Last month two major court decisions were handed down that have significant impact on the overall economics of nuclear power. Unfortunately, this was not picked up by the mainstream news media, nor has it been fully vetted by the anti-nuclear community.
Here is some background, beginning with the 1982 Nuclear Policy Act signed by Ronald Reagan. It said that beginning in 1998, the Federal Government (DOE) would take possession and responsibility for all high-level spent fuel from commercial nuclear power plants, and will place it in a permanent geologic repository. Also, the utilities would contribute 1 mil ($0.001) per kilowatt/hour of nuclear generated electricity into the Nuclear Waste Fund, to pay for the building and operation of the repository. To date, about $30 billion has been collected from nuclear utility customers for the fund.
Yucca Mountain was chosen in 1988 as the preferred site, and work began characterizing the mountain. The law said that the geology alone should provide the isolation of the spent fuel from the environment for a minimum of 10,000 years. In the mid-90’s, it was determined that the natural environmental conditions in the repository would interact with the heat and radiation from the fuel, and would destabilize the integrity of the storage canisters. The repository design was then modified to allow the placement of some sort of metal “drip shields” to protect the canisters. That was the first major problem…a metal that would avoid corrosion for 10,000 years? After 20 years of scientific study, and about $14 billion from the fund, the inevitable “uncertainty” of Yucca Mountain to meet the isolation requirement came to light (NRC Chairwoman Alison MacFalane’s “Uncertainty Underground”), and after much legal and scientific jostling between DOE, EPA, NRC, and the state of Nevada, work was halted in 2006, and finally abandoned by President Obama in 2009. The ultimate question of whether Yucca Mountain can serve as our repository, or whether there is anyplace else where we can technologically isolate hot, radioactive material for tens of thousands of years must be answered by science, technology, and social morality, and not by politics.
So, what were the two court decisions? The first dealt with DOE’s responsibility for spent fuel after the 1998 deadline was not met. It is costing utilities somewhere between $10-15 million per year to store and safeguard the high-level waste, whether it is pools or dry cask storage. Utilities have sued DOE saying that they should be reimbursed for this cost, since by law, DOE owns the fuel and should take care of it. In several cases over the years, the courts have agreed. Last month they granted Maine Yankee $35.7 million in addition to $81.7 million granted earlier in the year, for storage fees (total $117.4 million) from 1998 to 2008. A third claim is in for 2009-12, and more claims later for 2013 to ????? “Two other New England power plants – Connecticut Yankee Atomic Power Co. and Yankee Atomic Electric Co. of Rowe, Mass. – also were awarded damages this week in the amounts of $126.3 million and $73.3 million, respectively.” More utilities are expected to follow suit. In other words, the taxpayers are going to pay these costs and not the ratepayers who benefited from the cheap nuclear generated electricity.(1)(2)
There are major points to be gleaned from these decisions. First, 104 nuclear power plants in the US…storage costs of $10 million/year/each…1998 to 2013…$15 billion+/- owed to the utilities by the US taxpayers???? What about 2014 to ???? We will eventually have to move all the fuel rods into dry cask storage…6000 casks at $10 million each to construct and load. Another $60 billion????
A repository, even if we started now, wouldn’t be ready for at least another twenty years (nuclear industry best “estimate”.) Nuclear power was supposed to be cheap, and pay for itself. Not true! So we have a 20 year old living in Oregon, and lucky enough to have a job, a 45 year old living in Idaho, and all the rest of the 100% Americans paying taxes that are going to pay for the storage of spent nuclear fuel at the long gone Trojan Nuclear Power Plant in Oregon, shuttered in 1993, which produced “cheap” electricity for a few, for only 15 years. Fair??? You’d think the fiscal conservatives would be all over this. A tax, by any other name, is still a tax. Somebody has to pay. The argument that tax dollars shouldn’t be used to help pay for health insurance or social security falls very short when in actuality, tax dollars are being used to pay the nuclear industry’s bad investments and debts.
The second court decision handed yet another economic blow to the US taxpayer. The Nuclear Waste fund was collecting some $750 million per year earmarked for permanent storage in a repository. Out of the $30 billion collected so far (including interest earned), about half has already been spent on a dry hole (Yucca Mountain.) The US Court of Appeals just ruled that DOE should stop collecting that fee. “The appeals court panel said the Energy Department failed to come up with an adequate evaluation for the waste fee…the agency’s assessment of disposal costs was “so large as to be absolutely useless to be used as an analytic technique”… Judge Silberman wrote in the seven-page decision that the department’s presentation reminded the court of a line from the musical “Chicago,” which says, “Give them the old razzle dazzle.” (3)(4)
The fact of the matter here is that the remaining $15 billion in the fund is a mere pittance in what it will/would cost to develop a repository. When Yucca Mountain was cancelled, the nuclear industry “estimate” for construction and operation beginning in 2030 was $95 billion. What’s that cost going to be 30, 40, ??? years from now. Again, the US taxpayer will be held responsible to pay the nuclear bill. The Baby Boomers and those alive over the past 40 years have benefited from “cheap” nuclear electricity, only because they have deferred the true costs onto many, many generations of taxpayers in the future.
What will the final price of spent fuel management be over the next 50…100 years? $200 billion? $500 billion? Add to this the cost of decommissioning the 100 reactors ($2 billion + each at today’s estimates) and the cost of cleaning up all the other components of the nuclear industry (uranium mine tailings, enrichment plants, fuel fabrication plants, etc, etc,) and we’re looking at a trillion dollars or more. This is the “back-end” costs that very few people really understand, or are talking about. The industry is too busy wanting to build even more plants, and pushing the continued lie that nuclear power is cheap, safe, clean, and our only energy salvation.
Once again, we’ve been had, and by the very same people who stand up and spout out that this type of “socialist” thing is fiscally unacceptable, and not fair to our children and grandchildren. Money turns a blind eye! Open your eyes and follow it. This whole waste issue is just beginning to come to light. It will be interesting to see how the industry justifies its position.