Two rival states in the western US may offer the best hope of an end to the national gridlock over used fuel management, Thecla Fabian reports.
Neighbouring New Mexico and Texas have both announced that they hope to host an interim storage facility for used fuel, and will submit licence applications to the US nuclear regulator in 2016.
Unlike Nevada, which has battled the infamous Yucca Mountain proposed repository site for decades, both New Mexico and Texas are actively campaigning for what they see as a lucrative, high-technology facility. In either state, the storage facility would be located in a remote area that already boasts of a significant nuclear industry that includes management of radioactive waste.
Both states want to expand their nuclear footprint, and both have hinted – albeit softly – that they might not object to becoming the permanent home for all or part of the US inventory of used fuel. In particular, some New Mexico officials have said they would like to consider hosting a used fuel reprocessing or recycling industry, if one is ever started in the USA, and possibly a companion advanced reactor facility, such as a fast reactor.
Andrews County in West Texas, right across the state border from New Mexico’s nuclear corridor, already has a thriving waste management industry, led by Waste Control Specialists (WCS), that includes low-level radioactive waste, mixed radioactive-hazardous waste, and chemically hazardous waste. WCS recently teamed with French nuclear corporation AREVA to prepare a Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) licence application for a phased used fuel storage facility.
The competition for an interim storage site has been bolstered by President Obama’s fiscal year 2016 budget proposals, which included $5.7bn for work on a used fuel storage pilot project and the search for a repository. The pilot project will focus on removing used fuel stored onsite at shutdown nuclear plants. Obama halted all work on Yucca Mountain in 2010 and hopes to completely terminate the project.
New Mexico sees lucrative addition
For the second time in three years, southeastern New Mexico has offered an arid, sparsely populated underground site for some or all of the more than 70,000 tonnes of used reactor fuel in the USA.
The Eddy-Lea Energy Alliance (ELEA), which includes Lea and Eddy counties and the cities of Carlsbad and Hobbs, has signed a memorandum of agreement with nuclear services company Holtec International to build the facility on 32 acres of land ELEA already owns.
Holtec has said it would cover the estimated $80m cost of licensing the facility, and $200m for the first phase of construction. Potentially, the facility could be expanded to have sufficient capacity to take all used fuel from US nuclear power plants. Holtec will design the site to contain waste for at least 100 years.
However, the proposal is politically controversial. New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez supports the plant, and it enjoys widespread support in the local area. But New Mexico’s two senators have expressed strong misgivings. Senator Martin Heinrich wants to delay the interim site "until we are sure that there will be a path forward to permanent disposal." Senator Tom Udall has said that New Mexico should not be talking about taking used fuel while the federal Department of Energy (DOE) and New Mexico are still discussing a 2014 radiation release at DOE’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), about 12 miles from the proposed Holtec site. A small amount of radiation was released from WIPP in February 2014 when a spontaneous chemical reaction in a drum of transuranic waste received from the Los Alamos National Laboratory burst the drum.
In a 10 April 2015 letter to US Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, Martinez said: "There is a significant and growing national need for such an interim storage facility. Millions of taxpayer dollars are currently being spent on monitoring and oversight of spent fuel each year, and millions more are being spent on settlement payments related to waste disposition."
Repeatedly, US courts have ruled that DOE is responsible for dry storage and other costs US nuclear utilities have incurred because the federal government did not take title to used fuel under the timetable set in the 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act and embodied in contracts signed between DOE and the utilities. DOE estimates the total liability for the federal government for its failure to manage used fuel at $27.1bn, including $4.5bn already paid out of the US Treasury’s Judgment Fund. The estimate assumes that DOE will begin accepting used fuel in 2021.
ELEA supports a nuclear corridor in southeastern New Mexico, and Holtec announced on 29 April 2015 that it would collaborate on the design, construction and operation of a facility based on Holtec’s Hi-storm Umax underground dry storage system. Holtec president and CEO Kris Singh said Holtec expected to apply for a licence from NRC within a year, and to have the facility in operation in four to five years. Licensing the facility could take up to three years.
