Thursday, December 13, 2012

Spent nuclear fuel disposal is not a "subsidy"

One thing that tends to raise my hackles without fail is when the inevitable game of "Name the Energy Subsidy!" comes up, somehow the issue of spent nuclear fuel disposition gets lumped in. Namely because spent fuel management is pretty much the opposite of what is typically thought of as a "subsidy."

To give some background - prior to 1982, the management of spent nuclear fuel was the sole province of nuclear generators. In this regard, coupled with the dual expectation that uranium resources would be relatively scarce and that fast "breeder" reactors would be used to create a virtually inexhaustible source of plutonium-based fuels from non-fissile U-238, the nuclear industry began private-sector arrangements toward chemical reprocessing and recovery of uranium and plutonium from spent fuel. (This still leaves the issue of locating a high-level waste repository for the remaining radioactive materials not recycled, however the mass and volume of said materials would be substantially reduced).

This continued until 1976, when President Ford issued a temporary moratorium on civilian reprocessing of spent fuel, followed by President Carter's (infamous) 1977 executive order permanently banning it, based on international nonproliferation concerns. (Reagan would later reverse this order, but the damage by that time had been done). This came just as plans were underway to by Allied General Nuclear Services open a relatively advanced reprocessing facility in Barnwell, South Carolina. Ford's (and subsequently Carter's) executive orders came after $500-700 million had already been committed to the Barnwell facility. It is one of many sobering lessons in the history of the nuclear industry how mercurial shifts in politics can bring about financial ruin when dealing with capital-intensive investments.

Fast-forward to 1982 - faced with a crisis in managing spent fuel brought about by the sudden halt in the domestic reprocessing industry, Congress passed the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982. One of the main provisions of this act is that the federal government assumes the role of locating and constructing a suitable geologic repository for the permanent disposal of spent nuclear fuel. (The subsequent 1987 amendments, termed the "Screw Nevada" bill, amended the 1982 Act, short-circuiting the site selection process to designate Yucca Mountain as the sole candidate site, in part due perceived cost savings by narrowing down the site selection process.)

[As an aside, there are two excellent articles I can recommend to those more interested in a full treatment of the history of how we came to where we are today - the first, "The U.S. Spent Nuclear Fuel Policy: Road to Nowhere" by James M. Hylko and Dr. Robert Peltier, PE, which focuses more on the chronology of U.S. high-level waste management, and the second, a recent article in The New Atlantis, "Yucca Mountain: A Post-Mortem" by Adam White, which delves more into the politics of Yucca Mountain.]

bizzaro subsidies
However, a key facet of this bill which is often overlooked is the fact that the industry is required to pay for the cost of disposal; specifically, they pay a fee of 1 mil/kWh ($1/MWh) of nuclear electricity generated. In other words, the Nuclear Waste Policy Act is by its very nature a "polluter pays" arrangement (which really, is as it should be). To date, the Nuclear Waste Fund has accumulated nearly $30 billion (accounting for accumulated interest), while spending about $8 billion on site characterization for the Yucca Mountain Project. Only in Bizarro-world is a net payment of $22 billion from the utilities (and, by proxy, electricity consumers) to the federal government considered a "subsidy." One can quibble over whether the sum is sufficient - right now the fee generates about $750 million per year - but the fact is, no one's getting a free ride on that front.

So I was somewhat distressed to see the waste "subsidy" canard come up this discussion of energy subsides over at Scholars and Rogues. Specifically, a couple of quotes jumped out at me:
The continuing cost of such temporary storage, and the nearly $100 billion needed for “research, construction and operation of the geologic repository over a 150 year period” at Yucca Mountain, is a subsidy for the nuclear industry.
Fifty-five thousand tons of spent fuel rods, with no permanent home in sight, suggest nuclear subsidies will continue. But before Congress, presumably with White House “cooperation,” ends any energy subsidy, perhaps they’ll take time out from their internecine bickering to actually produce a coherent national energy policy that reflects all available technologies and considers the viability of energy technologies in light of fossil fuel emissions decimating the global climate.
spent fuel pool subsidyHuh? In what universe is an industry tasked with the responsibility of paying for its own waste disposal (particularly after the utter and repeated failure of the federal government to live up to its contractual obligations with utilities) a "subsidy?" Much of the rest of the article contains some risible arguments about subsidies to the nuclear industry (the value of the Price-Anderson Act is a contentious issue, namely because while it does act as a liability backstop for nuclear accidents, not a single dime has ever been paid out under the act; further is the cross-insurance requirement that literally guarantees "an accident anywhere is an accident everywhere"); however, given that I have a day job, I really didn't feel like debating every single claim. Needless to say though, the issue about calling waste management a "subsidy" struck me as profoundly incorrect.

