinicki and advance both nominations toward confirmation as a pair. (Stopping Yucca, of course, has been one of Reid’s top priorities throughout his political career.) California Democrat Barbara Boxer, whose Environment and Public Works Committee will conduct the hearings on the NRC nominees, has sidestepped her own strong objections to Svinicki, and now says both the current and potential nuclear regulators should be considered before the end of the month.

So, there you have it–matters supposedly related to oversight of the nuclear industry and the safety of the American people have quite visibly taken a back seat to influence peddling and classic beltway horse-trading. In an era where even cynical deals are rarely struck, some might hail this move to quickly restock the NRC as something resembling bipartisan compromise (as if that were an end in itself). But success is not measured by the number of commissioners collecting government paychecks, it is seen in the actions of regulators who actually regulate.

In the wake of the ongoing Fukushima crisis, and in the presence of countless problems at a multitude of aging American nuclear plants, there is, indeed, much regulating to be done. But when one member of the NRC is forced out for vainly advocating the most minor of safety improvements, while another commissioner is rewarded with reappointment for consistently supporting the nuclear industry, the chances of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission regulating much of anything seem slim. It effectively defines “regulatory capture,” and practically guarantees that, no matter how fair or interpersonally gifted Dr. Macfarlane might be, the NRC will do little to police nuclear power.

As has been noted here on numerous occasions, the regulatory system is broken. Scientists, citizens, and lawmakers cannot “assume we have a can opener” and pretend a process exists to make commercial nuclear power clean and safe. The NRC may–may–have been created to provide oversight, but, in reality, it works instead to provide cover. Without an honest and active regulatory body, there is no credible argument for a “nuclear renaissance“–there is only the promise of another nuclear disaster.

Obama Taps Allison Macfarlane as New Head of Nuclear Regulatory Commission

Seal of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (via Wikipedia)

President Barack Obama has nominated Allison Macfarlane to be the new head of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Macfarlane is currently an associate professor at George Mason University in Fairfax, VA, and was part of Obama’s Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future, a panel that was, among its responsibilities, asked to examine how the country should deal with its growing nuclear waste storage crisis. She holds a PhD in Geology from MIT.

If confirmed by the Senate, Macfarlane will replace Gregory Jaczko, who announced his resignation Monday after months of pressure from the nuclear industry and their friends in government.

As predicted, in choosing Macfarlane, Obama tapped someone who is on record as opposed to the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository. Macfarlane quite literally wrote the book on the subject–she is the editor (along with Rodney Ewing) of Uncertainty Underground: Yucca Mountain and the Nation’s High-Level Nuclear Waste, a review that is predominantly very critical of the choice of the Yucca site. Because confirmation has to move through the Senate, it would need the consent of Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), a longtime opponent of the Yucca project.

But Macfarlane could not be labeled an opponent of nuclear power. Indeed, Kate Sheppard of Mother Jones cited MacFarlane’s own words in which she called herself a nuclear “agnostic”:

In terms of nuclear energy, I would describe myself as an agnostic. I’m neither pro-nuclear or anti-nuclear. I think nuclear has been doing a good job in the United states and some other industrial countries at providing a good, reliable energy, and they’ve been improving on that. At the same time, I think I think in terms of an expansion in nuclear power over the next 50 years or something, nuclear has lot of liabilities and I don’t know if it can get over them.

If Macfarlane has objections to the expansion of commercial nuclear power, it would seem to be based on the cost–as she explained in a 2007 MIT lecture–and issues of waste storage.

To that second problem, Macfarlane is on record as favoring so-called interim solutions. As explained to me by Beyond Nuclear’s Kevin Kamps, who has met with Dr. Macfarlane, the NRC nominee thinks dry cask storage is “good enough” for now, and is in favor of “centralized interim storage”–a plan to collect spent fuel form the nation’s nuclear plants and move it to a handful of regional, above-ground storage facilities until some unspecified time in the future when a long-term program is completed.

Sites rumored for possible interim storage facilities include the Utah desert, the Savannah River Site in South Carolina, and the Dresden nuclear facility in Illinois. The state governments of New Mexico and Arizona have also made moves to request they be considered as repositories for nuclear waste.

