The Department of Energy at month’s end is scheduled to begin taking the thousands of tons of high-level nuclear waste that nuclear plants around the country have been storing on-site. One problem: the DOE, despite collecting almost $14 billion from ratepayers for the purpose since 1982, has no place to put the waste.
Is it any wonder that more than two dozen utilities recently petitioned DOE for the right to suspend payments to its Nuclear Waste Fund? More than any other issue surrounding nuclear power, DOE’s ability to find a way to safely store these spent fuel rods will determine whether nuclear power has any future in the United States.
Currently, the situation looks dismal. Years ago, Congress reduced DOE’s choices for a permanent waste site to one: Yucca Mountain in Nevada, a state with no nuclear power plant but with plenty of government-owned land. The department has spent approximately $2 billion of the waste fund to test the Yucca Mountain site but has yet to come to a conclusion about its appropriateness. The earliest waste could be permanently stored there, if it ever is, is 2011.
Electricity customers support the waste fund by paying one-tenth of a penny per kilowatt hour of service, which sounds small, but it added up in this state, when Maine Yankee was operating, to between $5 million and $6 million a year. It is disturbing to see this much money invested with so little to show for it and even more aggravating to know that ratepayers and utilities must also pay additionally to store the spent fuel roads that DOE is not prepared to accept. Maine Yankee currently estimates the cost of on-site storage through 2023, when it expects DOE to take the last of its high-level waste, at $128 million.
The lengthy delays has made a bill that under better circumstances would not make sense seem reasonable now. The legislation, currently in conference between the House and Senate, would establish an interim site for storing the fuel rods at — where else? — Yucca Mountain. President Clinton opposes the measure; the nuclear industry supports it enthusiastically, and it is not hard to see why. An interim site would be held to lower environmental standards to accept the waste, allowing utilities to get it off their hands and placing the cost with the federal government. It would then be up to DOE to decide what defines “interim” as it studies its permanent site.
Sure, it’s a lousy way to force the government to action, but what choice have the utilities been given? Without an interim site, every nuclear plant in the nation could become is own long-term high-level waste site. Not only is this an extremely expensive way to store the waste, but it greatly increases the chances of dangerous leakage.
Several utilities are expected to file suit against DOE in early February; other utilities are considering a proposal that would ask DOE for some of their money back to pay for on-site storage. These actions and the request to stop paying into the waste fund are serious signs of a national energy policy collapsing.
Congress and DOE have a limited time to get together with the utilities to stop this meltdown and restore confidence in nuclear power.