BRATTLEBORO — Vermont Yankee and other nuclear plants no longer just spin turbines and produce electricity.
Nuclear plants, and the states that host them, must also acknowledge these sites as the nuclear waste storage facilities they are, said nuclear waste expert Robert Alvarez.
The industry has consistently “put the disposal cart before the storage horse,” Alvarez said April 18, sitting in the lobby of the Latchis Hotel, fresh from testifying before the Vermont House and Senate Natural Resources and Energy committees in Montpelier.
In Alvarez's opinion, the state of Vermont “should be prepared for the real possibility that spent nuclear fuel will remain on-site and require careful and expensive management for decades to come, whether or not VY keeps operating.”
Alvarez serves as a senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies and is an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced Strategic International Studies. He served as a senior policy advisor to the U.S. Secretary of Energy between 1993 and 1999.
Prior to this he served as professional staff of the U.S. Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs responsible for oversight, investigation, and legislation regarding civil and military nuclear programs.
The government and nuclear industry always assumed a national nuclear waste storage facility was “right around the corner” since the 1980s, he said at the Latchis.
With Yucca Mountain off the table, it's unlikely the country will have a repository before 2048, said Alvarez. The Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository was to be a deep geological repository storage facility for spent nuclear reactor fuel and other high-level radioactive waste, until federal funding ended in 2010.
Meanwhile, the nation's nuclear reactors will exceed their spent pool storage by 2015.
“Let's stop pretending that this problem will be fixed,” he said.
Alvarez said the nuclear waste sitting in spent fuel pools should be moved into dry cask storage.
Dry casks proved themselves during the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan in 2011, which stemmed from a tsunami and earthquake. For the first time, this storage method received a real-world double-whammy test. The casks passed the test, while the Fukushima reactor No. 4 and its spent fuel pool did not.
Existing funds can cover the cost of moving spent fuel to dry cask storage.
The money, however, is locked in the Nuclear Waste Fund. Originally collected from all nuclear plants for the national storage site, Yucca Mountain, overhauling the waste fund's legal structure could free $18 billion to move spent fuel to dry casks, he said.
According to a 2011 study by the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), it would take $3.9 billion to transfer the nation's spent fuel to dry cask storage if the industry acts sooner than later.
Alvarez said he estimates VY would need 43 additional dry casks on-site to empty its spent fuel pool. At about $1 million a pop, the casks and the pads they sit on would cost about $43 million.
If VY operates until its current federal license ends in 2032, the cost will jump to $588 million.
The spent fuel situation at VY represents “the tip of the spear of a much bigger crisis,” warned Alvarez.
He said he believes that the states hosting similar single reactor plants, stuffed to the gills with spent fuel, will be left to deal with long-term storage of spend fuel.
Upside-down legal framework
Legally, the federal government assumes responsibility for nuclear waste only when it crosses the threshold of a federal - and so far non-existent - nuclear storage site. Until that day, the waste remains the responsibility of the power plants that produced it.
“The 1982 law does not permit the Nuclear Waste Fund, collected from nuclear power rate-payers since the law was passed, to be spent for dry storage until a geological repository is opened,” said Alvarez.
Storing nuclear waste is an “enormous responsibility,” he said. The legal framework for dealing with waste, however, is “upside down” and needs to be corrected.
VY's owner, Entergy Corp., faces “enormous costs” operating the single reactor plant and “may close Vermont Yankee at any moment,” Alvarez said.
UBS Securities Swiss financial services company stated in a recent report that VY may close as early as this year.
Given the plant's age, and economic competition from cheap natural gas prices, “the closure of Vermont Yankee [will happen] well before its license expires” in 2032, Alvarez predicted.
The merchant plant lacks rate-payers to help finance the increased expenses of running the plant. This shrinks Entergy's profit margin, he said.
Storage at VY
“VY's pool contains more than 30 years' accumulation, making it one of the most densely packed radioactive waste pools in the nation, and therefore at increased risk of fire,” wrote Alvarez in talking points to the legislative committees.
