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.

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.

NRC Report on San Onofre: Close Enough for Government Work

An aerial view of the San Onofre Generating Station. (photo: Jelson25 via Wikipedia)

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission released its report on recent failures at the San Onofre nuclear facility [PDF] on Thursday, stating that, as far as the government regulator was concerned, the operators of the power plant did nothing wrong when they reported major design changes as simple equipment replacement.

At issue at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS) is the replacement of two giant steam generators less than two years ago. A metal heat-transfer tube in one generator ruptured in January, releasing superheated radioactive steam and triggering a shutdown. Further examination of that generator and its twin revealed unprecedented and unsettling rates of wear in hundreds of other tubes. SONGS has been completely offline ever since.

Investigation of the problem by plant operators and the NRC, as well as independent watchdogs, found that flaws in the computer modeling of the radically redesigned replacement generators lead to building and installing tubing that vibrated substantially more than was anticipated, and substantially more than the equipment could tolerate. Within 18 months of starting up the retrofitted reactors, vibration caused rapid degradation of the metal tubes, resulting in the rupture.

Still, according to the NRC, no laws were broken. Southern California Edison (a division of Edison International, the majority owner of SONGS) did not mislead regulators about the extent of the changes. Federal officials were not lax in their oversight. Things may not have gone exactly as planned, but no one on this side of the Pacific was to blame. Maybe the Japanese at Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, the folks who built the replacement parts, have some ‘splainin’ to do, but SCE and the NRC performed just like they were supposed to.

And that’s exactly the point, isn’t it?

To any outside observer (well, to any observer willing to plow through technical data and design specs), the replacement generators at San Onofre were quite obviously a major redesign–something requiring a more careful, time-consuming and, yes, costly government approval process. Mitsubishi was not the original manufacturer of the SONGS generators, and Edison was not looking to have Mitsubishi machine exact replacement parts. That would have been more expensive–much more expensive.

Instead, SCE sought out what would be the nuclear industry equivalent of “off the shelf” parts, and hoped to engineer a way to make them work with their 30-year-old reactors. Further, Edison desired to increase the output of this power plant. More power theoretically equals more profit–and, to oversimplify the technical details, more tubes could equal more power. The new generators had many times more heat-transfer tubes than the originals.

So, the major design changes at San Onofre were, to turn a phrase, very much by design. But to call them major design changes would have increased the cost, the time, and the amount of oversight required, so, as the NRC report seems to make clear, the rules are written to insure that such changes pass under the regulatory radar:

The agency staff investigation concluded that Edison “provided the NRC with all the information required under existing regulations about proposed design changes to its steam generators,” according to a statement.

But a key question remains under study: Does the agency need to change the process that was used to approve the replacement generators? At issue is whether tubing problems that eventually sidelined the reactors might have been identified by changing rules under which utilities swap equipment at nuclear power plants.

For example, the report concluded that there were “major design changes” between the original and replacement generators at San Onofre, yet they qualified as essentially identical replacements that did not require an exhaustive review by the NRC.

Show me what regulatory capture looks like; this is what regulatory capture looks like

The “letter is willing but the spirit is weak” tone of the San Onofre report seems especially poignant/disturbing coming, as it does, within a fortnight of the latest Japanese report on the Fukushima disaster. That lengthy study found that government officials colluded with the nuclear industry to avoid upgrades and evade scrutiny, resulting in a severe undermining of public safety. Summaries of that report focused on aspects described as unique to Japanese culture, but the NRC’s San Onofre findings demonstrate that this well-choreographed dance between industry and regulators crosses cultural and national boundaries.

The SONGS report also comes the same week as a party thrown by supporters of the recently deposed NRC chairman, Gregory Jaczko:

A cadre of veterans from the office of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) are organizing an effort to pay down the legal debts taken on by Gregory Jaczko, the former chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, who stepped down amid a fierce industry-backed assault.

Jaczko, a former Reid staffer, racked up tens of thousands in legal fees defending himself. The thinking behind the fundraising effort is straightforward: High-level staffers for top senators can command high salaries in the private sector, many times more than can be earned in public service. So former Reid staffers who have spent their post-Senate years in more lucrative pursuits are coming to the aid of a colleague who made a different, and quite costly, decision.

. . . .

Jaczko’s former colleagues will gather Tuesday evening with Reid and Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), another former boss of his, to thank him for his time on the nuclear panel. (No fundraising can legally take place while Reid and Markey are at the event, organizers said.)

. . . .

