Ticking time bombs: what should we do with nuclear waste?

The United States has an atomic waste problem. Nuclear power is a viable source of energy, but radioactive waste is piling up across the nation, with nowhere to go.
Written by Andrew Nusca, Contributor on

The United States has an atomic waste problem.

Nuclear power is without a doubt a viable source of cleaner energy, but the problem has always been what to do with the process' byproducts.

A new Wall Street Journal report details the U.S. Department of Energy's problems cleaning up temporary caches of steel-and-concrete casks filled with radioactive waste at now-defunct reactor sites.

The Energy Department is legally obligated to relieve nuclear plants of radioactive waste. But it hasn't, because there's nowhere permanent to put it.

Three months ago, the plan to build a nuclear waste repository in Yucca Mountain, Nevada was canceled. It was the only candidate for the task.

Meanwhile, waste is piling up at nuclear facilities.

WSJ details one in Wiscasset, Maine:

The Maine Yankee facility was shuttered back in 1996 after developing problems too costly to fix, and the reactor was dismantled early this decade. What's left is a bare field of 167 acres cleared and ready for development—except for one thing.

Left behind are 64 enormous steel-and-concrete casks that hold 542 metric tons of radioactive waste. Seventeen feet tall and 150 tons apiece, the casks are protected by razor wire, cameras and a security force.

Reporter Rebecca Smith calls them "the power industry's biggest hot potatoes," and she's right.

Last month, energy secretary Steven Chu announced $38 million for nuclear research and development projects:

We are taking action to restart the nuclear industry as part of a broad approach to cut carbon pollution and create new clean energy jobs. These projects will help us develop the nuclear technologies of the future and move our domestic nuclear industry forward.

But the problem isn't in the discovery part of the pipeline -- it's way at the end.

The U.S. government says it will make a recommendation for the problem within 18 months, reports the WSJ. But the clock is ticking: the temporary casks are only licensed to hold radioactive waste for 20 years.

What's more, those casks will multiply as nuclear plants' storage areas fill up.

Utilities haven't been happy with the federal government, and have filed more than 70 lawsuits for breach of contract. $1.3 billion has already been paid out.

In testimony in July 2009 (.pdf), Kim Cawley, chief of the Natural and Physical Resources Cost Estimates Unit, said the following:

The federal government is more than 10 years behind schedule in its contractual obligations to remove and dispose of such waste, and the government has paid nuclear utilities $565 million in compensation for costs incurred because of its failure to meet that schedule. DOE currently estimates that liabilities to electric utilities for such damages will total more than $12 billion if the department begins to accept nuclear waste by 2020. How the Administration’s decision to terminate the Yucca Mountain project will affect the federal government’s liabilities is unclear, but the estimate will climb if the department's schedule slips beyond 2020. Regardless of whether or when the government opens a repository, such payments (which come from the Department of the Treasury’s Judgment Fund) will probably continue for several decades.

The WSJ report outlines some scary figures:

  • More than 800 filled casks await a final destination, holding 14,000 metric tons of waste.
  • Another 49,000 metric tons is being held in spent-fuel pools, waiting to be placed in vessels.
  • A further 2,000 metric tons of nuclear reactor waste is created every year.

The problem is that the next wave of nuclear reactors are already on the drawing board.

One bright spot: some of those new reactors, "fast reactors," can burn radioactive waste.

But that's not enough. Can America solve its nuclear waste problem in time?

Illustration, top: Nuclear dry storage casks. U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Illustration, bottom: Yucca Mountain facility. USNRC.

Map: U.S. nuclear power reactors. USNRC.

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