In This Issue
Radioactive Waste Disposal
September 1, 2003 Volume 33 Issue 3

The Science and Politics of Radioactive Waste Disposal

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Author: Lawrence T. Papay

About 20 years ago, I took on overall responsibility for the nuclear program at Southern California Edison. As part of that responsibility, I became Edison’s representative on the Steering Committee of the Utility Nuclear Waste Management Group of the Edison Electric Institute (EEI), which was responsible for overseeing the scientific and technical program being conducted by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to determine the best method for the permanent disposal of spent fuel from nuclear power reactors. (Spent nuclear fuel is one of three types of waste constituents defined by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission [USNRC] as high-level waste - the other two are reprocessed nuclear fuel waste and other highly radioactive materials that require permanent isolation.)

High-level nuclear wastes have been part of the "nuclear scene" since the start of the Manhattan Project. In terms of the civilian nuclear program, radioactive wastes have been with us since the 1950s when reactors first generated power for civilian use. In 1957, a report by the National Academy of Sciences, The Disposal of Radioactive Waste on Land, recommended the geologic disposal of radioactive wastes. As a result, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) began to investigate the concept of mined geologic repositories.

The search for potential repositories continued through the 1960s and 1970s. In 1982, Congress passed the Nuclear Waste Policy Act (NWPA), which formally legislated a process for determining suitable repositories. In 1985, DOE, the successor to the AEC, issued environmental assessments of five potential sites; in 1986, DOE recommended three sites for characterization. During this time, I served on the EEI committee.

In 1987, NWPA was amended to direct DOE to characterize only the Yucca Mountain site in Nevada. The characterization was completed in 2001, and DOE Secretary Abraham subsequently recommended Yucca Mountain to the president, who agreed with the finding. In accordance with the amended NWPA, the governor of Nevada had the opportunity to agree with the president's action or veto the approval. He chose to veto the approval, but Congress overrode the veto. At that point, DOE charged its Yucca Mountain contractor, Bechtel SAIC Corporation, LLC, to proceed with the license application, which DOE intends to submit to USNRC at the end of 2004. If the schedule and funding levels hold, the first emplacement of wastes will occur at Yucca Mountain in 2010.

For me, the story of spent nuclear fuel has come full circle, as I am currently a member of the Board of Managers of Bechtel SAIC Corporation. As this chronology demonstrates, the potential disposition of radioactive wastes has followed a tortuous path that has included not only a great deal of science and technology, but also a great deal of political heat, both pro and con, and a good deal of acrimony.

Where do we stand today on the subject of high-level radioactive waste disposal? In February 2003, NAE held a National Meeting Symposium in honor of the retirement of Foreign Secretary Harold Forsen, who chose "Technology and Policy for Disposition of Spent Nuclear Fuel" as the topic. A variety of papers were presented covering everything from the current status of the Yucca Mountain Project to developments in the international arena to alternatives to direct disposal, including advanced nuclear fuel cycles, particularly the so-called "Generation IV" concepts and the Advanced Fuel Cycle Initiative, both major DOE strategies. A good deal of the focus, however, was on the status of the Yucca Mountain Project, existing interim storage at utility sites, and the process by which spent fuel will be removed and transported to the disposal site.

Several participants touched on security issues, but the potential impact of terrorism on the current possessors of spent fuel and the vulnerabilities of transportation systems and the repository design were not fully explored. However, I think everyone was of the opinion that placing spent fuel in the Yucca Mountain repository would greatly lessen the potential for acts of terrorism. This issue deserves more thought and discussion. The papers by Charles McCombie, John Garrick, and Russell Dyer and Margaret Chu in this issue are based on symposium presentations. A fourth paper by Per Peterson rounds out the issue.

In his survey paper, "International Perspectives: Reprocessing, Storage, and Disposal," Charles McCombie notes that by and large the technical issues related to these technologies have either been solved or are solvable. Deep geologic disposal is the preferred approach for disposal, although the costs may be very high. The chief obstacle, however, has been the lack of public acceptance. If the Yucca Mountain Project stays on schedule, it may be the first operational deep geologic disposal site for spent fuel. Yucca Mountain would then become a reference facility for other national programs.

The focus of John Garrick’s paper, "Spent Nuclear Fuel: Current Status, Safety, and Transportation," is on the safety aspects of handling spent fuel and transporting it from interim, on-site storage sites to the repository site. He concludes with two recommendations: (1) the "record of experience with the shipping of spent nuclear fuel should be made available in a factual, understandable, and comprehensive form;" and (2) "realistic risk studies should be done of specific alternate routes and means of transporting spent nuclear fuel to the repository site." He believes that these steps are necessary to increase public acceptance of the measures necessary for the safe storage and disposal of spent nuclear fuel.

Russ Dyer, Assistant Deputy Director, Office of Repository Development, Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management, U.S. Department of Energy, presented "Yucca Mountain: Licensing, Design, and Construction," which covered many of the technical programs under way at Yucca Mountain. Russ pointed out that the focus of the national program has shifted from policy and science to the licensing requirements of the USNRC (e.g., site characterization, construction authorization, construction, etc.). The authors believe that ultimately the license application should be amended.

In the companion paper, Per F. Peterson of the Department of Nuclear Engineering at the University of California, Berkeley argues that the strategy for designing and sizing geologic repositories should be dictated by (1) the number of commercial nuclear reactors in operation in the future (which may increase as well as decrease); and (2) the future reprocessing of spent fuel to extract usable isotopes of plutonium, if and when the economics dictate. At that point, long-term monitoring will become very important, and the number and size of repositories should be reassessed.

In the saga of spent nuclear fuel in this country, 2002 was a momentous year. But, if "past is prologue," we must all realize that a great deal remains to be done. Many issues will have to be resolved, including an extended regulatory process and appropriate levels of funding for (1) the design and construction of the repository; (2) transportation studies and, probably, the construction of new rail facilities; and perhaps (3) increased interim storage at newly emerging "merchant" nuclear power plants.

The next seven to ten years will be challenging and interesting to say the least. One thing is certain. A resurgence of nuclear power requires that the spent fuel question be resolved satisfactorily, not only in a regulatory sense, but also in the minds of the public.

About the Author:Lawrence T. Papay is sector vice president for integrated solutions for Science Applications International Corporation and an NAE member.