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$24B fund for spent nuclear fuel repository unused since ’82

When the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 was enacted, the U.S. Department of Energy began collecting money to create a central repository to store used fuel rods starting in 1998 — at the latest.

The Nuclear Waste Fund now has more than $24 billion, but not a single spent fuel rod has been picked up and a central repository is only a possibility.

But nuclear power plant operators like Constellation Energy Group and partner Electricite de France, which run three nuclear plants in a joint venture called Constellation Energy Nuclear Group LLC, continue to pump money into the fund. And the plant operators have had to shoulder additional costs to store the fuel onsite.

In 2009, EDF joined Constellation as a minority partner in Constellation Energy Nuclear Group, which operates Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant in Lusby; R.E. Ginna Nuclear Power Plant in Ontario, N.Y.; and Nine Mile Point Nuclear Station in Scriba, N.Y. In its annual report filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission on Tuesday, Constellation warned that uncertainty over the future of a central repository and fuel rod pickup would continue.

“At this time, [Constellation] is not able to determine whether the DOE will be able to commence meeting its obligation by 2020,” the company wrote.

The company said it has had to pay for temporary storage sites at its Calvert Cliffs and Ginna plants, and another that will go into service next year at Nine Mile Point.

“For nearly 20 years, we have safely and securely operated a used fuel storage facility at Maryland’s Calvert Cliffs station,” Constellation spokesman Mark C. Sullivan said in a prepared statement. “The Ginna used fuel storage facility has been accepting fuel since last year, and the Nine Mile Point facility anticipates loading its first used fuel by the end of 2012.”

Since 2002, the Department of Energy had planned to build a central repository for spent fuel rods and other high-level nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, using the money from the fund. But last March, that decision was nixed when the application was withdrawn and this year’s federal budget provided no money for the project.

“Basically, the Department of Energy did submit a plan several years ago to build a repository at Yucca Mountain,” said Neil Sheehan, spokesman for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. “However, that has been defunded basically in the last budget, and DOE has asked to withdraw the application to build it.

“There is very little happening right now in the way of progress toward a national repository,” he added.

Last year, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission doubled the amount of time that spent nuclear rods could be stored onsite to up to 60 years after the plant is closed.

“Now, the wording is that a repository will be built when it is needed,” Sheehan said. “They’re not even assigning a date to that anymore.”

Several companies, including Constellation, have questioned the need to pay into the fund since deadlines have not been met. In fact, Constellation filed a lawsuit against the DOE in January 2004 in United States Court of Federal Claims. But the case has yet to go to court — instead it has been postponed annually as the fate of the Yucca Mountain plan remained unknown. Monetary damages were not specified in the lawsuit, and Constellation Energy Nuclear Group officials on Tuesday declined to comment on how much has been paid into the fund.

In November 2010, the DOE agreed to continue the Nuclear Waste Fund at the same level despite the Yucca Mountain option being taken off the table. The agency charges nuclear utilities one-tenth of a cent per kilowatt-hour of electricity generated and sold.

“DOE has clearly stated that termination of the Yucca Mountain project will not affect its commitment to fulfill its obligations under the NWPA and the standard contracts,” DOE Secretary Steven Chu wrote in November. “DOE must continue to collect the fees to have sufficient revenues to carry out its obligations to accept and dispose of [high-level waste] and [spent nuclear fuel.]”

The money collected for the fund is invested in U.S. Treasury instruments; the interest, when coupled with an average $750 million collected from nuclear power operators, means the fund averages about $1.75 billion a year in returns.

To date, 74 lawsuits filed over the fees collected, including the one filed by Constellation. Twenty-seven of the suits are active.

According to testimony U.S. Deputy Assistant Attorney General Michael F. Hertz gave last month to the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future, the government has spent $112 million in for expert witnesses and $56 million in litigation support to fight the lawsuits.

2 comments

  1. Defunding the Yucca Mountain site was the right thing to do; it was a costly boondoggle. However, the next step was not taken.

    Spent reactor fuel is mostly fuel that could be reused after removing the waste by reprocessing. If the spent fuel were reprocessed, as is being done in some other countries, the amount of actual waste would be very small and would decay quickly enough that it would need to be sequestered for only a few hundred years. The remaining spent fuel could reused.

    Our present nuclear technology is so inefficient that we are extracting only about 1% of the available energy from the natural uranium. That could cause our uranium mines to run out of uranium in only a few decades. We must do better.

    Probably it would be better to phase out uranium and use thorium reactors instead. For more information on thorium reactors, do a google search on “thorium reactor” and visit the following web sites:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eU3cUssuz-U&feature=player_embedded

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RSzEjWz5T44&feature=player_embedded#at=16

  2. Can’t we use the spent fuel on a residenal sized boiler?
    Why waste when we can innovate?
    It can be done.