So, in the spirit of Rod Adams, I left a comment, but I decided to share my comment here as well. (Forgive my long-windedness...)

I will leave the debate over some of the "subsidies" you bring up for others, but there is one major issue I must take issue with - you state the cost of spent nuclear fuel storage is a cost borne by taxpayers (i.e., a subsidy). This is most explicitly not true.

First, the cost of on-site storage is explicitly paid for by the generating utilities (i.e., under the law, this is their obligation) - not the federal government. Second, per the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, nuclear operators have been required to pay a fee of 1 mil/kWh of nuclear electricity generated (i.e., $1/MWh) to cover the costs of geologic disposal. (Per the NWPA, the federal government assumed the responsibility for permanent geologic disposal - in 1987, this was amended to select the Yucca Mountain site.)

In this time, the federal government has collected nearly $30 billion (including accumulated interest) from the utilities to cover the costs of Yucca, with about $8 billion being spent in site characterization. This most certainly does not look like a subsidy in the conventional sense.

One can argue whether the nuclear waste fee is sufficient to cover future costs - at present, the waste fund accumulates about $750 million per year, and will continue to do so as long as the reactor fleet operates. One could likewise argue with your characterization of "no permanent solution" - geologic disposal, by its very nature, is designed to be a "permanent" solution, namely by placing spent fuel in long-term isolation from humans and the environment. And this is not the only waste disposition strategy available - other strategies, like reprocessing to separate out shorter-lived fission products from still-useful actinides can both substantially reduce waste volume and the overall long-term radioactivity (i.e., the actinides, like Pu and other fissionable heavy metals, are the majority of the "long tail" of radioactivity in spent fuel - nearly all of the rest is gone after around 300 years). However, I would also point out that it was political decisions by the federal government in the 1970s that ended U.S. reprocessing efforts being undertaken by private industry - and thus left the federal government in the role of assuming responsibility for spent fuel disposal.

Overall though, the fact that the nuclear industry is responsible for paying its own way with regards to spent fuel disposal significantly undercuts the argument that this constitutes a "subsidy" in any form.

Meanwhile, what other energy sector requires that hazardous wastes be so methodically isolated from humankind until the end of time? Certainly coal ash has toxic heavy metals (lead and mercury) which never become less toxic, as do older generations of photovoltaic cells. I don't say this to diminish the challenge in responsibly managing nuclear waste, but rather to point out that this is a more universal problem - the only difference is that nuclear is the only sector actually held to account for this negative externality, including paying for the actual costs of permanent disposal.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Yucca Mountain is dead. Long live Yucca Mountain!

Last October, during the Republican primaries, I made a prediction regarding the future of Yucca Mountain - namely, don't bet on it. Not, of course, because it's particularly deficient on a technical level (it's not perfect, but you can judge the science that went into it for yourself.) But rather, the battle for Yucca mountain left its opponents holding the political high ground - particularly when even none of the Republican hopefuls would defend the site at risk of angering Nevada voters.

Yucca Mountain
Skip forward to today. Mitt Romney (last seen saying anything to the residents of Nevada that he think would lead to his election) has lost, meaning any possibility of a reversal of fortune for Yucca Mountain is pretty much dead in the water for the next four years (and likely now for all time).

Politically, not much has changed. Harry Reid still wields an inexplicable* position of influence over the Senate, and Obama still holds the presidency. Absent a surprise intervention by the Supreme Court on the Yucca licensing issue or a sudden change of heart by the residents of Nevada outside of Nye county (the potential host of Yucca Mountain, and generally more supportive overall of the project, namely because of the perceived benefits in terms of high-paying jobs and local investment which generally balance out perceived risks), it is unlikely anything much is going to happen.
(*One of my students in my Nuclear Waste Management class asked me how Harry Reid managed to ascend to such a position of influence from what is otherwise an inconsequential state - to which I had to answer, "I don't know, it is beyond the scope of this class." I really don't have a good answer for this one.)

