Communities from Oregon to New York may be clamoring to get nuclear waste out of their backyards, but one small town in west Texas is actively vying to store the nation’s spent nuclear fuel — at least for the next century or so.
“We don’t see it as some big, you know, dangerous, terrible, ominous figure,” said Julia Wallace, executive director of the Andrews Chamber of Commerce. “It’s just another day’s work.”
Andrews, Texas, also sees the economic benefits that could come with storing high-level nuclear waste. “This is an industry and area that I think is going to continue to grow, and it’s a need that needs to be met. So I think we’re on to something here,” Wallace said.
Andrews is working with the waste management company, Waste Control Specialists, to expand the capacity of their low-level waste facility into consolidated interim storage — temporary storage for high-level waste before it is disposed of or some other use is found. The Department of Energy (DOE) proposed consolidated interim storage as a way to fulfill their obligation to manage the country’s nuclear waste.
The DOE wants to start by moving the spent nuclear fuel from 13 shuttered utilities, including the former Trojan Nuclear Plant near Rainier, Oregon, just across the Columbia River from Longview, Washington.
But that is not likely to happen anytime soon.
A Plan To Send The Nation’s Nuclear Waste To Nevada
Portland General Electric stopped producing electricity at the Trojan Nuclear Plant in 1993. The plant was decommissioned a decade later. But the site continues to store former plant’s spent nuclear fuel in dry casks on a concrete pad.
The federal government was supposed to begin moving spent fuel from commercial plants like Trojan decades ago per an agreement forged in the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982. Congress developed a policy to manage the waste that had accumulated for decades from both the development of weapons and energy.
The act established procedures to evaluate and select sites for repositories that are geologically deep and stable. That’s the scientifically preferred approach for long-term isolation of radioactive waste.
The Department of Energy was to identify and characterize a number of potential sites and recommend at least one to Congress as a candidate for a repository.
But in 1987, Congress amended the act and directed the DOE to only consider a single candidate from that list: Yucca Mountain. The nation’s nuclear waste would be moved to the desolate mountain 80 miles northwest of Las Vegas, and buried deep underground.
The majority of Nevadans strongly objected to the decision, including one of Nevada’s U.S. senator at the time, Democrat Harry Reid.
“It’s clear there’s been tremendously strong opposition, consistently from the state,” said Dr. Ernest Moniz, secretary of energy for the Obama Administration. “There are still issues that are unresolved including rights to water, for example; acquisition of land in which the state has a major role.”
Although billions of dollars were spent studying the site and building an exploratory tunnel, local concerns and political gridlock stopped Yucca Mountain from being developed.
In 2010, the DOE decided to terminate the Yucca Mountain program.
The Waste Stays, And The Taxpayer Foots The Bill
The Nuclear Waste Policy Act included funding for moving nuclear waste.
The funding was connected to utilities to ensure those companies and their ratepayers — not taxpayers, or the government — would foot the bill. Utilities started paying into the Nuclear Waste Fund in 1983, which had reached nearly $31 billion by 2014. But when it became clear the government was not moving the spent fuel, the utilities began suing the government. And they won.
“As of September 2015, $5.3 billion has been paid out … to reimburse the utilities for some of the expenses incurred,” said Everett Redmond, director of nonproliferation and fuel cycle policy at the Nuclear Energy Institute. “The Department of Energy estimates that the total liability, assuming they begin picking up fuel in 2021, will be $29 billion.”
As a result, in Oregon — and the rest of the country — taxpayers are now fronting millions to keep the hazardous waste sitting in what were meant to be temporary storage sites.
This wasn’t the plan.
In an effort to find new solutions, President Obama formed the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future (BRC). The commission conducted a comprehensive review of policies for managing what is known as “the back end of the nuclear fuel cycle.” That’s the spent nuclear fuel that remains after energy production has ceased.
It recommended developing a process for offering incentives to communities for taking waste — either on a short-term basis or in permanent geologic repositories.
The commission suggested shipping the spent nuclear fuel from energy-generating facilities like Trojan first. Another suggestion was to untangle weapons-grade nuclear waste from the waste produced by civilian energy production.
That meant the disposal of nuclear waste stored at former nuclear weapons sites like southeastern Washington’s Hanford facility would be dealt with separately.
In 2016, Waste Control Specialists applied to store high-level commercial spent nuclear fuel 30 miles west of Andrews, Texas. The company’s facility should be able to take up to 80 percent of the waste currently stored at shut-down reactors across the country.
But that’s not going to happen anytime soon.
Even if the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission approves the application, there are issues of transportation and cost.
Additionally, the Nuclear Waste Policy Act allows the government to build one consolidated storage facility, like the one in Andrews, only after construction of a nuclear waste repository has been licensed.
If the Texas facility is allowed to temporarily accept nuclear waste, Geoffrey Fettus of the Natural Resources Defense Council has concerns.
“That waste may move once, but it may never move again,” said Fettus, the organization’s senior energy and transportation program attorney. “We think the idea of interim storage of nuclear waste, especially when you don’t have a repository program on track and really moving down the road, is a potentially drastically bad idea.”
Edwin Lyman of the Union of Concerned Scientists is worried that a protracted fight over whether to make Andrews a short-term solution will just distract attention from the long-term goal of establishing a final repository.
“It’s going to take so much concerted political will on behalf of all parties to get a geologic repository sited and licensed and operational that I think the consolidated interim storage is a sideshow,” he said.
The Department of Energy is pushing forward, though. It recently developed the consent-based process, including the steps necessary to site a pilot interim storage facility, a process that could take another dozen years — if development was started from scratch.
Andrews, Texas, is poised, though. It has a nearby a facility, a pending license application. And it’s ready to take the nation’s commercial nuclear waste.
But how soon this will happen and if it’s the best solution remains up for debate.