The VY reactor has generated about “624 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel contained in 3,427 assemblies holding 215,901 fuel rods” over its 41-year lifespan, Alvarez said. The plant has exceeded the number of assemblies authorized by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission which regulates nuclear plants in the country.
This spent fuel with nowhere to go is warehoused in the plant's spent-fuel pool, he said.
VY has more spent fuel in its pool than Fukushima had.
The pool at VY was designed to house the cooling spent fuel rods for only five years. The intent was then to remove the rods to a permanent federal storage facility.
With that in mind, engineers constructed spent fuel pools with fewer safety features than reactors require, said Alvarez.
According to Alvarez, with Boiling Water Reactors, a design shared by VY and Fukushima, the spent-fuel pool sits above the reactor. As the 2011 Fukushima disaster in Japan demonstrated, if the reactor overheats, it can compromise the spent-fuel pool, exacerbating the situation.
Compared to the reactor, the pool lacks an extra containment barrier and independent back-up water supply to keep the rods from overheating if the water, which acts as a cooling insulator, is lost during a disaster.
The potential for pool leakage increases with age, he added.
“Safely storing the spent fuel that is currently in crowded pools at reactors should be a public safety priority of the highest degree,” Alvarez said.
When it comes to nuclear safety, the NRC is the law of the land.
However, Alvarez said, part of the problem in the relationship between the NRC and nuclear industry is that operating license requirements, intended to ensure safe operating conditions, have changed in favor of the operators.
“If you can't meet the rule, you move the goal post,” Alvarez said.
The NRC will host its annual open house in Brattleboro, April 30.
“The NRC basically adopted the economic motivations of the entities it regulates,” said Alvarez.
Either the NRC must re-establish itself as a regulator or laws around disposal and storage must change, he said.
Alvarez described the NRC as living in a “parallel universe” in its decision that dry cask storage and storing waste in spent fuel pools present the same hazards to the public. Or so the commission states publicly.
Internally, however, Alvarez said that the NRC has acknowledged that if compromised, spent-fuel pools would release an estimated 30 percent more cesium-137 (Cs-137) into the atmosphere.
Alvarez has written in papers published on the website of the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Policy Studies that Cs-137 mimics potassium in the human body, and can damage muscles such as the heart.
Alvarez said that amount of Cs-137 would “render a lethal dose” to anyone in a 10-mile radius of the release. The spent fuel in VY's pool contains nine times more Cs-137 than was released from all the country's atmospheric nuclear weapons tests.
In contrast, compromised dry casks would release less to the atmosphere as they hold fewer rods and are lower to the ground, said Alvarez.
According to Alvarez, however, the NRC has found itself naked before the courts.
The United States Court of Appeals District of Columbia Circuit tossed out the NRC's Waste Confidence Rule, allowing waste to be stored on-site without a permanent storage solution. This effectively halted the NRC from extending existing operating licenses or issuing new licenses.
The NRC had told the court that its regulations alone decreased the likelihood of accidents connected to spent fuel storage at nuclear plants.
Instead, Alvarez quoted the court as finding that the NRC “failed to properly examine the risk of leaks in a forward-looking fashion and failed to examine the potential consequences of pool fires” or thoroughly evaluate the environmental, safety, and health impacts.
In documents presented to the Vermont House and Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committees, Alvarez wrote that decommissioning and decontamination costs likely would exceed expectations.
According to Alvarez, decommissioning the Yankee Rowe plant in Massachusetts, estimated in 1997 at $306 million, doubled by 2007 to $600 million.
The NRC's financial guarantees of the decommissioning fund that plant operators must maintain “may not be adequate because of increasing costs associated with aging,” wrote Alvarez.
Alvarez said he didn't know what taxing powers Vermont had over Entergy to ensure it had funds to deal with long-term waste storage. He stressed, however, that states hosting nuclear plants needed to advocate for themselves.
“Congress is not going to save their bacon,” Alvarez said.