As small modular nuclear reactors come closer to reality in the U.S., managing and disposing of their highly radioactive waste should be a national priority. Forty years after the passage of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, there is, “no clear path forward for the siting, licensing, and construction of a geologic repository” for nuclear waste, according to a recent U.S. National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine report.
The good news is that there is already a clear strategy for managing and disposing of this highly radioactive material. The bad news is that the U.S. government has yet to seriously follow that plan.
The National Academies report tells us that new or advanced reactor designs—the hoped-for saviors of the nuclear industry—will not save us from the need to build geologic repositories, deep-mined facilities for permanent nuclear waste disposal. In some cases, these new reactors may make it worse by creating more waste that’s more costly to manage, new kinds of complex waste, or just more waste, period. Before we face that onrush, we first need to deal with the large volume of waste we’ve already produced.
The U.S., which led the way on managing nuclear waste in the 1980s and 1990s, has now fallen to the back of the pack. About 88,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel from commercial reactors remain stranded at reactor sites, and this number is increasing by some 2,000 metric tons each year. These 77 sites are in 35 states and threaten to become de facto permanent disposal facilities. Without a geologic repository, there is no way forward for the final disposal of this highly radioactive material. Storing it in pools and dry casks at reactor sites is a temporary solution; it is safe for decades, but not the millennia needed to isolate this radioactive material from the environment. The present U.S. policy of indefinite storage at a centralized site is not a viable solution, as it shifts the cost and risk to future generations.
Beginning now, the nation needs to follow a pathway already set out for a national nuclear waste repository. Both a 2012 presidential Blue Ribbon Commission and an international expert panel organized by Stanford and George Washington Universities in 2018 recommended a new, independent, waste management and disposal organization with funding outside of the annual Congressional appropriations and restrictive budgetary rules. The Blue Ribbon Commission called for creation of a new federal corporation, like the Tennessee Valley Authority, for this organization, while the Stanford/GWU panel looked to replicate not-for-profit, utility-owned, but independent, organizations modeled on successful programs in other countries, such as Sweden and Finland. Charges to nuclear-power-produced electricity fund these organizations, and they remain regulated by independent nuclear regulators. Both panels agreed on the need for an independent organization and finances.
Nations that followed this blueprint are now addressing their nuclear waste problem. Sweden’s SKB nonprofit announced last year that it will build a deep geologic repository at Östhammar for the permanent disposal of spent fuel from its commercial nuclear reactors. In Finland, construction of a geologic repository began in May 2021, with plans to accept spent nuclear fuel by the mid-2020s. The Nordic countries are not the only ones making progress: France, Canada and Switzerland are all pushing toward license applications to begin construction.
A U.S. waste management organization must be a trusted and capable agency that is well-funded and staffed. Sweden’s SKB sustained decades of effort on both public engagement and technical analysis around siting and now is reaping the benefits. The U.S. Department of Energy, the designated repository implementer established by the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, instead suffers from leadership and priorities that change with each administration, as well as a history of broken promises that have led to little public confidence that it is up to the job.
The overwhelming majority of successful repository programs overseas are run by independent corporations established by the nuclear industry—outside government. The industry is best positioned to manage the back end of the nuclear fuel cycle, from discharge of spent fuel from the reactor, through storage, shipment and final geologic disposal.
Consent from people living nearby is another universal requirement to establish an accepted geologic repository. Different motivations will underpin a community, tribe or state’s decision to host one. A municipality may volunteer because of the jobs that will last over the long life of the project (probably over 100 years) or improvements in roads, schools or other infrastructure. Some may feel the need to contribute to the greater good of society, especially if they benefited from the electricity produced by nuclear power, as is the case in Sweden.
The 2012 Blue Ribbon Commission suggested that communities should decide for themselves what consent looks like to ensure a successful repository decision. Indeed, Canada is following this approach. The two finalist communities in its siting process will handle the decision differently, one by referendum, the other by elected council decision.
Affected communities will need resources to hire their own experts to validate claims made by the designated nuclear waste management agency. Sweden, in fact, not only provided such funds, but also money for public interest groups that opposed the repository, as part of the effort to produce a compelling safety case for Östhammar.
Assured finances are also key. In the U.S., Congress hasn’t appropriated funds for its Yucca Mountain nuclear waste program since 2010. In fact, Congress has so badly mangled the process of collecting and appropriating the ratepayers fund, now over $40 billion, that it has rendered these funds essentially inaccessible. Outrageously, this money, actually collected from electricity ratepayers, not taxpayers, is being used to offset the national debt.
Even if the U.S. starts today, it will take decades to site, design and build a facility for disposal of its nuclear waste stockpile. That process must accelerate now, before the reactors we need for their electricity run out of room for their growing inventories of highly radioactive waste.
This is an opinion and analysis article, and the views expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American.