The industry’s two top representatives, Alex Flint and Marvin Fertel of the Nuclear Energy Institute, are planning to attend the event, said Karen Wayland, a former Reid staffer who, along with [another former Reid aid Susan] McCue, spearheaded the effort.

Tuesday’s event will also co-hosted by Jimmy Ryan, Dayle Cristinzio and Kai Anderson, high-powered corporate lobbyists who were senior aides to Reid.

Since the writing of that story, the event took place and Senator Reid’s Searchlight Foundation has made known its intention to donate $10,000 to Jaczko’s defense fund.

To be clear, what happened to Jaczko, who was forced out after he advocated for modest safety improvements at US nuclear plants and coordinated with the Department of Energy to end work on the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste project, is itself a lesson in regulatory capture. The US nuclear industry sees any new safety requirements as a threat to their bottom line, and it desperately needs the federal government to find a storage solution for their vast piles of highly radioactive spent fuel and related waste–and so Jaczko was purged and a message was sent.

But, as the guest list would tell you, it is hard to call anyone in this crowd a pure hero. When key figures behind your ouster are also guests at your farewell party and fundraiser, you have to ask yourself if you were really that tough–and everyone around you has to see that industry and government are too cozy.

Close is not good

If online etymologies are to be believed, the expression “close enough for government work” has its origins in the World War II saying, “Good enough for government work.” Back then, the saying was understood to mean that the government had exacting standards, so if the work could pass government inspection, then it could meet any benchmark.

The phrase quickly devolved, however, into its sarcastic opposite–defense contracting will have that effect–and now “close enough for government work” means barely acceptable.

And government–at least when it comes to agencies like the Nuclear Regulatory Commission–has sought to live up to that new understanding ever since.

But when it comes to nuclear power, with the ominous safety implications of substandard work and lax oversight, close enough is not good enough. And if government and industry “working closely” on a problem means what it seems to have at San Onofre, then “close” pretty much never means “good.”

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.

Power Play: Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Jaczko Resigns after Push by Industry

Outgoing NRC Chmn. Jaczko testified before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform last year.

The Chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Gregory Jaczko, submitted his resignation Monday morning. Chairman Jaczko, a former aid to Senator Harry Reid (D-NV) and Representative Ed Markey (D-MA) who holds a PhD in particle physics, was originally appointed to the NRC in 2005, and elevated to chairman in 2009. Jaczko said he will relinquish his post upon confirmation of a replacement.

Jaczko’s announcement is hard to separate from pressing questions about the safety of commercial nuclear power in the United States–especially in the context of the ongoing crisis in Japan–the debate over the future of the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository, signs of shifting power dynamics in Washington, and, perhaps most importantly, the influence of wealthy and well-connected private industry on public policy.

As has been discussed here before, Greg Jaczko has been at the center of an orchestrated controversy for much of the last year, with nuclear industry lobbyists, Republican members of Congress, and other NRC commissioners pressing for the chairman’s ouster. Representative Darrell Issa (R-CA), head of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, has been an especially dogged critic of Jaczko, holding hours of hearings and serving as the driving force behind two inspector general reports on the allegedly hostile workplace environment at the NRC.

Issa, it must be noted, represents a district that includes the extremely troubled San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS). The plant is currently offline as regulators try to determine the root causes of radiation leaks and rapid degradation of copper tubing used to move radioactive steam in and out of the reactors. The Orange County Republican has received copious campaign contributions from the companies that operate and maintain San Onofre.

Issa called hearings (while calling for Jaczko’s head) last year after the four other commissioners made public their letter to the White House complaining about Jaczko’s managerial style. The complaint revolved around a handful of issues that help explain the apparent urgency behind the anti-Jaczko putsch.

First, critics were upset about the way that Jaczko helped end work on the Yucca Mountain nuclear storage site. Yucca had proven problematic for a number of reasons–environmental, economic, security, and social–and had long been the target of Nevada politicians (most notably, Senate Majority Leader Reid), who felt their state had been dealt with unfairly in the original selection process.

The Obama administration had seemed to agree, and had the Department of Energy withdraw a request for the licensing of Yucca Mountain. In addition, very little money remained in Yucca’s budget, and no more has been approved.

But the nuclear industry desperately needs an answer to the problem (crisis, really) of long-term nuclear waste storage, and Yucca Mountain is the only site that has even been started. (It is nowhere near finished.) Without a place to move “spent” fuel and the other dangerous detritus of the process, nuclear power cannot realistically expand the number of rectors in the US, nor can it long continue to maintain and refuel those already in operation.

