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U.S. Nuclear Has A Tough Road Ahead

High-profile disasters and a booming…

Haley Zaremba

Haley Zaremba

Haley Zaremba is a writer and journalist based in Mexico City. She has extensive experience writing and editing environmental features, travel pieces, local news in the…

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The Crushing Cost Of Nuclear Waste Is Weighing On Taxpayers

“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.” So begins a powerful report this week about the crushing cost of nuclear waste storage by the Los Angeles Times.

Nuclear waste has always been a contentious topic in the United States, and the issue has a particularly long history of litigation and protest in the country, from the anti-nuclear movement of the 1960s to the major outcry over the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository approved for construction in 2002 under George W. Bush and later de-funded in 2011 under the Obama administration. Even though nuclear power remains controversial, the United States is nevertheless the largest nuclear power generator in the world, producing a whopping 30 percent of global nuclear energy supplies.

“About 80,000 metric tons of nuclear waste have been stored at 72 private locations across the nation, enough to cover a football field to a depth of about 66 feet, according to the Government Accountability Office. Most are at operating plants, incorporated into the plant’s daily activities, but 17 are at closed facilities, with seven at sites — including Maine — where the plant itself has been demolished,” says the LA Times. “In those cases, only the storage casks remain, and keeping them monitored and protected as they get older can be an expensive operation.”

For the first 40 years of nuclear power production in the United States, there were no federal regulations on how the industry should operate or dispose of its dangerously radioactive byproducts. Before the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982, private companies in the U.S. were responsible for their own clean-up and storage of spent nuclear fuel, quickly running out of storage space. However, those private companies were not sufficiently equipped to store their waste long-term, as some kinds of nuclear waste have a half-life (meaning the amount of time they remain radioactive) of up to 17 million years. Congress decided that going forward the burden of responsibility would lie with the United States government, putting the massive cost of cleanup on the shoulders of U.S. taxpayers. Related: Are Oil Prices About To Bounce Back?

Now, that price tag has reached a whopping $7.5 billion, and that number is only going to keep growing.

As the United States has scrapped the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository for the time being, there is still no simple solution for ongoing nuclear waste management. “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 shut down, unable to compete with cheaper natural gas and renewable energy sources,” reports the LA Times. “Storing spent fuel at an operating plant with staff and technology on hand can cost $300,000 a year. The price for a closed facility: more than $8 million.”

In the United States, where the nuclear industry is ailing, this is particularly bad news. More plants are shutting down than are going online, and many of the nuclear plants that are continuing to function are able to do so in large part thanks to government subsidies at the state level, which is to say, even more taxpayer dollars.

The Trump administration, for its part, has made efforts to combat the rising prices of nuclear waste storage--albeit extremely controversial ones. Just this month, “in a move that will roll back safety standards that have been observed for decades” says not-for-profit news organization Truthout, “the Trump administration reportedly has plans to reclassify nuclear waste previously listed as “high-level” radioactive to a lower level, in the interest of saving money and time when disposing of the material.”

While this may be a quick fix for the massive amounts of money flowing out of taxpayer pockets and into the nuclear energy industry, it’s certainly not a sustainable solution for what could easily become a national health crisis if mismanaged. What’s more, the United States nuclear industry may not stay struggling forever--it could easily make a comeback as national attitudes change about the benefits of nuclear and the downsides of fossil fuels. In fact, the United States has enough Uranium domestically to power the country for hundreds of years into the future.

By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com

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  • Bill Simpson on June 19 2019 said:
    Separate out the potentially useful elements like plutonium, then put the remaining waste inside stainless steel containers and move them inside a granite mountain on US government property out West somewhere, and guard the stuff forever. The cost would be trivial compared to what we spend on social programs and defense. The only reason not to put it inside some building is tornadoes, and some terrorist flying an airliner into a building full of the stuff.
    Some day the waste might be useful. We never close the military, schools, hospitals, police, fire departments, petroleum refineries, electrical grid, and other systems, so why do we need to bury radioactive waste, when the cost to store & guard it forever is a tiny fraction of the other systems we need to live?
    The radioactive elements which are the most deadly decay quite quickly because they emit their energy fast, usually as high energy gamma rays. That is what makes them deadly if you play with them right out of the nuclear reactor reactor, or in radioactive nuclear bomb fallout. The ones which emit energy slowly, like plutonium aren't much of a threat unless you eat or inhale a lot of them. The ones that bioaccumulate are essentially gone in a few hundred years. They could never escape some mine in time to reach many people, especially in a dry location with little rainfall. You could pile all the radioactive waste inside some inland salt or limestone mine, walk away, and the entire mess would be far less of a threat to humanity than automobiles and ladders. Cars and trucks KILL about a million people a year, and disable millions more. Skin cancer from excess voluntary sun exposure kills thousands.
    Now if you were to dump radioactive waste out in a field somewhere, that's different. But inside a dry underground cavern, it will never be much of a threat. It simply doesn't stay hot long enough. Plan it right, and even if abandoned down there, by the time it got distributed around the planet, humans might be extinct, since it would take hundreds of thousands, or millions of years. The earth's crust is pretty stable, except near plate boundaries.
    Want to worry about something nuclear? Worry about the extinction machine, the H-bomb. Now they will kill you.
  • Joel Bhatt on June 21 2019 said:
    I am not a fan of Trump, but there is a good reason for lowering the classification of some wastes. The current classification system is a one size fits all approach that I believe has routes going back to the days of the Manhattan Project. The system classifies waste in such a way that less radioactive wastes can be classified as high level (which in other countries is only applied to he most radioactive materials).

    This made administration easier when money wasnt an issue and there was a war to win, but nowadays it means intermediate waste is overclassified as high, which increases the burden on the taxpayer because treating waste as high level is more costly. The whole point of the declassification is to deal with waste more sensibly and efficiently.

    It is contradictory to scathe an industry for leaning on the taxpayer for subsidies, and then criticise it for taking steps to reduce that burden.
  • Howard Strong on July 13 2019 said:
    I'm a little naive about nuclear power, like most Americans. May I ask:
    1. How many people have died in America because of commercial nuclear power accidents?
    2. How many premature deaths result in America due to commercial nuclear power?
    3. Where and how do Russia, Japan and France store and/or dispose of their nuclear waste?
    4. Where and how does China propose to store the nuclear waste from their nuclear power plants? I hear they are building a lot of them.

    I must confess, I fear the unknown a bit.

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