This week's Solution's column examines a very important but overlooked and permanent problem of dealing with our nuclear waste, waste that we have manufactured in the past and waste we may make in the future if the push for more US nuclear plants is successful. The author of this column, Greg Williams, served as a research associate for the Project on Government Oversight (POGO), an independent nonprofit that investigates and exposes corruption and other misconduct in order to achieve a more effective, accountable, open and ethical federal government. (For full disclosure, I am the founder of POGO and serve as a member of the board of directors.)
For this article, Mr. Williams revisited his work on nuclear waste for POGO and found that the US, after spending billions of dollars, is now in an even more precarious situation in safely managing our nuclear waste than in the 1980s. He suggests reasonable ways to try to get control of the situation.
Since his work at POGO, Mr. Williams has pursued a career in Internet-based information technology in the hope of making it easier for typical citizens, consumers and corporations to make informed decisions. To illustrate the progress made by the US in this context, Mr. Williams based this article exclusively on information available via the Internet. In contrast, in 1991 Mr. Williams' original POGO report on this subject was written after months of phone calls, Freedom of Information Act requests and visits to federal document repositories.
Also, as a reminder to all Solution column readers who may have been out last week, my Solutions column published last Wednesday tackled the maddening clause in the new health care law that makes adults with pre-existing health problems go six months with no health care insurance before they can apply to federal high-risk pools (PCIP). These pools are to be a bridge to 2014, when discriminating against people with pre-existing conditions will become illegal in determining acceptance into a health care plan. For those who missed it last week, that column can be read here.
-Dina Rasor, Truthout Solutions Editor (For More Solutions, Click Here.)
Solution to Deal With the Department of Energy's Radioactive Waste Stabilization Programs: Open Them to Competition
By Greg Williams, Edited by Dina Rasor
Wednesday 05 January 2011
From the White House Blog in February 2010:
"[Obama] announced loan guarantees through the Department of Energy to operate two new nuclear reactors at a plant in Burke, Georgia. It will be the first new [US] nuclear power plant in nearly three decades. The plant is expected to create approximately 3500 construction jobs and 800 permanent jobs. When the nuclear reactors come online, they will provide reliable electricity for 1.4 million people in Georgia. Under the Energy Policy Act of 2005, the plants will be held to strict standards to find ways of disposing waste safely, and avoid or reduce emissions of greenhouse gases."
President Obama intends to use nuclear energy for future US use. One of the persistent problems with using nuclear is what to do with the waste and, for decades, the federal government has not made much progress in dealing with nuclear waste.
The US Department of Energy (DOE) has been trying to stabilize roughly 90 million gallons of radioactive waste produced by our current and past nuclear weapons programs(i). Twenty years ago as a recent college graduate, I studied this effort and was surprised to find how little the US takes advantage of our allies' achievements in this area. Now, revisiting that study, I'm dismayed to find that we are now actually further from our stabilization goals than we were 20 years ago(ii) , and we still seem to be ignoring the help our allies seem to offer. The leader of these allies - France - has greater overall capacity than we do,(iii) and several other countries currently accept overseas waste for processing.
From the outset, DOE has acknowledged our allies achievements in this field, but has steadfastly maintained that they know better how to handle US waste. Twenty years ago there was already enough evidence to raise suspicion that DOE's perspective was compromised by a "not invented here" mentality. After two decades of negative progress, I propose that it is time to subject DOE and its contractors to more pressure in the form of competition from British and/or French facilities. Specifically, I propose that DOE make 1 percent of the outstanding budget for DOE high-level radioactive waste disposal available to study the feasibility of using other, well-established stabilization facilities or facility designs.
Background: Stabilizing Radioactive Waste through Vitrification
Since the initial development of nuclear energy, DOE has accumulated 90 million gallons of high-level radioactive waste in liquid or water-soluble form, mostly from the reprocessing spent nuclear fuel(iv). This waste is both poisonous and radioactive, and must be isolated in order to avoid health and environmental damage. Safe storage is greatly simplified if the waste is reduced in volume and put in a form which can't leak out of containers and seep through the ground. Waste that is prepared this way is said to be "stabilized" or "immobilized." A leading technique for stabilization is "vitrificaction"; mixing the waste with molten glass, and then casting it in a metal container.
While vitrified waste is still dangerous, it is dramatically safer than its previous form. Before liquid radioactive waste at DOE's Hanford facility was moved to newer, double-walled tanks, it is estimated that one million gallons (nearly 2 percent of the total stored there) leaked into local groundwater.(v) Once it is vitrified, it is much smaller (roughly one-quarter its original volume )(vi), and can neither leak, nor can it leach into surrounding water or soil, even if submerged in water.
Schedule and Cost Overruns at DOE Facilities
Since the 1980s, DOE has planned to vitrify its 90 million gallons of high-level waste (HLW) using plants built to its own design at four different facilities:(vii) These wastes were supposed to be largely immobilized by now, and completely immobilized by 2028 at a total cost of $2.5 billion. This effort is now expected to take until at least "midcentury," and the facilities are estimated to cost over $17 billion. This chart shows just how overrun and behind schedule the DOE is in this vital work: