Energy Daily
Thursday, March 05, 2009

Letters to the Editor

To the editor:

I read with great interest Nuclear Energy Institute Chief Executive Officer Marvin Fertel’s article on spent fuel policy ( The Energy Daily, February 7). You will appreciate that Nevada is deeply concerned about how the country will deal with spent nuclear fuel. We don’t have nuclear power plants but the Energy Department selected Nevada’s Yucca Mountain for the country’s repository for commercial nuclear waste, despite the site’s obvious safety deficiencies. We support an independent re-examination of the waste issue because we are confident DOE’s gargantuan and misdirected project cannot withstand independent scrutiny.

The beginning of wisdom on this issue is captured in Fertel’s statement that spent fuel “can be safely and securely stored for an extended period of time,” so we have plenty of time to make a sensible choice. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has in fact judged “dry cask” storage as safe and secure for a hundred years. In time, some form of regional storage of spent fuel will make sense. By then much of the spent fuel will be cooler and easier to handle.

In other words, it’s not so complicated. The trouble is that there are several widespread notions that get in the way of thinking about the subject. First, there is the idea that lack of a waste “solution” is holding up the construction of new nuclear plants. In fact, nuclear plants haven’t been selling in this country because they are extremely expensive. That is why the industry says it needs loan guarantees. I am pleased that NEI does not say, as it used to say, that Yucca Mountain licensing is essential to expansion of U.S. nuclear power. That was just an excuse—the power plants will succeed or fail on their own merits.

Another misleading notion is that a “closed” fuel cycle—reprocessing spent fuel and recycling the extracted plutonium as the French and Japanese do—will simplify waste management. It doesn’t; in fact, it complicates it, and it doesn’t reduce the required repository volume. (Nor is there an energy advantage—the small additional amount extracted during recycle comes at an uneconomic cost). Nevada’s specific concern is that a reprocessing center—there are lobbyists touting such a thing for Yucca Mountain—could become a way of backing into a repository.

Finally, there is the idea that even though Yucca Mountain will not operate, we should still continue its NRC licensing review. I can understand the desire for a “soft landing” for this unfortunate project, but surely there is a less expensive way of doing this. It seems to me the nuclear industry could direct its concern over spent fuel storage in more constructive directions than to threaten the federal government with lawsuits if it pulls Yucca Mountain’s license application.

I want to make clear that Yucca Mountain is not coming to grief merely for political reasons, nor was it repeatedly delayed by legal maneuver. Nor is Nevada shirking a responsibility. If anyone has an obligation to accept the spent fuel, it is the states that extracted the energy from it.

The fundamental problem is that DOE picked a bad site. There was much more dripping water (which promotes corrosion) and it was moving faster toward the human environment than expected, which violated DOE’s own siting criteria.

Instead of abandoning the site, DOE abandoned its criteria and invented what they call a “drip shield”—the name says it all—to protect each waste package. To meet the NRC’s radiation dose standard, DOE’s design requires 11,000 drip shields, each 5 tons of exotic alloy. Without them, DOE’s calculations in its licensing application show the repository would exceed the NRC standard by about a factor of ten.

But, presumably because the shields are so expensive, DOE is putting off installation for at least 100 years (when it may not even be physically possible). In short, DOE is asking for a license on the promise that it, or somebody, will install the crucial drip shields in a 100 years or later. That is a bureaucratic farce that should not continue.

Bruce Breslow
Executive Director
Nevada Agency for Nuclear Projects