New Mexico’s nuclear corridor already includes Urenco USA’s $4bn gas centrifuge uranium enrichment plant, a proposed $100m International Isotopes plant to process depleted uranium from the Urenco plant, and WIPP. Local officials have previously talked about long-term hopes to host a used fuel reprocessing or recycling facility and possibly a prototype advanced reactor.
ELEA has supported an interim used fuel storage facility in the area for years, and has waged a largely silent, high-dollar campaign to influence state and federal decision makers to support the idea. ELEA chairman John Heaton, a former New Mexico state legislator, stresses that the area is not Santa Fe or Albuquerque, "we’re out here in the hinterlands and we need to find our own niches."
Alex Flint, senior vice president for governmental affairs at the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), said the NEI welcomed the consent-based approach that led to the ELEA-Holtec agreement and said New Mexico’s political leaders have for years been at the forefront of nuclear issues. "Where others see challenges, they see opportunities," he said, adding that this has been New Mexico’s history since the beginning of the nuclear era.
Texas ready for a showdown
New Mexico’s main competitor for the interim storage facility is the neighbouring state of Texas, where Waste Control Specialists and AREVA have also proposed building a Consolidated Interim Storage Facility (CISF) in Andrews County, right across the state line from New Mexico’s proposed site.
WCS and AREVA signed an agreement on 9 February calling for AREVA to assist WCS with the licence application and environmental report for the CISF, which will use AREVA’s Nuhoms dry storage system. WCS filed a letter of intent with the NRC on 6 February 2015 stating that it intended to file a licence application by April 2016 to build and operate an offsite independent spent fuel storage installation at WCS’s 14,000-acre disposal facility for low-level radioactive waste and hazardous waste.
On 20 May, WCS signed an agreement for AREVA to be the exclusive primary subcontractor for the design, development, construction, operation and maintenance of the proposed CISF, and to offer support services for the transport of used fuel to and from the facility.
The agreement also gives WCS and AREVA the option to offer bundled services to the DOE for secure greater-than-Class-C and high-level waste removal, transportation, and interim storage. In February, WCS President Rod Baltzer said WCS could enter into an agreement under which DOE would pay WCS to store used fuel after the government took title to it. DOE, not WCS, would remain liable for the used fuel.
On 21 May, WCS announce that NAC International had entered into an agreement with AREVA in support of the licensing process for the WCS proposal. Together, NAC and AREVA represent 62% of existing US dry storage systems, including 78% of the used fuel stored at shutdown nuclear plants.
The NAC-AREVA agreement will allow the proposed CISF to handle current and anticipated future technologies for the interim storage of commercial used fuel and reactor-related greater-than-Class-C wastes, as well as leveraging both companies expertise in used fuel transportation.
The proposed WCS CISF would be able to store 40,000 tonnes of used fuel for 40 years or longer, according to a WCS statement. As proposed, there will be eight phases to the project, with each phase increasing capacity by up to 5000t. Phase 1 will include storage of used fuel from up to 10 decommissioned power plants in nine locations. Once at the CISF, the fuel will be transferred in sealed containers from a transportation cask into an engineered storage system.
Used fuel management post-Yucca?
The ill-fated Yucca Mountain repository project now exists in a state of legal limbo.
Nevada resents that the project was forced on it by an act of Congress. The congressional action was spearheaded by Louisiana Senator J Bennett Johnson, who was widely seen as having pushed the congressional selection of Yucca Mountain as the only site to be considered for the repository in an effort to ensure that the salt beds in his native state were permanently taken off the table for consideration. Nevada has spent millions of dollars to stop the project by any means possible.
