Nuclear wasteU.S. keeps collecting money for a nuclear waste repository – but has no plans to build one

Published 12 October 2012

Illinois utility customers have paid the U.S government $1.9 billion to store spent nuclear fuel from nuclear plants in the state in a permanent national nuclear waste repository; in the last thirty years, the U.S. government has collected $30 billion from utilities toward this permanent storage, and it keeps collecting $750 million a year; trouble is, in February 2009 the Obama administration decided to “defund” the Yucca Mountain nuclear repository project, and the U.S. government no longer has active plans for a centralized nuclear waste storage facility

Illinois utility customers have paid the U.S government $1.9 billion to store spent nuclear fuel from nuclear plants in the state. Illinois operates six of the U.S. sixty-five active nuclear plants; it gets 48 percent of its power from nuclear reactors (the U.S. average is 20 percent per state); and it has more radioactive waste than any other state: nationally, there are 69,644 tons of nuclear waste stored in nuclear plants, with one-tenth of it stored in Illinois.

Trouble is, since February 2009, when the Obama administration decided to “defund” the Yucca Mountain nuclear repository project, the U.S. government no longer has plans for a centralized nuclear waste storage facility.

Bloomberg reports that now a court wants the Obama administration to explain why it continues to collect money for storage that does not yet exist, and, since 2009, is no longer being built. The U.S. Department of Energy has until 18 January 2013 to justify keeping collecting $750 million a year toward a permanent depository, when the plans to build have been cancelled. According to the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NARUC), the government has collected $30 billion in payments and interest the last thirty years for a waste storage facility.

“We’re paying for something and there is no plan.” Rob Thormeyer, a spokesman for Washington-based NARUC, told Bloomberg.

The court case is part of a battle between environmentalists, the nuclear power industry, and state regulators whot are fighting to force the federal government to select a dump site.

With no permanent storage site, enough spent fuel to cover a football field about seventeen meters deep remains in storage at U.S. power plants, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) estimates.

On 8 June, The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission‘s (NRC) rules on storage of nuclear waste failed to fully evaluate risks and new standards must be drafted.

Jen Stutsman, a spokeswoman for the Department of Energy (DOE), told Bloomberg in an e-mail that the DOE is “conducting an evaluation of the adequacy of the Nuclear Waste Fund fee that complies with the D.C. Circuit’s decision and with the Nuclear Waste Policy Act.”

The appeals court said the NRC’s argument that permanent storage will be available in the future, does not account for how a lack of storage would affect the environment today. The court also said the NRC failed to assess the dangers of storing spent fuel onsite for sixty years after a plant’s license has expired.

Allison Macfarlane has been running the NRC since May, and under her command the NRC has suspended final decisions on licenses for new power plants until it reassesses the risks of storing spent atomic fuel.

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