The Price of Fear: Energy Shortages for a Second Class Nation


BY MICHAEL R. FOX PHD – The key to resolving the political impasse over the disposal of highly radioactive used fuel from U.S. nuclear power plants lies here in the Northwest.

Instead of hoping the White House, Congress or a blue-ribbon commission can break the deadlock over the Yucca Mountain project, we need to face up to the problem of what should be done with the increasing amount of used fuel left over from the production of nuclear-generated electricity.

As I see it, the only realistic option is to establish a regional interim storage site at the Hanford reservation.  It would house dry casks containing used fuel from the Columbia Nuclear Plant and the decommissioned Trojan Nuclear Plant in Oregon as well as used fuel produced at future nuclear plants in the Northwest.  Of the 62,490 metric tons of used fuel currently stored at nuclear plant sites around the country, less than 1,000 metric tons are in Washington and Oregon.

Granted, there is no guarantee that other states would create similar regional facilities for used fuel.  But locating a Southeast regional storage facility at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina might be feasible.  After all, transporting used nuclear fuel by railroad and truck has been done routinely and safely for decades.

The cost of shipping dry casks and maintaining them at regional sites should not be a stumbling block, since the nation’s consumers of nuclear-generated electricity have already paid $17.6 billion into the national Nuclear Waste Fund since the early 1980’s – and the fund is growing by about $200 million a year.  So far $168 million has come from Washington ratepayers and $75.5 million from Oregon ratepayers.  Indeed, creating an interim storage facility for used fuel in the Northwest could prove to be a small but important step in breaking the logjam over nuclear waste management.

We cannot afford any more paralyzing fear and excuses for avoiding steps that are possible immediately.  For economic and environmental reasons, nuclear power needs to be part of the nation’s energy mix, along with other clean energy sources.

Currently, the fleet of 104 U.S. nuclear plants accounts for about a fifth of the nation’s electricity generating capacity, producing power that costs less on average than plants that burn coal or natural gas.  Utilities, facing a projected 28% increase in electricity demand nationally by 2035, are renewing the licenses of existing nuclear plants, uprating reactors to lift generating capacity and preparing to build at least 20 more nuclear plants by the end of this decade.  For contrast there are currently 60 new nuclear reactors now under construction around the world, none in the US.  Not everyone in the world  is paralyzed with fear. But the absence of a strategy to deal with used fuel continues to impede nuclear power’s growth, as 12 states still have statutes on the books banning the construction of new reactors until the nuclear waste problem is resolved.

We cannot just abandon willy-nilly plans for building a nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada.  President Obama’s decision earlier this year to withhold funds for construction of the facility even before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission had an opportunity to consider the merits of licensing the project has undermined nuclear waste management.  The decision to pull the plug on the project was made for purely political reasons, not on scientific grounds.  An expert panel at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology recently said in a report that underground storage of high-level radioactive waste is an essential part of the nation’s energy strategy.

The prospect that a blue-ribbon commission on America’s Energy Future, which Obama launched shortly after he cancelled the Yucca Mountain project, might recommend a resumption of used-fuel recycling has struck terror in some nuclear-power opponents.  But it should not.

Recycling, or reprocessing, is done safely and efficiently by a number of countries with nuclear power programs, including France, Great Britain, Japan and Russia.  Recycling makes good sense, inasmuch as it reduces the amount and toxicity of nuclear waste that will need to be disposed of in a repository, and it extends global uranium resources, while providing more fuel for electricity production.  Unless used fuel is recycled, Congress will need to select additional sites for repositories, for the Yucca Mountain facility is limited by law to holding no more than 77,000 tons of waste, and there’s nearly that much already being stored at nuclear plants around the country.

It’s past due time to resolve the waste problem.  Let’s get on with creating an interim storage site for used fuel in the Northwest.

Michael R. Fox, Ph.D., is a nuclear scientist and a science and energy resource for Hawaii Reporter and a science analyst for the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii, is retired and now lives in Western Washington. He has nearly 40 years’ experience in the energy field. He has also taught chemistry and energy at the University level. His interest in the communications of science has led to several communications awards, hundreds of speeches, and many appearances on television and talk shows. He can be reached via email at