By Caroline Reiser, Natural Resources Defense Council
This year we’re seeing yet another attempt from Congress to address the fifty-year problem of what to do with the 80,000 tons of nuclear waste sitting across the country, with approximately 2,000 more tons produced every year by the 96 operating U.S. nuclear reactors. Unfortunately, the multiple nuclear waste bills that sprung up in both the House and Senate (including H.R.2699 which just cleared an Energy and Commerce subcommittee) simply offer the same worn out ideas. So when NRDC was invited to testify—first by the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, then by the House Subcommittee on Environment and Climate Change, and finally by the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources—we decided to present a new way forward.
NRDC has an answer to one difficult fact everyone at the hearings seemed to agree on—that all the important actors in the process have utterly lost trust in one another. As NRDC senior attorney Geoffrey Fettus explained: “Our government is at its strongest when each players’ role is respected. State consent and public acceptance of potential repository sites will never be willingly granted, unless and until power on how, when, and where the waste will be disposed of is shared, rather than decided by federal fiat.”
Trust—especially in a dangerous undertaking like deep geologic storage of nuclear waste—can only flourish when there is an equal balance of power. And consent to host a permanent nuclear waste repository will only be granted when states can trust the deal they are making. Right now, however, there is no equal balance of power and therefore states don’t trust that they can consent to hosting any nuclear waste without being forced to open their doors to the country’s entire waste burden.
Strong environmental laws founded on federalism have a proven track record on precisely this point. But because there has been a presumption of federal exclusivity over it, nuclear waste is exempt from environmental laws and therefore also exempt from the state and EPA regulatory oversight that comes with them. We think this needs to change. Giving states the regulatory authority over nuclear waste that they currently lack will build trust and allow states to consent on realistic scientific and political terms.
We presented this idea before all three Congressional Committees with growing interest from members. (See NRDC’s testimony here, here, and here). And yet Congress is still reluctant to move away from common talking points which have only led to the repeated failures of the past. So let’s take a minute to debunk some of those repetitive points.
First incorrect talking point: Yucca Mountain. Let’s be clear about how we got stuck on Yucca Mountain and why proceeding pretending that it is a ready or wanted solution is naive.
Yucca Mountain was not picked as the permanent nuclear waste repository because it is the best scientifically and technically sound site. Originally, the law set out an adaptive, phased, and science-based process to narrow down potential repository sites. But in 1987, faced with the high cost of comprehensively comparing multiple potential sites, Congress abandoned all pretext of equity and scientific-basis, and instead simply picked the most politically expedient choice at the time, Yucca Mountain.
But Yucca Mountain did not remain the expedient, or for that matter the rational, choice. The science simply doesn’t line up—of particular note are the serious groundwater concerns with the site. And Nevada has been able to stand together for decades to say with one voice: “No!” If the Yucca Mountain process does ever get moving again, Nevada and its supporters are on-deck with the science to prove it’s a bad choice.
Nevada isn’t unique in rejecting any hint of a proposal to host nuclear waste. Utah, Tennessee, South Dakota, New Mexico, and Texas have all rejected nuclear waste storage just as firmly. This is why we need a new system that allows for real consent backed with state authority.
Second incorrect talking point: waste is holding the industry back. At the hearing before the House Energy and Climate Change Subcommittee, the expert witness from the Nuclear Energy Institute stated that the failure to address nuclear waste is “the albatross on the neck of the nuclear industry.” While this reference to Coleridge’s poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is a nice use of imagery to describe waste as the industry’s self-inflicted burden and curse, it’s a façade for the larger truth.
Since at least 1957, there has been consensus that nuclear waste must end up in a geologic repository. But no repository has been developed and licensed to address the 80,000 tons of nuclear waste from nuclear power plants that has been piling up in 35 states. And yet over the same timeframe more than 100 domestic commercial reactors were built. Even today two new reactors are being built at Plant Vogtle in Georgia with little discussion on how much it will add to the country’s nuclear waste burden.
So what is the real albatross on the nuclear industry’s neck? The gigantic up-front costs of building nuclear reactors and a lack of economic competitiveness in modern energy markets.
Existing nuclear plants exist thanks to decades of direct subsidies and legal protections provided by the federal government. These reactors are now at risk of early closure because they are no longer economical, have potential safety issues, and simply cannot compete in a marketplace dominated by low-priced natural gas and renewable energy.
The failed VC Summer plant in South Carolina and the on-going Vogtle construction in Georgia are stark examples of how the astronomical up-front costs of new reactors limit expansion of the nuclear industry. $9 billion went into the VC Summer project before the plug was pulled and Vogtle is now estimated to cost approximately $28 billion—twice its originally projected cost. (This isn’t just a US problem either).
It’s not nuclear waste that’s burdening nuclear growth, it’s simple economics.
Third incorrect talking point: reprocessing. While the process of using nuclear waste to create more fuel for energy production seems like a magic wand to wave away the nuclear waste problem, it ignores the reality of reprocessing. Reprocessing doesn’t just create more fuel for energy; it also separates plutonium, dramatically increasing the threat of nuclear proliferation. Further, reprocessing doesn’t consume all the nuclear waste—it has its own radioactive toxic waste streams like the Cold War legacy of reprocessing to create nuclear weapons left in Washington, South Carolina, and Idaho.
And even if you could ignore these bad by-products, reprocessing is simply not economic. Plants that use reprocessed fuel are even more expensive than the traditional nuclear plants that already struggle with upfront costs. So, while on the surface reprocessing may seem like the answer to our 80,000-ton problem, the truth is that reprocessing should never be on the table.
Final incorrect talking point: nuclear and climate change. While many argue that we have to do everything in our power to bolster nuclear energy in order to effectively fight the climate crisis, bluntly, nuclear energy is not a realistic solution.
The price tag for new nuclear is too high and the timeline for expansion too long—Plant Vogtle and VC Summer show us that. And while nuclear reactors may not directly emit greenhouse gases, that doesn’t mean that it’s a clean energy source. There are significant traditional environmental impacts from nuclear energy, primarily regarding radiation risks and impacts to water quality. Then there’s the effects climate change will have on the functioning and safety of nuclear plants themselves. The more we look at the issue, the more we see that sea level rise and heat waves risk the safety and dependability of nuclear plants.
Rather than continue to blunder blindly down a legislative path that only leads us through the same unrealistic circles of conversation laid out above, it is time for Congress to take a step back and forge a new path by regulating nuclear waste under standard environmental laws. This is a way to get states to say “yes,” and in a way that can work in our democracy.
That’s not to say that this change will be like waving a wand and suddenly all the waste is gone. But it’s a new direction with real potential because it relies on well-established laws. It is time to regulate nuclear waste the same way as every other pollutant, with the federal government and states sharing authority under our foundational environmental statutes. Now we just need someone brave enough to lead the way.