USA : Country Update : September 2018

As an outside observer you cannot but be impressed by the maturity and magnitude of the political, public and media debate in the United States about radioactive waste management and disposal.  From leading figures on the Left (eg Bernie Sanders, and John Oliver) through bipartisan efforts led by Republicans in the House of Representatives, there is a sense of urgency to resolve this national environmental and security issue.

The key running stories have been:

  • funding for the Yucca Mountain national geological disposal repository programme
  • proposed temporary storage facilities in New Mexico and West Texas, pending a final repository
  • SNC-Lavalin/Holtec International’s joint acquisition of decommissioned nuclear plants
  • the costs of radwaste surface storage, in social, economic and environmental terms
  • potential increase in the volumes of waste to be disposed of at WIPP
  • legal challenge to new Nuclear Regulatory Commissioner, allegedly biased in favour of Yucca

However, as can be seen from the extensive US media coverage, there are also many local issues and debates, and a general concern about the safe transportation of radioactive waste (largely because of the perceived poor condition of so much of the country’s rail and road infrastructure, rather than the radioactivity of the waste itself).  Nobody is disputing the need for geological disposal.  Everyone is frustrated at the lack of progress in removing radioactive waste from surface storage facilities for geological disposal.

Yucca Mountain

Although Congress finally approved a federal budget that provided US$7 billion for radioactive waste clean up and management ($580m more than the Trump Administration had originally asked for), there was still no agreement on funding for Yucca Mountain (24 September).  This despite overwhelming bipartisan support in the House of Representatives, and a desire by the Department of Energy to progress the project.

The lone opposing voice in Congress is the Nevada congressional delegation, which is resolutely opposed to the Yucca project (although locally within Nevada there is widespread support for the project, eg 21 & 25 August).  Nevada Senator Dean Heller is considered the most vulnerable Republican in this year’s midterm elections.  With a majority of just one in the US Senate, protecting Heller’s re-election chances has become a priority for the Republican Party.  The Senate Republican majority has therefore blocked the White House and House of Representatives attempts to refund the Yucca programme.

However, there is no doubt that the issue will be revisited after the midterm elections.  Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval has already warned against the risk, and has increased funding for the legal and other support required to fight the expected budget request for next year (15 August & 4 September).  A number of leading Congressmen (from South Carolina, Illinois and Michigan) have already signalled they will be returning to this issue (28 August and 12 & 13 September).

Temporary Storage Facilities

Pending progress on Yucca Mountain or any other final disposal facility, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is considering two applications for temporary storage facilities, in New Mexico and West Texas.  Power Magazine has produced a detailed analysis behind this movement following a Radwaste Summit in Nevada in September.  It’s a simple proposition: to speed removal of radioactive waste sites from around the country, provide centralised temporary storage facilities until a final permanent disposal facility is available.

Holtec International & SNC-Lavalin have formed a joint venture, Comprehensive Decommissioning International, to develop a proposed facility in New Mexico.   This is the more advanced of the two proposals.  Although the plans have local political, community and business support, there has been opposition expressed at recent public consultation and hearings.  Concerns about safe transportation, and that a temporary facility could become a permanent facility.  There has also been a debate between state lawmakers about the scope of their powers to intervene in the licensing and approvals process (1, 2, 8 & 16 August).

The NRC are reviewing the plans and feedback from the public consultations.  This debate is likely to continue, as a national consumer advocacy group Public Citizen have filed an application with the NRC to be recognised officially and engaged in the decision-making progress (18 September).

The second proposed facility in West Texas is being proposed by Interim Storage Partners, a joint venture of Orano USA and Waste Control Specialists.  The NRC have only just re-started the licensing process (6 & 11 September).  Again, while there is local political, community and business support, there is also opposition to the plans, and a local campaign has been launched (25 & 29 September).

SNC-Lavalin/Holtec International’s acquisitions

Comprehensive Decommissioning International, the joint venture between Holtec International and SNC-Lavalin behind the New Mexico temporary storage facility, have also started acquiring closed nuclear power plants in Massachusetts, Michigan and New Jersey (1 August).  The rationale being that their decommissioning skills and assets will enable the plants to be closed, and the radioactive waste removed, more quickly and more cheaply.  The acquisitions are subject to regulatory approval.

While broadly welcomed by the affected communities, it has led to disagreements within local environmental and community campaign groups on the best plan for disposal of the radioactive waste (16 & 30 August, 9 & 15 September).

Social, economic and environmental costs to communities

As nuclear power plants are closed, and other facilities cleansed of radioactive wastes, there are regular articles and news stories across the United States about the impacts and consequences for communities.  While most people want radioactive waste removed, and don’t want indefinite local surface storage facilities, there’s also a recognition of the economic and social impacts on a community of losing such a large source of high-paid, skilled employment, reduced local tax revenues, impact on property prices as higher-paid workers leave the community (7 August, 5 & 14 September).

Increased volumes of waste at WIPP

Public hearings have been announced into the planned change in the way in which waste volumes are calculated (28 September).  If the change is approved, WIPP should be able to hold up to 30% more radioactive waste.  Local concern expressed that the New Mexico Environment Department (NEMD) is rushing through the approvals and licensing process (19 & 21 September).

In other WIPP-related news:

  • team from WIPP wins national mine rescue competition (1 August)
  • following 2014 incident, WIPP expecting increase in shipments (3 August)
  • local people pleased to see waste shipped to WIPP (19 August)
  • Department of Energy radioactive waste transportation education programme in communities on routes to WIPP (22 August)
  • WIPP seeks permission to open secondary route for vehicles bring waste to the facility (31 August)

To recuse or not recuse?  The NRC challenged by Nevada

Newly-appointed Commissioner David Wright has wrought the ire of Nevada.  They claim he has previously made pro-Yucca comments, and that therefore he should recuse himself from any decisions related to Yucca.  Wright and the NRC say he has spoken in favour of geological disposal generally, but not about any specific site, and therefore does not need to recuse himself.  Nevada has filed a legal challenge (29 August), and a federal appeals court has asked each side to prepare papers by 15 October (31 August).

In other general news from across the US:

  • debate about planned waste storage on the beach at the San Onofre nuclear plant in California has generated news all summer long, with an ex-NRC Chair saying the proposed beach storage location is unsuitable and unacceptable (2 August) and local environmentalists wanting the waste removed completely (30 August)
  • Navajo activists protest against radioactive waste transport (2 August)
  • data collected from the Yucca Mountain site is helping predict earthquake aftershocks (29 August)
  • Department of Energy funding research on more durable radioactive waste canisters (29 August)

Finally, there are three lengthy articles providing an overview of the radioactive waste debate, from differing perspectives (an environmentalist, chemical engineering, and liberal), but which arrive at similar conclusions (28 August & 29 September).