The U.S. Department of Energy last week finally conceded the obvious: The United States has no plan for the permanent storage of spent fuel from the nation’s 100 civilian nuclear generating plants.
The department had maintained the fiction there would be one despite a 2010 decision to abandon the proposed Yucca Mountain site in Nevada. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid insisted on blocking a repository in his home state. Meanwhile, the department was on the losing end of lawsuits filed by utilities demanding storage promised 30 years ago be made available so they could remove their waste material from vulnerable reactor sites.
And the customers of utilities receiving electricity from those plants, including the Columbia Generating Station at Hanford, continued to pay one-tenth of a cent per kilowatt-hour for a service they have never received and will not receive for the foreseeable future.
Those consumers are out of pocket for more than $42 billion: $30 billion-plus sitting in a fund reserved for nuclear storage and $12 billion spent at Yucca Mountain, which has been all but abandoned.
Gamblers on The Strip get more for their money.
Although the fee goes away as a result of the Energy Department’s change of heart – welcome news for consumers – the decision leaves unaddressed the fundamental issues: Where will the waste go, and what will it cost to put it there?
The estimated prices for a repository start at around $100 billion, but if the effort to clean up the Hanford Nuclear Reservation is any indication, you can take that with a grain of plutonium.
That multibillion-dollar boondoggle is years behind schedule, must overcome a jumble of technical problems and remains just below critical mass for renewed state litigation. Gov. Jay Inslee says the Energy Department work plan is inadequate; Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz says the state plan ignores the technical challenges.
The Obama administration has requested $2.1 billion for Hanford in its 2016 budget. The Energy Department’s on-site work group estimates $3.6 billion will be needed. With 4th Congressional District Rep. Richard “Doc” Hastings retiring at the end of the year, Hanford will lose a veteran and well-placed champion in the House of Representatives, which will make securing money for the cleanup more difficult.
The administration, in its effort to steer the nation away from dependence on fossil fuels, has also dedicated $8 billion in loan guarantees toward a proposed nuclear plant in Georgia, the first in the U.S. in more than 30 years. Northwest residents old enough to remember the Washington Public Power Supply System debacle of the 1980s will recognize the potential danger.
If the region learned anything from its nuclear energy experience, it’s that there are no guarantees.