Although earlier administrations were able to forge siting standards that allowed the project to proceed, and NRC in January 2015 issued the final two volumes of a safety evaluation that found that Yucca Mountain could meet those standards, many scientists continue to have misgivings. Yucca Mountain sits atop an active volcano that is last known to have erupted about 4000 years ago. Unlike the dry salt beds in New Mexico, the Yucca Mountain site is wet. The exploratory shaft dug into the repository horizon has been repeatedly shored up and lined with steel mesh to prevent rock and ceiling falls caused by dripping and seeping water. While the site is in a desert area, it sits in the unsaturated zone in soft compressed volcanic ash known as tuff. The repository horizon is fractured and contains large void spaces, some big enough to hold a car.
The site has been mothballed for five years, and DOE attempted unsuccessfully to withdraw its NRC licence application. However, in August 2013, the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ordered NRC to continue processing the application to the extent funding was available and to either approve or reject it. The court’s opinion said NRC was "simply flouting the law" when it allowed the Obama administration to withdraw the licence application since the federal law selecting Yucca Mountain for the repository remained in effect.
However, even if the licensing process proceeds, it could take a decade or more. NRC completed its safety evaluation on 29 January 2015, but it also said "the Commission should not authorise construction of the repository because DOE has not met certain land and water rights requirements … and a supplement to DOE’s environmental impact statement (SEIS) has not yet been completed."
In March 2015, NRC announced that its own staff would prepare the SEIS to address the impacts of the proposed repository on groundwater, as well as the impacts from groundwater discharges to the surface.
NRC chairman Stephen Burns also has noted another significant hurdle to a final decision on Yucca Mountain. An adjudicatory hearing will have to be held on 288 separate contentions that NRC already has ruled admissible, and more contentions are possible. Such hearing can take years, even when only one or two contentions are under dispute.
On 24 March President Obama issued a finding under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act (NWPA) that separate disposal of high-level radioactive waste resulting from the US weapons programme is required. This finding represents a major US policy shift since 1985, when then-President Ronald Reagan concluded that separate civilian and defence repositories were not needed. Obama based the determination on an analysis of six factors identified in NWPA: cost efficiency, health and safety, regulation, transportation, public acceptability, and national security.
Obama’s action followed a 6 March DOE study, Report on Separate Disposal of Defense High-Level Radioactive Waste, which concluded that a geologic repository for defence HLW could be sited, licensed, built and operated more quickly and cheaply than a joint repository. Further, the defence-only repository would provide valuable experience that could reduce the cost of a future civilian repository.
Defence waste makes up only about 15% of the US nuclear waste inventory, and much of it has decayed to lower radiation levels than used fuel. Energy secretary Ernest Moniz said that DOE also has studies under way to determine whether some defence waste could be either vitrified or processed into a granular form and then disposed in three-mile-deep boreholes.
Most defence waste is stored at three DOE sites: the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington state, the Idaho National Laboratory in Idaho, and Savannah River site in South Carolina.
Supporters of reviving the Yucca Mountain project have said spinning off defence waste could spell the end of the proposed Nevada repository. House Energy & Commerce Committee chairman Fred Upton said the decision "is likely to cast aside the Yucca site with years of work and billions of dollars spent." Lake Barrett, a former DOE Yucca Mountain programme director, called the decision a "work-around" made necessary by Obama’s agreement with Nevada Senator Harry Reid, long a key Yucca Mountain opponent, to halt the Yucca Mountain project. He called the action "political obstruction."
Moniz argues that decoupling the two programmes does not minimise the need for either temporary storage or a repository. He said DOE plans to step up its efforts to work with states willing to host an interim site where used fuel could be consolidated from a dozen or so locations and stored safely in dry casks, while it seeks states willing to host a permanent repository.
In the meantime, four senators have introduced a bill that would remove nuclear waste management from DOE and create an independent US nuclear waste agency. The bill also would authorise construction of a defence-waste-only repository, and mandate that all waste repositories must be developed through a cooperative, consent-based approach with states. The bipartisan sponsors are Republican senators Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) and Lamar Alexander (Tennessee) and Democratic senators Maria Cantwell (Washington) and Dianne Feinstein (California).