Storage of used nuclear fuel today is safe and secure, but scattered. However, a consolidated “interim storage” facility appears likely in the next few years, where the material would cool slowly inside sealed casks while the government prepares a burial spot.
Holtec International, one of the builders of those casks, will discuss later today its recent application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for a license to build a “consolidated interim storage” facility on a 1,000-acre patch of land half-way between Hobbs and Carlsbad, New Mexico.
The project aligns with key aspects of industry’s principles for the management of used fuel. One was the establishment of an interim facility so the casks would not have to be monitored and guarded in scores of different locations. The other was that the project have the support of its host community and state.
In this case, the land was bought by two New Mexico counties, Eddy and Lea, with just this use in mind, and Holtec has won approval to buy it. State and local governments are on board. (The region already has a uranium enrichment plant, in Hobbs, and a deep geologic repository for radioactive waste from government operations, in Carlsbad.)
The land is 35 miles from the nearest human habitation. Holtec’s plan calls for shallow land burial, for easy retrievability. There is no threat to ground water, local birds, or, as Holtec puts it, “critters that inhabit the land.”
The facility has space for 10,000 canisters, which could hold 120,000 metric tons of used fuel. The total American inventory is approaching 80,000 tons, and growing by about 2,000 tons a year. At the moment the legal limit for emplacement at Yucca Mountain, the government’s preferred location for permanent disposal, is 70,000 tons, but scientists say that the actual physical limit is at least four times higher.
The need for consolidated storage has grown because establishment of a permanent burial spot has been slowed down by politics. The Department of Energy, under contracts it signed with the utilities in the 1980s, promised to start accepting fuel for disposal in January 1998, but it is not clear now when it will actually do so. While the law calls for the Energy Department to build a permanent repository, and allows for an interim facility while the permanent one is being built, the permanent or interim facility would be licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, or NRC. The NRC already has extensive experience in licensing casks for storage of fuel on reactor sites. (Utilities have used dry storage since 1986.)
That project, too, has strong local support. The county commissioners voted to endorse it late last year.
The NRC said last year that it would take about three years to review the application.
The material to be stored is sometimes referred to as nuclear waste. In fact, leaders of the communities in Texas and New Mexico that are volunteering to store the casks are among those who believe that in coming decades, the judgment will be different. The used fuel can be reprocessed, to extract elements in the fuel that have high energy value. Existing reactors can use the plutonium that was created in the fuel during reactor operation, and reactors on the drawing boards could use other components.
That possibility was recognized by Congress when it chose Yucca Mountain. Material placed there is intended to be retrievable for decades into the future.
And the prospects for a permanent repository have improved in the last few weeks. Work on the government’s preferred alternative, Yucca Mountain, about 100 miles from Las Vegas, halted during the Obama administration because of opposition from then-Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, who served as leader of the Senate Democrats. But the Trump administration has proposed allocating money to re-start the licensing procedure.