At the moment, the nation’s current and former nuclear power plants are storing the waste they produced during their years of operation. Most of it is in massive pools where it cools for at least five years. Space in those pools is becoming scarce, though, and some facilities are transferring waste to large concrete and steel cylinders known as dry cask storage.
Currently, these casks are located at disparate sites across the country. Some sit at operational power plants and some at “orphan sites” where nuclear reactors have been decommissioned, but their waste remains. Centralized interim storage might provide an alternative to the status quo.
Vic Parrish of power generator Energy Northwest advised the BRC that such facilities “could be used by the federal government to meet its statutory and contractual obligations to accept and remove nuclear fuel from reactor sites, while reducing or eliminating the liability for taxpayers.” And according to the DOE, that liability could reach up to $500 million per year after 2020 if the spent fuel remains where it is.
Because nuclear waste is currently stored at reactor sites, it often sits near population centers or bodies of water used as drinking or irrigation supplies. Centralized facilities could be located in remote areas with less risk to people and the environment, should an accident ever occur. They would also consolidate security, maintenance and oversight activities — greater efficiency, at less cost.
But ultimately, centralized above-ground storage is a solution only in the near-term. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has said that temporary fuel storage is acceptable for around 100 years. As time goes by, the risks of storage system degradation and environmental contamination increase.
Centralized interim storage also faces important legal, siting and transportation challenges. The DOE says that the Nuclear Waste Policy Act (NWPA) of 1982 limits its ability to remove the waste for temporary storage, as opposed to permanent disposal. There would need to be an amendment to the NWPA before the DOE could claim waste from private companies and relocate it to an interim facility.
Where that interim facility would be located is another question. As with the debate over Yucca Mountain, communities would likely have significant concerns about housing nuclear waste. An economic incentives package would probably have to sweeten the deal before the radioactive material could find a temporary home.
Finally, opponents of centralized interim storage cite safety concerns over transportation. The waste will first have to be moved from its current location and then would need to be moved again when a permanent repository is built. Not only would this increase the risk of an accident during transport, but perceived risks could lower property values along the route and produce further opposition from local communities.