Government Inaction on Nuclear Waste Creates Risk, Could Cost Tax Payers Billions

At nuclear reactors around the county, dangerous radioactive waste is being allowed to accumulate, despite the existence of a multi-billion dollar “nuclear waste fund.” According to a report from PoPublica, the U.S. government was supposed to use the fund – which has grown to about $24 billion over the past 30 years – to create a safe, permanent place to store nuclear waste, but that hasn’t yet happened.

Under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, which passed back in 1982, nuclear reactor operators have been paying a tax on the radioactive waste they produce. According to ProPublica, that money was to be used by the government to build a nuclear waste repository inside Yucca Mountain, located about 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas, Nevada. But the Yucca Mountain plan was always controversial, and the Obama Administration dropped it in 2010.

Because of the government’s inaction, most nuclear plants in the U.S. are placing zirconium-clad rods of highly radioactive materials in increasingly crowded cooling pools. That’s basically the same thing that operators of Japan’s damaged Fukushima Daii-chi Nuclear Power Station were doing with nuclear waste there before that disaster occurred. Since the Japan nuclear crises began, workers have had a hard time keeping spent fuel rods in those pools covered with enough water to keep them cool. The situation is making it harder for workers to do what they must to avoid a complete nuclear meltdown at some of the Fukushima reactors.

According to ProPublica, about three-quarters of the roughly 70,000 tons of spent fuel currently stored at reactor sites around the country sits in similar cooling pools. Nuclear industry watchdogs say the pools are too crowded and in some cases have been known to leak low levels of radioactive water. Others point out that the cooling pools make reactors more vulnerable to terrorist attacks.

According to ProPublica, experts say a safer interim solution would be to remove the spent fuel rods from the pools and encase them in concrete and steel. Unfortunately, the 1982 law does not allow funds from the nuclear waste tax to be used on any interim storage solution.

Some nuclear plant operators are trying to force the issue, according to ProPublica. They have begun moving spent fuel rods from cooling pools and are encasing them in concrete and steel. And, they have been filing lawsuits against the federal government for failing to live up to its obligations under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act. According to ProPublica, the government has already paid out $956 million in such claims, and fighting these lawsuits has cost the taxpayer $170 million already. New lawsuits and other costs could eventually push the government’s legal liability to $16.2 billion, according to estimates from the Department of Energy.

Some reactor operators have begun building large tomb-like structures called dry casks, where spent fuel rods would be transferred after cooling for five years or more in the pools. But according to ProPublica, transferring rods to these dry casks is extremely expensive. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has been resisting calls to require the use of dry casks, insisting that the safety risks posed by crowded cooling pools aren’t severe enough to warrant the expense.

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