Saturday, April 25, 2015

Why Entergy Needs To Sue The Federal Government About Spent Fuel Storage: Guest Post by Guy Page

I attended the April 14 Vermont Yankee decommissioning meeting in Greenfield. As a longtime student of New England energy policy in general and Vermont Yankee in particular, perhaps I can add some historical background to your April 15 article, "Entergy: we'll sue the federal government to recoup the costs at Vermont Yankee," April 20, page D3.

Spent fuel from U.S. nuclear reactors must be safely stored until it is reprocessed into more fuel or until its radioactivity decays to acceptable levels (requiring hundreds of years, at the least). In 1977 U.S. President Jimmy Carter banned reprocessing. Five years later, Congress passed the Nuclear Waste Act of 1982, "to provide for the development of repositories for the disposal of high-level radioactive waste and spent nuclear fuel," according to its introduction.

According to the Act, the federal government must provide the repository, and the nuclear power industry must pay for it. Sec. 111 (a) (4): "while the Federal Government has the responsibility to provide for the permanent disposal of high-level radioactive waste and such spent nuclear fuel as may be disposed of in order to protect the public health and safety and the environment, the costs of such disposal should be the responsibility of the generators and owners of such waste and spent fuel."

Since 1982, nuclear power plants (including Vermont Yankee) have held up their end of the deal. With principal sourced solely from industry contributions, the U.S. Nuclear Waste Fund had grown to $39.8 billion, according to its September, 2014 report.

In return, the industry - along with regular citizens opposed to onsite storage, many Greenfield meeting attendees among them - has received nothing. There is no repository. True, there is a nearly-finished repository, at Yucca Mountain, Nevada, but the federal government has refused to open it. Sans repository, the federal government has done no more than permit, regulate and oversee the safe storage of spent fuel, in enclosed pools of water and in large concrete shielded, sealed steel casks, at the nation's 104 nuclear power plant sites.

No-one has pressed harder for a central repository than the nuclear power industry. Certainly no-one has more financial "skin in the game" - $40 billion being a lot of money, even in Washington, D.C. More than 30 years after the passage of the Nuclear Waste Act, Washington's promise to the industry and the American public is unfulfilled. Perhaps the possibility of the federal judiciary returning that $40 billion will prompt the executive branch to take effective action. But at the very least the federal government should use the Nuclear Waste Fund to pay the industry for the spent fuel management work it cannot or will not perform - including $150 million at Vermont Yankee alone.

But the federal government won't do that, yet. And that's why Entergy, and other nuclear power plant owners, are successfully suing Uncle Sam. He should either produce a repository, or pay up.


Guy Page
Guy Page of Vermont Energy Partnership is a frequent guest blogger on this blog.  This op-ed first appeared in MassLive on April 21, 2015  His most recent post described testimony about spent fuel storage.

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