Safe storage for spent nuclear fuel has seen shifting tactics over the last 35 years.

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 Perched in a metal basket above the used nuclear fuel pool at Columbia Generating Station, the highly trained technician splits his gaze between the video monitor in front of him and pool of water below. With precision accuracy, he directs a long shiny steel arm to grab a used fuel bundle from its place in a rack roughly 23 feet below the surface. Once latched, the bundle is lifted and moved to a storage canister in another part of the pool.

Columbia Generating Station is completing its fifth used fuel storage campaign, loading nine casks with 68 used fuel bundles each, or 612 total. Planning for Energy Northwest’s dry cask storage project, or independent spent fuel storage installation, began in the late 1990s. Construction followed in 2001 and loading and storage of the first five casks was completed in April 2002. Additional building campaigns were successfully completed in 2004, 2008, and 2014 bringing the total number of on-site casks to 36. Three new concrete pads were poured during 2016 to accommodate future cask-loading campaigns. The campaigns are scheduled as needed to keep space free in the used fuel pool.

The steel and concrete used fuel pool at Columbia Generating Station. Nuclear fuel spends about six years in the reactor core, then five years in the pool before being moved to dry cask storage.  (Energy Northwest)
The steel and concrete used fuel pool at Columbia Generating Station. Nuclear fuel spends about six years in the reactor core, then five years in the pool before being moved to dry cask storage. (Energy Northwest)

Each concrete and steel storage cylinder stands about 19 feet tall and measures 11 feet in diameter. The outer concrete cask encases a stainless steel canister. Heat is transferred from the fuel to the walls of the helium-filled canister. Space between the canister and cask allows air flow to cool the used fuel and canister. The casks rest on a large, two-foot-thick reinforced concrete pad in a fenced secure area adjacent to the plant. Forty-five casks now sit in this area, about the size of a corner convenience store.

How did we get here?

The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 created a structured program in which the federal government was required to begin removing used fuel from reactor sites in 1998. The Act required that the Department of Energy and reactor owners enter into contracts under which owners were required to pay a 1 mill per kilowatt hour fee on the generation of nuclear electricity into a Nuclear Waste Fund to cover the program’s costs. From 1987 onward, the program to fulfill this obligation was focused on DOE developing a repository at Yucca Mountain.

In 2010, after approximately $10 billion had been spent on the program and while a license application for the repository was under review at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, DOE suddenly halted work on the project, stating that Yucca Mountain was considered to be “unworkable.” The Department then ceased all licensing efforts and established a Blue Ribbon Commission to study alternatives. As part of its work, the commission visited Columbia Generating Station later that year.

The courts have held the government liable for DOE’s inaction. Reactor owners are collecting damages through lawsuits or settled their claims for DOE not removing used fuel from reactor sites by the January 1998 date specified in the statute. (Approximately $7 billion has been collected to date.) In 2013 the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ordered the NRC to move forward with its review of the Yucca Mountain license application. NRC subsequently completed safety and environmental reviews, finding the proposed repository in compliance with all applicable regulations. Following another D.C. Circuit decision ruling that, absent any continuing repository work, DOE did not have a basis to continue collecting the Nuclear Waste Fund fee, in mid-2014 the Department reduced the fee to zero.

A balance of over $38 billion remains in the Nuclear Waste Fund, which earns approximately $1.5 billion in interest annually. Meanwhile, estimated taxpayer liability for DOE not satisfying its obligation is growing by $800 million per year. This cost to the taxpayers, and the increasing number of shutdown plants at which spent fuel is stranded, provides a renewed impetus for action.

Where do we go next?

There are two tracks being pursued currently to move the final disposition of used nuclear fuel storage forward. One is taking place in Washington, D.C., as the House of Representatives and DOE work to restart the federal used fuel management program.

“The nuclear energy industry would like to see the completion of the NRC licensing process for the Yucca Mountain repository, and then the opening of the facility,” said Rod McCullum of the Nuclear Energy Institute. “Along with that, develop an interim storage facility in a willing host community.” The priority should be on removing used fuel from shut down reactors, such as the Trojan plant near Portland, and defense waste from DOE sites like Hanford.

Leading voices in the Senate favor interim storage over pursuing Yucca Mountain.

The NRC last month began taking public input for a consolidated interim storage facility in New Mexico. The site would be developed by Holtec and could initially store 500 canisters holding approximately 8,680 metric tons of used fuel, and eventually store up to 10,000 canisters.

Safe and secure

Meanwhile, used nuclear fuel remains safely and securely stored at Columbia Generating Station and more than 75 other sites across the country. The fuel within the casks, solid, ceramic pellets, contributes no environmental harm. Meanwhile, the 99 operating U.S. nuclear reactors contribute significantly to cleaner air by producing 60 percent of America’s carbon-free electricity. The fuel stored at Columbia has helped produce more than 240 billion kilowatt-hours of clean electricity.

Finalizing a path forward for used nuclear fuel will bring clarity to a process that has struggled to find its way for more than 35 years.

Energy Northwest develops, owns and operates a diverse mix of electricity generating resources, including hydro, solar and wind projects – and the Northwest’s only nuclear energy facility. These projects provide enough reliable, affordable and carbon-free energy to power more than a million homes.