The nuclear industry, through its proxies in Congress and on the NRC, has complained that Jaczko didn’t allow advocates for Yucca to perpetuate the process. Most recently, a fight went public when President Obama nominated NRC Commissioner Kristine Svinicki for another term over the vocal objections of Senator Reid and his colleague Barbara Boxer (D-CA). Of special contention, the role Svinicki played in drafting the documents that called for the construction of the Yucca repository.

Second, the dissenting NRC commissioners complained that Jaczko used his emergency powers as chairman to guide US policy in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami that caused a triple-meltdown at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power facility. Complainants seem especially upset that Jaczko recommended evacuation of American citizens from a 50-mile radius around the crippled nuclear plant–a call he made with the support of NRC experts and in coordination with the State Department. Radioactive contamination from Fukushima has, of course, been found across Japan, even beyond the 50-mile limit. (In the US, 65 percent of the population lives within 50 miles of a nuclear plant, and late in December, federal regulators moved to scale back requirements for evacuations and emergency drills around commercial reactors.)

In the wake of the initial accident, Jaczko sought recommendations for US nuclear safety. The Near-Term Task Force (NTTF) Review of Insights from the Fukushima Dai-Ichi Accident produced a collection of basic (and, as discussed here, rather weak) recommendations last summer. Chairman Jaczko tried to start the process of turning those recommendations into rules–a process that could stretch beyond five years–but met objections from each of the other four commissioners. Jaczko also wanted lessons learned from Fukushima included in construction and licensing permits granted to four AP1000 reactors (two to be built in Georgia, two in South Carolina), but the chairman was outvoted four-to-one by his fellow NRC members.

The third (and most often referenced) complaint fired at Jaczko was that he had created a “hostile work environment,” especially for women. Though Svinicki, the only woman on the commission, lamented Jaczko’s tone, the specific “charge” (if it can be called that) was brought by Commissioner William Magwood. Magwood said there were female staffers that Jaczko had brought to tears, though none of those women personally came forward (because, it was said last year, they did not want to relive the humiliation).

The story gained extra prominence when Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY; Kentucky, by the way, home to a nuclear waste nightmare called Paducah) attempted to use this alleged incident to disrupt the rising narrative of the Republican “war on women.” McConnell and others from his side of the aisle took to the microphones to denounce the administration’s treatment of whistleblowers and praise the apparently brave and much put-upon Svinicki.

In what seems to be a rare case where the public’s relative lack of interest in nuclear regulation can be called a positive, McConnell’s gambit failed. . .

. . . at least in derailing the “War on Women” story. (It also probably owes much to the GOP actually continuing its war on women.)

But when it came to serving the nuclear industry, McConnell’s contribution to the ouster of Jaczko will likely be rewarded. . . with industry contributions of the monetary kind.

Chairman Jaczko’s resignation comes just before issues of his workplace demeanor would likely again dominate headlines (if, again, any story regarding nuclear regulation can be imagined to dominate this year’s headlines), as a second IG report on the NRC work environment is due next month, and Issa had already promised more hearings. But Jaczko’s announcement would likely not have come without the intervention or, at least, tacit blessing of Senator Reid. As mentioned, Reid has been Jaczko’s best friend on the Hill, and Jaczko has helped Reid and the Obama administration move away from making Nevada the final resting place for a country’s worth of hazardous nuclear waste.

After President Obama defied Reid’s private and public requests, and nominated Kristine Svinicki for another term as NRC commissioner, the Senator had a choice to make–and some political calculations to do.

While, to the nuclear industry, Jaczko represented an insufficiently pliant regulator–be it concerning NTTF recommendations, fire safety rules, or waste storage–to Harry Reid, the NRC chairman is most importantly a staunch opponent of the Yucca project. And Jaczko is the only one of the five NRC commissioners who meets that description. With Jaczko’s public image under attack and his ability to function as chairman challenged by the other commissioners and nuclear-friendly forces in Congress, questions of how much longer he could survive would have continued throughout the year. With that baggage, and with Senator Reid’s Democratic majority and possibly even his leadership position up in the air come November, there seems little chance that Obama would have shown Jaczko the same deference he did Svinicki and offered to nominate him for another term when the chairman’s current one expired in 2013.

As it is custom for NRC commissioners to be nominated in pairs–one from the Democrats, one from the Republicans–to smooth their paths to confirmation, Reid likely looked at Jaczko’s predicament, Svinicki’s nomination, and his own future and saw this as a moment to make some lemonade out of a crate of rotting lemons.

