Report: Spent fuel storage costs may run $225B


By BOB AUDETTE  Brattleboro Reformer

BRATTLEBORO -- If no federal repository for spent nuclear fuel is opened in the next 100 years, the nation’s taxpayers could be on the hook to pay for on-site storage, such as the dry casks at Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in Vernon.

That cost could run anywhere between $10 billion and $26 billion.




That was the conclusion of the Government Accounting Office, which just released a report on the costs of nuclear waste management -- whether it be a long-term repository, centralized storage or on-site storage.


The United States has 70,000 tons of waste stored at 80 sites in 35 states. By 2055, the amount of waste is expected to increase to 153,000 tons.


The GAO also conducted a scenario in which fuel stays on site for 500 years. It concluded the cost for that scenario could range between $34 billion to $225 billion.


Because of the way the Nuclear Waste Policy Act was written, a fund established for the permanent disposal of spent fuel cannot be used for on-site or centralized storage. NWPA prohibits the Department of Energy from spending any money out of the fund for anything but Yucca Mountain in Nevada.


The future of Yucca Mountain, which was identified as the long-term location for the storage of nuclear waste, is uncertain. The Obama administration recently announced it would not support further work to develop the site, essentially saying no spent fuel will ever be stored there.


The state of Nevada has been fighting the federal government tooth and nail to keep nuclear waste out -- citing safety and environmental concerns as well as the inequity of forcing one state to shoulder the responsibility of storing waste that was created elsewhere in the country.


The federal government has spent more than $13 billion on Yucca Mountain.


The GAO concluded that on-site storage was an alternative "requiring little change from the status quo, but would face increasing challenges over time."


Though keeping the waste on-site would make it safer to transport -- due to radioactive decay -- it could "intensify public opposition to spent fuel storage site renewals and reactor license extensions ..."


The GAO said the safety and security of on-site storage containers, such as the five in place at Yankee, was also an issue that needs to be addressed.


Dry casks are intended to last for 100 years, stated the GAO. Though mathematical calculations indicate the casks can last that long,


"However," wrote the GAO, "commercial dry storage systems have only been in existence since 1986, so nuclear utilities have little experience with long-term system degradation and requirements for repackaging."


The GAO also indicated that the security requirements of safeguarding spent fuel would need to be tightened due to radioactive decay.


"It becomes less lethal to anyone attempting to handle it without protective shielding," it stated. "For example, a spent nuclear fuel assembly can lose nearly 80 percent of its heat 5 years after it has been removed from a reactor, thereby reducing one of the inherent deterrents to thieves and terrorists attempting to steal or sabotage the spent nuclear fuel and potentially creating a need for costly new security measures."


The GAO stated it might make sense to create centralized storage locations until a final resting place can be designated and prepared.


Such storage facilities could start taking waste in 2028, at a rate of 3,000 tons a year. That could cost anywhere from $23 billion to $81 billion, depending on if and when a permanent repository could be readied.


In 2006 a centralized spot was been proposed on the reservation of the Skull Valley Band of the Goshute Indians in Utah. Private Fuel Storage’s plan would allow for up to 40,000 tons of nuclear waste to be stored at the site. But the Department of Interior has refused to approve a lease of the tribal lands to PFS and has refused to issue the necessary rights-of-way to transport nuclear waste to the facility through Bureau of Land Management land.


In response, PFS and the Goshutes filed a federal lawsuit in 2007, which is still pending, to overturn the decisions.


"Finding a state willing to host a (centralized) facility could be extremely challenging," concluded the GAO, which stated it could take 10 to 30 years to find a suitable site.


Currently, taxpayers are on the hook for lawsuits filed against the Department of Energy by nuclear power plant operators for its failure to begin taking nuclear waste off their hands in 1998 for storage at Yucca Mountain.


Currently, those lawsuits could cost the taxpayers $12.3 billion through 2020 and $500 million a year after that.


Judgments rendered in favor of power plant operators are paid out by the Department of Justice because funds managed by DOE for spent fuel disposal can only be used on Yucca Mountain.


Yankee is home to five dry casks containing a total of 340 spent fuel assemblies. In addition, the plant’s spent fuel pool currently holds 2,819 assemblies. The capacity of the spent fuel pool is 3,355 assemblies and room must be maintained to keep space for the full-core offload of the reactor’s 368 assemblies.


By 2012, another seven to eight canisters will need to be filled and if the plant is closed that year, 55 to 60 dry casks will be needed.


If Vermont Yankee receives approval to continue operation for 20 years past its original license expiration date of 2012, five to six dry casks will need to be loaded every five to seven years to maintain full-core offload.


Bob Audette can be reached at, or at 802-254-2311, ext. 273.