A Glimmer of Hope in a Growing Hoard of Nuclear Waste

By Kris Maher Features Dow Jones Newswires

Communities across the country are rallying behind the Trump administration's push for a nuclear repository in Nevada, hoping their decades-old wait to ship radioactive material could be coming to an end.

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Yucca Mountain was designated 30 years ago as a final resting place for used fuel and other nuclear waste. Progress has stalled since then amid opposition by Nevada politicians who remain concerned about such a facility's environmental impact. But President Donald Trump's budget proposal allocates $120 million to restart the licensing process for Yucca Mountain.

The development is welcome news in communities from Southern California to Maine, where long-shuttered facilities have been housing used fuel rods that will be radioactive for thousands of years. Local officials say the lack of movement has cost them millions of dollars in lost tax revenue, kept them from redeveloping the sites and created security and safety risks for residents.

"Yucca Mountain would be great. Any place would be great to get it away from here," said David Knabel, director of finance for Zion, Ill., a city of 25,000 on Lake Michigan about 50 miles north of Chicago. The former Zion Nuclear Power Station closed in 1998, but it is still being dismantled and 1,000 tons of spent fuel is stored there.

About 200 acres of lakefront property in Zion can't be redeveloped until the nuclear material is removed. Meanwhile, the city lost about half its property-tax revenue, or $18 million, when the plant shut. To compensate, the city raised property taxes to among the highest in the state, which led some businesses to move to neighboring Wisconsin, according to Mr. Knabel.

"We're a nuclear storage dump through no choice of our own," he said.

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There are 121 locations in 39 states currently storing spent fuel from civilian reactors and nuclear waste from the military's nuclear weapons stockpile, submarines and aircraft carriers. The total includes about 15 nuclear plants no longer in operation, but excludes pending closures.

Today, 99 nuclear power plants provide nearly 20% of the nation's electricity, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute. More facilities are being mothballed as they become less competitive with plants that burn cheap natural gas.

In recent weeks, residents in Southern California have protested a plan to bury about 1,600 tons of spent fuel at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, midway between San Diego and Los Angeles. Opponents argue that the earthquake-prone region, with a population of eight million people within 50 miles, is too risky to store radioactive material.

Three companies in Maine, Massachusetts and Connecticut that operated nuclear plants under the "Yankee" name closed in the 1990s for economic reasons. Now every four years, each company sues the federal government to get reimbursed for the $10 million it costs to store spent fuel at each site in steel containers encased in concrete casks.

"Our goal as shut-down nuclear power facilities is for the federal government to remove this spent fuel so that we can go out of business," said Eric Howes, a spokesman for the three companies.

In 1982, Congress passed the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, which gave the federal government responsibility for disposing of spent nuclear fuel at a safe, permanent repository. In 1987, lawmakers designated Yucca Mountain as the site to develop in what became known as the "Screw Nevada" amendments.

The federal government entered into contracts with utilities to begin collecting spent fuel from the oldest facilities in 1998. But the approval process for Yucca Mountain dragged on for years. It was halted in 2010 when President Barack Obama bowed to opposition from Nevada lawmakers, including former Sen. Harry Reid.

Nevada officials are still opposed.

"Over the years, billions of dollars have been wasted on this boondoggle, and we are no closer to a solution," Rep. Dina Titus, a Democrat, testified at a House hearing last month. She argued that a nuclear waste facility could endanger water systems that feed ranches and farms.

A draft bill in the House of Representatives would amend the 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act to resolve several issues, such as providing water and road access to the facility, among other things. The bill also would make it easier to develop interim storage sites, like ones proposed in Texas and New Mexico.

Energy Secretary Rick Perry, in an April 25 letter to the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said the importance of resuming the licensing process became clearer to him during a recent tour of the Yucca Mountain site. "We owe the American people a long-term solution to the ever growing inventory" of spent fuel and nuclear waste, Mr. Perry wrote.

To proceed with the Yucca Mountain licensing, a panel of judges will need to adjudicate more than 200 objections filed by Nevada officials, a process that could take three to four years.

Over the years, utilities have sued the federal government for its failure to comply with its obligation to take spent fuel, and the government has paid more than $6 billion to reimburse utilities for storage costs. Utilities, meanwhile, have contributed more than $30 billion into the Nuclear Waste Fund, which is intended to pay for the permanent repository.

To date, an exploratory tunnel into Yucca Mountain has been constructed, and government scientists have conducted tests on the geological stability and composition of the mountain. The planned repository 1,000 feet underground is about 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

Ward Sproat, former director of the Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management at the Energy Department, said much of the new momentum around the Nevada site is coming from lawmakers in other states with decommissioned nuclear plants.

"It's amazing how eventually the political awareness and interest in this whole issue starts to ratchet up as more people have old reactors in their states and the spent fuel is stranded," he said.

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

May 09, 2017 12:15 ET (16:15 GMT)