Momentum Building to Solve Nation’s Spent Nuclear Fuel Disposal Dilemma
Imagine it’s January 1998. A specially equipped train from the Department of Energy rolls up to the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station to pick up spent nuclear fuel and take it to the Yucca Mountain repository in Nevada. This scene is repeated thousands of times at nuclear plant sites across the U.S. over the ensuing decades. The solution to permanent spent fuel disposal as outlined in the Nuclear Waste Policy Act (and its amendments) is working as intended. The nation’s commercial spent fuel is safely isolated deep underground for the long term.
But that is not what happened. Work on Yucca Mountain has been stalled for a full decade and whatever progress was made on the repository has since been dismantled. What’s more, the organization within the federal government that by law is responsible for managing the spent fuel program has been defunded and disbanded.
The opening to the Yucca Mountain Repository located about 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas in Nevada's Nye County.
Today, the nation’s spent fuel remains at operating and decommissioned nuclear plant sites in temporary storage facilities. In 2003, Southern California Edison began storing spent nuclear fuel at San Onofre in dry cask storage, robust stainless steel canisters that are part of a system that cools the fuel and protects it. There are 123 such canisters now stored in reinforced concrete structures at San Onofre.
The Holtec UMAX spent fuel storage system at SONGS. There are 73 canisters of spent nuclear fuel housed in the system. A second system from Orano TN holds 50 canisters.
While still completely safe, these storage sites at decommissioned plants prevent the land on which they sit from being repurposed for better uses. In the case of San Onofre, that means use by the U.S. Marine Corps at Camp Pendleton. In a recent letter, Brig. Gen. Dan Conley called perpetual storage of spent fuel at San Onofre “inconsistent with the Marine Corps’ national defense mission.”
Twenty-three years on from January 1998, the questions remain: when will the spent fuel be relocated and to where?
A Fresh Approach
SCE recently distributed a three-volume set of plans that have the potential to kick-start the process of solving the nation’s spent fuel disposal dilemma.
“These plans provide the opportunity to analyze three broad areas related to spent fuel removal. First, identifying the pathways, options and feasibility, both near term and long term, to relocate the fuel. Second, the transportation considerations to safely get from point A to point B. And third, the steps SCE will take to be prepared when the opportunity arises,” said Doug Bauder, SCE vice president and chief nuclear officer.
To accomplish the task, SCE retained some of the country’s leading subject matter experts. In June 2019, SCE retained North Wind, Inc. The North Wind team worked with SCE and its Experts Team to support the assessment of off-site alternatives and author the plans. Dozens of stakeholders from the local community and region were interviewed as part of the process.
“The team members brought together a variety of experiences in dealing with the challenges of nuclear waste management. They worked intensively to apply their respective areas of expertise and experience to create a viable and durable blueprint for disposition of the SONGS spent fuel,” said Joe Hezir, principal of EJM Associates, a group founded by former Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz.
The three plans the team created are the SCE Action Plan, the Strategic Plan and the Conceptual Transportation Plan.
- The Action Plan lays out near-term measures SCE and San Onofre’s co-owners will take to advance off-site relocation of the spent fuel and to be prepared to move the fuel should an opportunity arise.
- The Strategic Plan identifies and analyzes a range of alternatives for spent fuel removal while making clear the challenges and needed actions for those alternatives to be realized.
- The Conceptual Transportation Plan focuses on specific steps and strategic considerations in planning for and executing the shipment of spent fuel from San Onofre to an off-site location, assumed to be in the Southwestern U.S.
“SCE’s commitment to act on the analysis in the Strategic Plan and accompanying Conceptual Transportation Plan may very well be the catalyst needed for this country to finally solve its dilemma around the storage and disposal of spent nuclear fuel,” Hezir said.
A Two-Pronged Approach
The research found the most viable solution is the development of a federal interim storage site, coupled with the development of a permanent repository. The reason for this is timing. Even if Congress acts soon to restart the permanent repository — at Yucca Mountain or elsewhere — it will take several decades before a site is licensed and ready to receive spent fuel. An interim storage facility can be sited and licensed in much less time than a deep geologic repository. This allows for spent fuel to be moved from decommissioned sites such as San Onofre decades sooner.
Hezir says there are other reasons as well, such as trust.
“Any community, state or tribe considering hosting an interim storage facility wants to ensure their site does not become a de facto permanent facility. If work is progressing toward a permanent repository, it is likely to reassure a potential host that the site is indeed an interim one,” Hezir said.
Working toward building community consent for such a facility is also an important aspect of the challenge ahead. In 2012, the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future summed it up this way, “Any attempt to force a top-down, federally mandated solution over the objections of a state or community — far from being more efficient — will take longer, cost more and have lower odds of ultimate success.”
Tom Isaacs, who helped develop the Blue Ribbon Commission report and is chair of the SCE experts team, says a win-win-win situation is possible where the interests of the local host community, the state and the federal government can align to the benefit of each constituency.
“It has to be a relationship that can stand the test of time as it will be many decades for such a facility to be sited, licensed, built, operated and ultimately closed,” Isaacs said. “Politics, values, economics and more will change over such time frames. So, it won’t be easy, straightforward or quick.”
To make an interim and permanent facility a reality, Isaacs and Hezir say structural changes are needed at the federal level, primarily through the legislative process.
“We need federal legislation to establish a new single-purpose, preferably independent, waste management organization, responsible for managing the U.S. spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive wastes with reliable funding,” Isaacs said. “Nuclear utility customers have prepaid more than $40 billion for the disposal of spent fuel and they deserve a solution.”
Hezir says that can happen, but there needs to be a groundswell of voices demanding change.
“New national policy and legislative action is clearly needed. If the local governments, communities, nuclear utilities within California and the state itself can join what we see as a growing motivation for action nationwide, it could result in a national legislative agenda to restart the federal waste management program,” Hezir said.
Action for Spent Fuel Solutions Now
What became clear during development of the plans is that SCE cannot solve this problem alone. With the distribution of the plans, SCE announced the formation of a coalition, Action for Spent Fuel Solutions Now.
Members of the coalition will join forces to advocate for federal legislation, appropriations, administration policies and programs that can advance both federal permanent disposal and federally supported off-site interim storage.
The coalition is co-chaired by Orange County Supervisor Lisa Bartlett and San Diego County Supervisor Jim Desmond. Members from the business, labor, Native American and environmental communities, as well as local governments, have signed on to support its mission.
Local residents can also play a key role.
“It’s those community voices that we really believe will be powerful, and effective, in drawing attention to this issue at the Congressional level,” said Caroline Choi, Edison International and SCE senior vice president for Corporate Affairs and coalition representative. “Local communities can help sustain the momentum that leads to progress.”
Like other complex policy issues, the process will take time. SCE and coalition members urge action now to eventually bring about needed change. Hezir says the signs are there that momentum on the issue is growing, including new legislation, Congress appropriating funds to DOE for interim storage work and hopeful comments from new Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm on the issue.
“These initial actions create an opportunity for a coalition effort to step up action by the federal government,” Hezir said. “And there is no time to lose as any pathway is likely to take decades to implement.”
Learn more about how spent nuclear fuel is stored safely at SONGS by visiting SONGScommunity.com.