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The continuing and ever-increasing costs of America’s nuclear wastes

Americans Are Paying More Than Ever to Store Deadly Nuclear Waste as Plants Shut Down, By June 14, 2019, The Maine Yankee nuclear power plant hasn’t produced a single watt of energy in more than two decades, but it cost U.S. taxpayers about $35 million this year.Almost 40 years after Congress decided the U.S., and not private companies, would be responsible for storing radioactive waste, the cost of that effort has grown to $7.5 billion, and it’s about to get even pricier.

With no place of its own to keep the waste, the government now says it expects to pay $35.5 billion to private companies as more and more nuclear plants close down, unable to compete with cheaper natural gas and renewables. Storing spent fuel at an operating plant with staff and technology on hand can cost $300,000 a year. The price tag for a closed facility: More than $8 million, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute.

The U.S. Energy Department “has been clinging to unrealistic expectations,” said Rodney McCulllum, senior director for decommissioning and used fuel at the institute, an industry trade group. “The industry was never supposed to have this problem.”

Higher and Higher

DOE’s estimates of its nuclear-waste storage liabilities increase every year

The issue has been long-discussed. Initially, the plan was to store the radioactive waste deep underground at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, starting in 1998. But the project faced strong opposition from environmental groups, state residents and Democratic Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, who served as the U.S. Senate majority leader.

After years of legal challenges, President Barack Obama cut funding for the project in 2009. Since then, there have been few realistic alternatives. Lawmakers in Washington held a hearing Thursday to evaluate bills aimed at how best to handle the waste.

In the meantime, the U.S. has no permanent place of its own to store radioactive material that will remain deadly for several thousand years.

About 80,000 metric tons of nuclear waste have been stored at 72 private locations across the U.S., or enough to cover a football field to a depth of 20 meters (66 feet), according to the Government Accountability Office. While most are at operating plants, incorporated into the plant’s daily activities, 17 are at closed facilities, with seven at sites — including Maine — where the plant itself has been demolished.

In those cases, only the storage casks remain, and keeping them monitored and protected as they get older can be an expensive operation.

After a legal battle with the U.S., the Maine Yankee plant and two sister facilities in Connecticut and Massachusetts — responsible for 123 casks of nuclear waste — were awarded $103 million from a U.S. Treasury Department fund in February, covering their expenses from 2013 through 2016.

“We only remain in business because the federal government has not met its obligation to remove the fuel,” said Eric Howes, director of public and government affairs at Maine Yankee. “Our only purpose is to store the fuel.”

Meanwhile, the growing number of shuttered plants, along with the aging of existing facilities, means these costs are about to surge. Once a storage site hits the 20-year mark it has to be relicensed. Older ones require more thorough inspections and additional paperwork, including submitting a so-called aging management plan.

About 30 of these licenses have been renewed, and that figure will more than double by the end of next year, according to the NEI. Some sites have more than one license.

“As we shut down more plants, the costs of used-fuel storage is going to go up,” McCulllum said by telephone.

A Shrinking Fleet

U.S. nuclear reactors are losing ground

Most of the waste involves spent fuel rods, and some sites include casks with radioactive components from reactors that have been torn down. Even though the government is legally responsible for storage expenses, it doesn’t make it easy for companies to recover the costs. The Yankee companies have had to file four lawsuits over the years, and the Energy Department sometimes pushes back.

In the most recent case, the agency challenged about $1 million in legal fees and administrative costs that it successfully argued weren’t related to fuel-storage expenses.

“They’ve contested every step of the way,” Howes, the Yankee spokesman, said.

June 15, 2019 - Posted by | USA, wastes

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