August 17, 2015 | Commentary on Energy and Environment, Nuclear Energy

Let nuclear industry, not bureaucracy, manage spent fuel

America has a growing nuclear waste problem — and it’s all the government’s fault.

By law, the Department of Energy is supposed to collect spent nuclear fuel and deposit it at Nevada’s Yucca Mountain. Nuclear power customers in 33 states have paid billions of dollars into a federal fund to finance this service. Yet the DOE has never collected a single ounce of spent fuel. Indeed, the Yucca Mountain facility still isn’t open for business.

Federal courts have ruled the DOE is in partial breach of contract for not handling the waste — and that’s costing taxpayers, too. The federal government has already paid out $4.5 billion in legal settlements and could be liable for as much as another $50 billion (the “low” estimate is still $22 billion). Meanwhile, the spent fuel continues to pile up — growing by some 2,000 metric tons per year — awaiting safe disposal.

There’s no denying that this is a huge problem. Which is why senators from both sides of the aisle are working together to find a solution. Republican Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, and Democratic Sens. Maria Cantwell of Washington and Dianne Feinstein of California have a hammered out a proposal to relieve DOE of its nuclear waste management responsibilities.

Unfortunately, they would transfer that responsibility to a new federal bureaucracy: the Nuclear Waste Administration. The intention — to rebuild trust between the federal government and both the American people and nuclear power industry — is good. But to shift responsibility from one federal agency to another is about as promising as moving loose change from one holey pocket to another.

The senators’ Nuclear Waste Administration Act fails on another front as well. The legislation could delay a permanent solution to nuclear waste management for at least another 30 years. Instead, the bill would authorize construction of one or two interim storage facilities. This represents no progress whatsoever. When the Energy Department never showed up to collect waste, nuclear power plants began storing waste safely in de facto interim storage facilities.

Meanwhile, the Nuclear Waste Administration Act calls for a permanent disposal site just like the one at Yucca Mountain — three decades from now — ignoring the fact that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has given the unfinished Yucca Mountain permit a clean bill of health.

The act essentially would force nuclear power companies and their customers to pay for the facility they’ve already paid for — and never got — all over again.

The Nuclear Waste Administration Act really fixes only one problem: It would stop the lawsuits against the DOE for failing to collect waste from nuclear power plants. That’s assuming, of course, that the new agency actually picks up the waste.

But America needs a bigger, better solution.

Here’s an idea: What if the nuclear industry were allowed to manage its own spent fuel? Nuclear power plants do this quite successfully in other countries. And let’s not forget that the industry has safely built and operated nuclear power plants in this country for decades. Certainly the nuclear industry is capable of managing spent fuel under health and safety guidelines established by a regulator such as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

By removing the government as the primary manager, the entire fuel cycle — from fuel development to power generation to waste management — could be opened up to innovation. Nuclear utilities would have incentives to invest in different power plant designs or fuels that produce easier-to-manage waste. Some could even be powered by spent nuclear fuel, for instance. This likely would lead to lower utility prices over time, as utilities make the most economic choices suited to their situations. For example, placing spent fuel directly in a repository might be more cost-effective for some utilities, while others might find interim storage or another process more economical.

Putting commercial nuclear waste producers in control of spent fuel management might not just turn a problem into a solution; it might transform that problem into an opportunity to develop newer, safer and less-expensive energy technologies.

- Katie Tubb is a research associate and coordinator at The Heritage Foundation’s Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies.

About the Author

Katie Tubb Policy Analyst
Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies

The piece originally appeared in The Washington Times