Legislators hear interim storage and reprocessing ideas

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By Roger Snodgrass

A panel of legislators meeting in Fuller Lodge Friday heard updates on the Yucca Mountain repository and called on researchers at Los Alamos National Laboratory for reports on current energy issues in the state and nation.

Rep. John A. Heaton, D-Eddy, committee chairman, began the proceedings by delivering a summary of the status of interim storage of nuclear fuel prepared for the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), which represents the nuclear industry.

The policy organization’s legislative programs director, Marshall Cohen, was unable to attend the meeting in person, but Heaton was familiar with the issues covered.

“All of you are aware of the problems Yucca Mountain has had,” Heaton said, referring to the controversial underground site, where the spent fuel from the nation’s nuclear power plants are supposed to be permanently stored. That is, when and if one of the nation’s deepest quandaries can ever be solved.

A new “Analysis of the Total System Life Cycle Cost” issued earlier this month by the Civilian Radioactive Waste Management Program listed some of the concerns Heaton relayed from NEI.

According to a recent summary provided Friday by the American Institute of Physics in their electronic publication FYI, “the earliest possible opening” has now been extended another three years to 2020.

“The reality is probably more like 2027,” Heaton said. And with current inventories added to the anticipated spent fuel rods between now and when the repository opens, he added, the repository’s capacity of 70,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel will be fully committed by the date it opens, to say nothing of longer-term future needs.

“That’s why consideration of interim steps is important,” Heaton said.

Plan B: Consolidated

Temporary Storage

Ned Elkins, LANL program manager, stationed at the Waste Isolation Pilot Project (WIPP) near Carlsbad, developed the theme of “consolidated interim storage” in a second presentation. WIPP has been storing defense-related nuclear waste since 2000.

Elkins noted that some “temporary” spent fuel storage will be required even for the currently allotted waste stream, which will not be finally emplaced until 37 years after the repository opens.

Current temporary storage occurs at first in cooling pools at the nuclear plant sites, before going into cask storage above ground.

Elkins reviewed recent legislation that has attempted to force DOE to take title to the dry casks and their contents which are piling up around the nuclear plants.

Last year DOE was required to develop a plan to take custody of the spent fuel currently stored at decommissioned sites and to consider consolidation of the spent fuel.

“The biggest fear is that once you start, it would not stop,” Elkins said of the temporary consolidation plans, “that this would be the permanent solution.”

A bill now under consideration, introduced by Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., in June, gets into the next level of a proposed solution.

“It’s getting lots of discussion,” Elkins said.

The bill is the Strengthening Management of Advanced Recycling Technologies (SMART) Act, which proposes a federal-private partnership to develop and build two reprocessing facilities, and it sets up an incentive program for communities that wish to host interim spent nuclear fuel storage facilities.

DOE would also be able to offer long-term contracts to reprocessing and storage facility operators.

This would be paid for by tapping into a $25 billion-plus Nuclear Waste Fund, which has been funded by a tax on consumers, but not expended, over the last 25 years for nuclear waste disposal, Elkins said.

“Not expended,” is a bit of a fiction and a sore point with the nuclear industry, since the money has not been in a lock-box, but rather held as a virtual promissory note with interest.

Consolidation would solve some of the near and medium term pressures related to Yucca Mountain delays and would provide a breathing space for developing the reprocessing technologies, according to proponents.

Among the negatives Elkins listed were the additional costs and risks of transporting nuclear fuel to an interim site and then again to Yucca Mountain and that it would divert resources from the beleaguered attempt to develop and license the geological repository.

Also, licensing the interim sites, hardly an easy matter, could take a number of years.

Rebooting Reprocessing

A third presentation featured a technical discussion by LANL officials, Gordon Jarvinen, associate director of the Glenn T. Seaborg Institute, and Sara Scott, LANL program director for civilian nuclear programs.

Jarvinen explained the difference between the current plans for disposing of the spent nuclear fuel at Yucca Mountain under standards that call for a million-year assurance that radioactive releases would be adequately controlled. This is known as a “once-through” or “open” cycle in contrast to the “closed” nuclear fuel cycle which involves reprocessing the fuel to recover additional fuel, while greatly reducing the bulk of the residual materials and the time they would have to be held safely in the repository.

There are a number of different methods for reprocessing, each with different outcomes. France has been reprocessing for some time. Japan is set to open a major new facility in the near future. Differing methods produce different results, including varying grades of security. One of the main objections to the practices of reprocessing has to do with the degree of danger created should the reprocessed materials fell into the wrong hands.

Rep. Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces, at one point asked how much material is currently being processed.

“None,” Jarvenin said, noting that a large amount has been reprocessed in the past related to the weapons programs, but that the previous attempts at a reprocessing program were “shut down by the economic and political winds at the time.”

Steinborn wanted to know why if they could do it in Europe, we wouldn’t send our materials over there.

“The U.S. would probably not advocate shipping our material,” Jarvenin said. “We would do it here.”

About half the members of the Radioactive and Hazardous Materials Committee attended the meeting and few, if any, members of the public.

Heaton graciously turned the meeting over to local Rep. Jeannette Wallace to serve as chairperson for the session.

Los Alamos County Council Vice Chair Robert Gibson welcomed the committee to the historic premises.

“We’re very glad to have you share the experience and add to the experience in this building,” he said.

EDITOR’S NOTE: A second topic having to do with the laboratory’s research in Hydrogen storage and fuel cells was also discussed during the legislative session will be covered in a future report.