The problems with dry casks and centralized interim storage are many. Kamps, a longtime critic of standard dry cask storage, notes that current dry casks are built to shield workers from radiation, but not designed to withstand long-term exposure to the environment or to survive a hostile attack. Some of the nation’s casks already show signs of wear, cracking, and corrosion. Beyond Nuclear recommends hardened dry casks–something different from standard casks–for this level of storage. Kamps was unsure what Macfarlane’s position was on requiring hardened dry casks.

There are massive security concerns around the idea of centralized interim storage, too. Not only would the facilities themselves be potential targets for terrorist attack, the transportation of nuclear waste would be vulnerable. And, it should be noted, as currently conceived, centralized sites would necessitate transport of waste through densely populated areas over insecure stretches of rail lines.

Kamps was also dismayed over Macfarlane’s enthusiasm for the Onkalo spent nuclear fuel repository in Finland. The underground facility, still under construction on Onkiluoto Island, has come under scrutiny by nuclear watchdogs for some of the same reasons critics worry about Yucca Mountain.

Macfarlane is on record, however as concerned about the overcrowded spent nuclear fuel pools that sit next to the nation’s fleet of aging reactors. In a 2003 paper, co-authored with Bob Alvarez and others (PDF), she issued this dire warning:

Because of the unavailability of off-site storage for spent power-reactor fuel, the NRC has allowed high-density storage of spent fuel in pools originally designed to hold much smaller inventories. As a result, virtually all U.S. spent-fuel pools have been re-racked to hold spent-fuel assemblies at densities that approach those in reactor cores. In order to prevent the spent fuel from going critical, the fuel assemblies are partitioned off from each other in metal boxes whose walls contain neutron-absorbing boron. It has been known for more than two decades that, in case of a loss of water in the pool, convective air cooling would be relatively ineffective in such a “dense-packed” pool. Spent fuel recently discharged from a reactor could heat up relatively rapidly to temperatures at which the zircaloy fuel cladding could catch fire and the fuel’s volatile fission products, including 30-year half-life 137Cs, would be released. The fire could well spread to older spent fuel. The long-term land-contamination consequences of such an event could be significantly worse than those from Chernobyl.

Of course, recent events in Fukushima have shown Macfarlane et al to be eerily on target. No doubt, Macfarlane would at least like to see spent fuel moved out of pools (even if it is to dry casks) to bring the density down to original design parameters. Whether Macfarlane will feel inclined to push the nuclear industry in this direction is another matter. Kevin Kamps estimates that moving spent fuel from pools to dry casks would cost roughly $100 million per facility, and cost has been a principle reason nuclear operators have dragged their heels on transferring older spent fuel to dry storage. To date, about 75 percent of the nation’s spent fuel remains in liquid pools.

Heartening, too, when it comes to this mother lode of radioactive waste, is word that Allison Macfarlane has been critical of nuclear fuel reprocessing. As discussed here many times, reprocessing is expensive, energy intensive, and actually creates more nuclear waste, not less.

The nomination of Macfarlane no doubt signals a deal between Sen. Reid and the White House. Reid, for his part, praised Macfarlane, and announced plans to hold confirmation hearings alongside those for Kristine Svinicki, the sitting NRC commissioner re-nominated by Obama but publicly opposed by Reid. According to the Majority Leader, both nominations will be considered next month.

Given that Macfarlane has not given her unwavering support to everything the nuclear industry wants, questions remain about the ease with which Macfarlane’s nomination will move through the Senate. While it is hard to dismiss the possibility that some GOP Senator will place a hold on Macfarlane–it is, like with the scorpion, in their nature–it should be noted that the nuclear industry’s biggest lobbying group has called for both Svinicki and Macfarlane to be confirmed:

The Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry group, called Macfarlane “an active contributor to policy debates in the nuclear energy field for many years” and urged the Senate to confirm her nomination as soon as possible.

“It would not serve the public interest to have her nomination linger,” the group said. “We urge the Senate to confirm both Commissioner Svinicki and Professor Macfarlane expeditiously.”

Watch this space, as they say.

As noted with the news of Jaczko’s resignation, the problems of nuclear power transcend the role of any individual. The dirt and danger–and most notably the costs–that come with nuclear power do not change with the personnel of the NRC. And, though it seems hard to imagine, the problems of regulatory capture loom even larger. The only reason Macfarlane is being discussed is because the nuclear industry grew tired of Gregory Jaczko. That the industry and their political pals were successful in pushing out one regulator cannot bode well for another that is in the least bit inclined to regulate.