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Americans are paying more than ever to store deadly nuclear waste

FILE - In this May 11, 2015 file photo, nuclear waste is stored in underground containers at the Ida
Nuclear waste is stored in underground containers at the Idaho National Laboratory near Idaho Falls, Idaho, on May 11, 2015.
(Keith Ridler / Associated Press)
Bloomberg

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.

Almost 40 years after Congress decided the United States, and not private companies, would be responsible for storing radioactive waste, the cost of that effort has grown to $7.5 billion, and it’s about to get even pricier.

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. 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, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute.

The U.S. Energy Department “has been clinging to unrealistic expectations,” said Rodney McCullum, senior director for decommissioning and used fuel at the institute, an industry trade group. “The industry was never supposed to have this problem.”

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The issue has been long discussed. Initially, the plan was to store the radioactive waste deep underground at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, starting in 1998. But the project faced strong opposition from environmental groups, state residents and then-Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who served as the U.S. Senate majority leader.

After years of legal challenges, in 2009 then-President Obama cut funding for the project. Since then, there have been few realistic alternatives. Lawmakers in Washington held a hearing Thursday to evaluate bills aimed at how best to handle the waste.

In the meantime, the United States has no permanent place of its own to store radioactive material that will remain deadly for several thousand years.

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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.

In those cases, only the storage casks remain, and keeping them monitored and protected as they get older can be an expensive operation.

After a legal battle with the United States, the Maine Yankee plant and two sister facilities in Connecticut and Massachusetts — responsible for 123 casks of nuclear waste — were awarded $103 million from a U.S. Treasury Department fund in February, covering their expenses from 2013 through 2016.

“We only remain in business because the federal government has not met its obligation to remove the fuel,” said Eric Howes, director of public and government affairs at Maine Yankee. “Our only purpose is to store the fuel.”

Meanwhile, the growing number of shut-down plants, along with the aging of existing facilities, means these costs are about to surge. Once a storage site hits the 20-year mark it has to be relicensed. Older ones require more thorough inspections and additional paperwork, including submitting an aging management plan.

About 30 of these licenses have been renewed, and that figure will more than double by the end of next year, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute. Some sites have more than one license.

“As we shut down more plants, the costs of used-fuel storage is going to go up,” McCullum said by telephone.

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Most of the waste involves spent fuel rods, and some sites include casks with radioactive components from reactors that have been torn down. Even though the government is legally responsible for storage expenses, it doesn’t make it easy for companies to recover the costs. The Yankee companies have filed four lawsuits over the years, and the Energy Department sometimes pushes back.

In the most recent case, the agency challenged about $1 million in legal fees and administrative costs that it successfully argued weren’t related to fuel-storage expenses.

“They’ve contested every step of the way,” said Howes, the Yankee spokesman.

Wade writes for Bloomberg.


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