As an aside, relevant to this discussion is an interview in this month's Nuclear News with Chairwoman Allison MacFarlane:
Q: Do you have technical concerns about a repository at Yucca Mountain, such as the rock form or the possibility of contact with an aquifer?

Let me explain. The technical analysis that I did on Yucca Mountain was in the pre-2002 time frame. Since then, in 2008, the Department of Energy submitted a license application. Then the NRC did some technical analysis. I haven’t looked at either of those. So I haven’t updated myself on the technical situation or on any new information that’s come in within the last 10 years. And so, as a careful scientist, I would hold off on making any judgment.
(Emphasis mine.)

On one hand, as a fellow scientist, I appreciate Dr. MacFarlane's reticence toward commenting on a technical issue which she herself recognizes that she is not current on. On the other hand, it is somewhat distressing that the chairwoman of the NRC would not deign to familiarize herself with those very same findings.  (I realize that Dr. MacFarlane obviously has a very full agenda, but nonetheless given that her specialty with geologic disposal of nuclear wastes was one of her core competencies given for her nomination to head the agency, the fact that she has been an extremely outspoken critic of Yucca Mountain, and the fact that this is a timely and controversial topic facing her agency, one would think that she might find the time for a bit of... "light weekend reading...")

Process matters

By this point, your response is probably something along the lines of, "Thanks for the update on News of the Obvious." But to be honest, it seems like a great many people haven't seemed to get the memo yet. Following a discussion on Jim Conca's recent Forbes piece featuring WIPP (the Waste Isolation Pilot Project in Carlsbad, NM, which is responsible for handling military-origin transuranic wastes to be buried deep in salt bed caverns), the question was inevitably asked - "If WIPP is working, why can't Yucca Mountain?"

Herein lies the problem. Debates over the technical details of Yucca aside (details which have been exhaustively studied for nearly two decades), it was never about technical feasibility. One of the most salient arguments I have tried to convey upon my students (and anyone else unfortunate enough to be caught within earshot) is that process matters. Again and again this has been emphasized - by myself and by the findings of the Blue Ribbon Commission themselves. (As well as by social science experts - see for example, this decent op-ed by Chris Mooney on science communication right around the time Yucca faced the axe.)

WIPP worked namely because WIPP made sure to do the process right. From the start, WIPP focused on public engagement and local consent - trying to build understanding and consensus before they broke ground. And to that end, they've been remarkably successful. WIPP enjoys extremely high levels of support from the local Carlsbad community, largely in part due to the influx of high-paying jobs it has brought an otherwise very rural economy. And by committing to transparency and public oversight from the start, the WIPP project managed to soften much of the opposition which may have otherwise doomed such a project - namely because the public felt like both they had a say and that the process was fair and trustworthy. (Mind you, it is unlikely one will ever gain complete consensus - namely because there are some who persist in asserting that nuclear waste is an "unsolvable" problem and frankly have no interest in solving it...)

But far too often in the technical community, there is an attitude that this process can be circumvented. "Who cares what the unwashed masses think? We're right and they're not" - a fine ethos for a dictatorship run by scientists and engineers, a recipe for repeated and painful failure in a democracy. This is the attitude that I see prevailing each and every time I hear someone hammer on why we need to keep pushing on Yucca Mountain - either by forcing a showdown on the licensing process or some other means. And let me reiterate - on a technical basis, I think Yucca Mountain is a sufficient (not ideal, namely because it consigns otherwise recoverable resources to waste, but sufficient) solution.

Hell freezes over.
Here's the problem - it's off the table. There is about a snowball's chance in hell of any of the following factors aligning to rescue Yucca Mountain right now: Chairwoman MacFarlane rescuing the Yucca Mountain license (previously withdrawn with prejudice by Secretary Chu), a sudden reversal in position by President Obama, an intervention by the Supreme Court to finish the Yucca Mountain licensing evaluation, a marked shift of opinion in the state of Nevada, or the sudden departure of Sen. Harry Reid.

Like it or not, the political deck has been stacked against Yucca. Perhaps why it's so hard for technical folks to accept is because of this - it's a victory of politics over science - and unabashedly so. But even assuming Yucca were never to have been derailed by an opportunistic president looking to make a deal with an influential senator, the problems at the core still remain - a process built on a foundation of rolling over state-level consent. It is hardly believable that the opposition which has escalated through the courts up until the 2010 would suddenly evaporate upon Yucca's grand opening. Instead, it is far more likely that another decade of contentious (and expensive) lawsuits would have followed, bankrolled (in somewhat ironic fashion) by the same funds legally obligated to the state of Nevada for hosting the repository by the Nuclear Waste Policy Act.

$8 billion and all I got was this lousy blog post

Hence my point of emphasis to folks still pushing Yucca Mountain: he's dead, Jim. Let this one go and start thinking about what to do right now while we begin the process again, this time hopefully learning something from our $8 billion lesson.

The sunk cost is perhaps what is hard for most to accept, particularly in the nuclear community. $8 billion is a high price to pay for learning to respect the process of siting a repository in equal measure to the level of technical effort that went into it. But again, this is where the hard-nosed realism of technical folks must prevail - what do you hope to do now? Wishing for a more favorable political situation won't bring back your $8 billion or put a single fuel assembly into the ground. Instead, it's going to require a hard gut check and some long thinking about where we go from here.

So what now?

Let me quote now from wisdom of the Bard Jagger:
You can't always get what you want
But if you try sometimes, you just might find
You get what you need
Dry cask storage
In the short term, what is needed is some means of storing spent fuel, particularly from already-decommissioned sites (i.e., "orphaned fuel") in a consolidated interim storage facility. Such a facility would be inherently temporary by nature, something which can be enforced by contractual penalties as a means of making such a site more attractive to the host community. Fuel would be kept in concrete storage casks, where it is currently safely licensed to be kept for periods of up to 60 years, and may potentially be safely stored for up to 100-200 years, following further study.

Meanwhile, the main upshot of such a move to interim storage is that it provides a workable solution for the time being until the process of siting a repository can be restarted (which it inevitably must be). This something both recommended by the BRC and is now being proposed by outgoing Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-NM). Whether it or not it goes anywhere in Congress is anyone's guess (although it will likely and unfortunately be eclipsed by much of the talk of the coming "fiscal cliff.")

My own feelings on interim storage have evolved somewhat over the years; it was not long ago that I was critical of such a strategy, namely because it felt like "kicking the can down the road" to future generations. But here's the rub - as much as I generally favor strategies like reprocessing on the grounds of energy recovery, as far as economics go, it simply can't compete with the cost of mining new uranium, even with the repository cost tacked on - and the requisite technologies like fast-spectrum reactors which can effectively transmute and fission long-lived actinides (thermal spectrum, "light water" reactors like those we run now aren't particularly efficient at this) - simply aren't here yet. In that sense, absent the infrastructure to reprocess and effectively burn all of the long-lived constituents of used fuel (not just plutonium), it may just make sense to let it sit around for awhile under well-monitored conditions. Even assuming technology never progresses forward, the end result is a cooler, less radioactive fuel that is less expensive to dispose of. (It is one of the few problems in life that manages to get cheaper the longer you wait.)

Such a position doesn't necessarily sit perfectly with me - as a technical person, I have a bias toward action. (Which of course would be why my research focuses on advanced waste management and recovery strategies). But such a solution is certainly better than a complete failure of the federal government to meet its obligations to ratepayers (i.e., consumers of nuclear electricity) who have paid $30 billion over the last two decades to handle this problem, only to be met with nothing to show for it.

Siting even an interim storage for used fuel won't be trivial - it will likely run into some of the same political challenges Yucca Mountain has faced, if the fate of the proposed Private Fuel Storage facility in Utah is any indication. (PFS has negotiated with a Native American tribe - the Skull Valley Band of the Goshute Tribe - to host such a facility. Despite the fact that the facility is on tribal lands, the state of Utah has attempted to do everything in its power to block the proposed facility - namely by denying rail and road access.) But it may serve as a useful trial run for getting the process right when it comes to the "real thing," i.e., siting a permanent geologic repository.

On a final note, I will be supervising my students' end of semester projects this evening. The task I assigned them was to propose an amendment to the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, taking into account the failures of U.S. high-level waste management policy (including a technical analysis of their proposed alternatives compared to the "baseline" scenario). It should be interesting to see what they come up with.