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Waste Disposal Back In The Spotlight As America Ramps Up Nuclear Sector

For years the U.S. federal government has been saving to invest in a long-term nuclear waste disposal solution. But despite collecting the funds, no clear plan has been made. As we see certain states developing new nuclear projects it begs the question, where will the waste be dumped? At present, the U.S. government is sitting on a $44.3 billion fund for the construction of a nuclear waste disposal facility. Starting in the 1980s, the fund was aimed at finding a safe solution for the containment of the waste, but to date, nothing has been established. After suggesting three potential sites between 1982 and 1987 the government made plans to create a site in the Yucca Mountain in Nevada. 

In the meantime, the U.S. created interim storage sites but failed to take action on a long-term solution. In 2002, President George W. Bush approved the Yucca Mountain site only for it to be rejected by Barack Obama, who cut funding for it in the 2010 budget. In 2014, a legal ruling stated that the government could no longer collect funding for the scheme, meaning the reserve has been sitting there collecting interest of around $1.4 billion a year and has started to be used for other purposes. 

While there is no established disposal site, the government continues to pay utility companies to store their nuclear waste. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) stated that the current storage solution, mainly dry casks on current and former nuclear plant sites, will be effective for around 100 years, until 2086. 

At the beginning of the nuclear era, the U.S. was criticized for dumping its nuclear waste in the sea, being the first country to do so in 1946. The US Environmental Protection Agency estimated that over 55,000 containers of radioactive waste were dumped across three sites in the Pacific over a period of 24 years. Although this practice stopped in 1970, eyes have been on America ever since to ensure it disposes of its energy waste safely and effectively. While some nuclear powers continue to dump their waste in the ocean to this day.

The debate was raised again this month in Massachusetts as energy firm Holtec proposed a plan to dump nuclear waste, recovered during the decommissioning of the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station, in Cape Cod Bay. Following wide-scale campaigning from concerned citizens and environmental organizations, the company eventually backtracked on its plans. 

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But this raises questions around how nuclear companies plan to dispose of their waste without a viable long-term solution at the federal level. Diane Turco, Director of Cape Downwinders, stated, "Holtec's decision-making process is motivated by profit, only. This was the cheapest, fastest way."

In September this year, the go-ahead was given for the construction of a dump in West Texas that will act as a disposal site for nuclear waste for around 40 years. A license was granted by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for the building of a facility that can store up to 5,000 metric tonnes of nuclear fuel rods as well as 231 million tonnes of other radioactive waste.

This comes despite clear opposition from the state. Earlier that month Gov. Greg Abbott signed a bill banning the storage and transportation of high-level nuclear waste through Texas, with environmental groups also fighting the project through legal action. 

Meanwhile, the government seems to have kept its eye on Yucca Mountain for a long-term solution, much to the dismay of local citizens. The Nevada Department of Environmental Protection (NDEP) has been steadfast in its opposition to the potential development. And the federal Department of Energy (DoE) has acknowledged the barriers to the project, requiring state authorization to increase the amount of waste entering the state. Even President Biden stated his opposition to the Nevada site development earlier this year. 

The various political administrations of the past 20 years have been back and forth with support and opposition for the Yucca Mountain disposal plan. As mentioned before, Congress cut funding for the development when it appeared no progress was being made. Despite the clear opposition, to date, the government has come up with no other site proposal. 

However, the DoE is now pushing for consent-based siting, starting with a request for information. It is approaching various state powers to understand their opposition to constructing a nuclear waste disposal site and asking for a volunteer state for the project. But with the controversial example of Nevada, it seems unlikely that any state will offer its land for this purpose.  

With plans for new nuclear projects - even Bill Gates is getting a piece of the action - the government is once again feeling the pressure to establish a viable long-term solution for nuclear waste disposal. And as the country moves away from fossil fuels towards cleaner alternatives interest in nuclear projects are increasing and the energy industry is expecting the government to act. 

By Felicity Bradstock for Oilprice.com 

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Felicity Bradstock

Felicity Bradstock is a freelance writer specialising in Energy and Finance. She has a Master’s in International Development from the University of Birmingham, UK. More