The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same - for Nuclear Power

October 23, 2006

Op-Ed, Kennebec Journal

Stephen Ward, Maine Public Advocate

Not long ago a Washington think tank was assembling a panel of conflicting viewpoints to debate the merits of building new nuclear units as part of the nation’s response to global warming and asked me to join. As Maine’s Public Advocate for utility consumers since 1987, I accepted along with environmentalist, academic and industry representatives. I remembered that an old friend, a Washington attorney, had participated in a similar effort back in 1999 and contacted him compare notes about the questions that his working group confronted in 1999, compared with the issues on the table for nuclear power today.

What I learned to my surprise was that the topic list in 1999 was identical in all respects to Keystone’s agenda for the 2006 working group. There has been no progress whatever in three major areas: permanent disposal of spent fuel from nuclear power plants; a coherent policy for the storage of spent nuclear fuel at locations other than the nuclear power plants themselves; consistent requirements for the concrete-and-steel canisters used for storage, transportation and pre-disposal “aging” of spent nuclear fuel.

These topics may seem arcane but, taken together, they explain why the nuclear industry is crippled in the United States, with no new plants since the 1980’s. These policy failures are the direct result of budget-cutting or inattention by the Congress and the federal agencies responsible for the safe disposal of nuclear waste - the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Department of Energy. These failures date back to 1982 when Congress authorized DOE to start collecting a tenth of a cent on every kilowatt-hour of electricity generated at a nuclear power plant in the U.S., ostensibly to fund the construction of a permanent repository for spent nuclear fuel. In exchange, the federal government agreed to accept spent fuel rods at nuclear power plants to be transported to the disposal facility, as of February 1998. In fact, the $ .001 collections for energy kilowatt-hours have simply disappeared into the federal budget. The February 1998 date came and went with no material progress in opening a permanent waste repository, at Yucca Mountain in Nevada or anywhere else. The most optimistic DOE bureaucrats now envision the opening of the Yucca Mountain facility no sooner than 2017.

Meanwhile, all the spent nuclear fuel that Maine Yankee ever generated during its 25 year life sits in 64 steel-and-concrete canisters on a concrete slab in Wiscasset, going nowhere. With no observable progress at Yucca Mountain, we confront a grave risk that the Maine Yankee site will be a de facto disposal facility that happens to be located in a seriously inappropriate location: 40 feet above sea level, protected only by fencing and a guard house. This unacceptable outcome represents a professional challenge for Maine’s State Nuclear Safety Advisor, Charles Pray, who works full-time at the Public Advocate Office on finding out-of-state solutions for Maine Yankee’s high-level radioactive waste problem. Pray works closely with the multi-state Nuclear Waste Strategy Coalition and other groups. It truly is unfortunate that the Nuclear Safety Advisor’s job remains an essential one for Maine’s electric ratepayers (who pay for the costs of spent fuel disposal) and for Mid-Coast Maine’s environment and economic development prospects.

Last month, finally there was some good news in this sorry saga. The Court of Federal Claims in Washington responded to a lawsuit brought by Maine Yankee, Connecticut Yankee and Yankee Atomic in Rowe, Massachusetts by awarding almost to the dollar the full measure of damages requested due to DOE’s failure to accept spent fuel in 1998. The full damage award came to $142,795,501 for all three nuclear plants and that was only for actual costs incurred through 2002 by the plaintiffs for their own on-site storage of spent fuel. Future damage awards for all costs incurred since 2002 are now all but certain.

The good news is that ratepayers at Bangor Hydro, Maine Public Service and CMP will be receiving a bill credit for their 50% share of Maine Yankee’s damage award, in the tidy sum of $37,887,277. But DOE’s payment of damages does not - by itself - lead to any change in the status quo: for Maine Yankee, 64 canisters of nuclear waste remain stranded on a grassy knoll above the Sheepscot River, for the indefinite future.

With or without $38 million in ratepayer credits, that must be counted as a major public policy failure and good reason to be skeptical of any proposal to build a new generation of nuclear power plants in this country.