Act now, and Reid would play a prominent role in choosing Jaczko’s replacement–who could theoretically get confirmed alongside Svinicki for a full, five-year term–wait, continue to back Jaczko and fight the administration and the GOP on Svinicki, and the best Reid could hope for is a year of controversy over NRC personnel and an uncertain amount of influence in shaping the future of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Indeed, current reporting is that the White House will move quickly to nominate Jaczko’s replacement (and rumors are it will be a woman), and that the administration is in consultation with Reid to choose someone he will help move through the Senate confirmation process. It is hard to believe Reid will look kindly upon any nominee interested in re-starting the Yucca Mountain process.

. . . timing

It is said that, in life, timing is everything. In politics, money probably keeps timing from cornering the be-all-end-all market, but timing has played a part in the NRC’s saga. As Reid hopes to use this moment to keep his objectives on course, the nuclear industry is trying to desperately to turn back time to an era where the term “nuclear renaissance” wasn’t said with a smirk and a glance eastward toward Japan.

As with Yucca Mountain, where atom-loving electeds and regulators scramble to get the federal government to take their waste–with its risks and expense–off of the nuclear industry’s hands, the threat of new safety rules (and their perceived expense) emerging from the post-Fukushima review also motivated a profit-centric industry to step up their efforts to remake the NRC in their own image.

As noted here in December, Darrell Issa’s public release of the commissioners’ letter complaining about Jaczko was oddly timed:

[T]hough the commissioners’ complaint was written and delivered to the White House in October, it was only made public by Rep. Issa last Friday. A slot usually reserved for news dumps seems like bad timing if Issa and his allies wanted to create a splash, unless you consider that Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA) had planned to release a report on Monday showing how NRC commissioners had coordinated with pro-nuclear legislators to slow or stop post-Fukushima safety reforms. Markey’s report (PDF) includes emails revealing commissioner Magwood and staffers for pro-nuclear Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) worked together to discredit Jaczko for taking the lead on the US regulatory response to Fukushima.

And as reported in October, this behavior was not new for Magwood. During his time at the Department of Energy, Magwood held private meetings with top nuclear industry lobbyist Marvin Fertel. In December, Ryan Grim of The Huffington Post detailed–in a scenario eerily similar to what culminated this week–how Magwood and his industry friends worked behind the scenes to oust his superior at DoE.

It also deserves mentioning that between his time in the George W. Bush Energy Department and his appointment to the NRC by President Obama, Magwood formed the consulting firm Advanced Energy Strategies, whose clients included not only TEPCO, the nominal owner of Fukushima Daiichi (until the Japanese government finishes its bailout/buyout), but a veritable who’s who of the Japanese nuclear elite.

As discussed above, Jaczko was the only NRC commissioner who voted to include future post-Fukushima rules in the licensing requirements for new reactors in Georgia and South Carolina. Both those projects are still wanting for full financing, and Georgia’s reactors are already behind schedule and, as revealed recently, nearly $1 billion over budget. The last thing the industry wants to see are demands for pricy safety upgrades or reminders of all that can go wrong at a nuclear plant. Jaczko’s desire for inclusion of Fukushima “lessons learned” held out a threat (however weak) of both.

Weak in review

But it was the rather weak recommendations, the glacial pace of change, and the seemingly futile lone votes against four other commissioners in the nuclear industry’s hip pocket that also helped end Jaczko’s run as NRC chair.

Theoretically, election cycles are when elected officials are most responsive to public pressure, but what part of the public felt particularly compelled to fight on Jaczko’s behalf? As stated during an earlier act in this power play, the nuclear industry and its acolytes were never going to see Jaczko as anything but the enemy, but the chairman’s “moderate” response to the Fukushima moment, along with the continued granting of license extensions to aging nuclear plants, and his oft-repeated statements of faith in the broken regulatory process left Jaczko with no strong allies in the anti-nuclear movement. Between the ongoing Fukushima disaster and the dynamics of an election year, the timing could have been favorable for a regulator bold enough to dare to regulate.

Instead, Chairman Jaczko, who no doubt saw his split-the-middle path as a reasonable one, was left alone to watch as his colleague, Bill Magwood, helped orchestrate a coup, and as his benefactor, Harry Reid, moved to cut his losses. For America, however, losses have not been cut–nuclear power is still a perpetual economic sinkhole and a looming ecological disaster–and no matter how the politicians try to massage the regulatory process, the science that makes nuclear power so untenable remains constant.

Constant, too, is the global trend–most of the industrialized world is turning away from this dirty, dangerous, and exorbitantly expensive way to boil water. Jaczko’s chairmanship of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission may be at its dénouement, but that does nothing to magically create a nuclear renaissance. The good and bad news here is that all of nuclear power’s problems are just as real and just as pressing, with or without Greg Jaczko.