Southern official urges completion of Yucca Mountain nuclear disposal site

While there are many issues out there with final nuclear waste storage, Southern Co. (NYSE: SO) is moving forward with construction of new nuclear units at the Vogtle nuclear plant in Georgia.

Stephen E. Kuczynski Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer of Southern Nuclear Operating Co. Inc., is to testify May 15 at a House Energy and Commerce Committee subcommittee hearing on nuclear waste issues. The hearing is called “Update on the Current Status of Nuclear Waste Management Policy.”

He wrote in his prepared testimony: “At Southern Nuclear, our safety focus continues throughout the nuclear fuel cycle. We are dedicated to maintaining the highest standards for safely handling radioactive waste to protect the public, the environment and our employees. We have safe, reliable on-site options to store spent nuclear fuel (SNF) at our nuclear plants for the duration of our plant licenses and the expected life of the plants.

“Although the industry has demonstrated that SNF can be safely stored in spent fuel pools or dry casks, the federal government and the general public should not view these temporary measures as a de facto permanent solution to the SNF disposal issue. Under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act and the DOE’s Standard Contract with the nuclear utilities, SNF disposal is the federal government’s obligation. In fact, the federal government has made the Standard Contract with DOE a prerequisite for the issuance or renewal of nuclear power plant licenses.

“On the basis of these contracts, Southern Company entities have paid over $1.2 billion into the Nuclear Waste Fund (NWF). Nationwide, contributions to the NWF have exceeded $30 billion (inclusive of interest allocation). The federal government, however, has yet to build the permanent SNF repository that is required by the NWPA and the Standard Contract.

“While there is good reason for optimism, such as recent court rulings affirming the requirements of the NWPA and the NRC’s issuance of the safety reports for the Yucca Mountain repository, we also recognize that sustaining progress has been elusive. Failing to move forward with the permanent repository at Yucca Mountain would have several adverse impacts, such as prolonging regulatory uncertainty for the nuclear industry and unfairly creating concern on the part of the public about nuclear power at a time when nuclear energy is absolutely critical to meeting the nation’s economic, energy, and environmental needs. In addition, lack of action on a permanent repository will require nuclear power plant operators to continue to manage, secure, and oversee SNF storage systems, which take up valuable space at power plants, create additional site security concerns, and drive up the costs for operating nuclear reactors. As importantly, inaction will only serve to impose increased costs on the federal government and taxpayers.

Kuczynski is responsible for the operation of a fleet of six nuclear power units at three sites as well as the construction of two new reactors at Plant Vogtle near Augusta, Georgia.

“Southern Company is leading the nation by constructing two new nuclear units at Plant Vogtle (currently anticipated to begin commercial operation in 2019 and 2020, respectively),” he wrote. “Taken together, these state-of-the-art Westinghouse AP1000 units are projected to supply over 2,200 megawatts (MW) of new, baseload, zero-emission electric generation, creating more than 5,000 total construction jobs and 800 permanent jobs. These are some of the first new nuclear units to be built in the United States in over 30 years.”

“On the basis of the Standard Contract, Alabama Power and Georgia Power have paid over $1.2 billion into the NWF for the nuclear energy produced to date at Plants Farley, Hatch, and Vogtle. The federal government, however, has yet to build the permanent SNF repository that is required by the NWPA and the Standard Contract. Because of this failure, DOE did not begin accepting SNF from the nation’s domestic nuclear electrical utilities by the January 31, 1998 deadline. As a result, nuclear utilities filed breach of contract actions against the federal government in the United States Court of Federal Claims. As existing law continues to require a repository, these actions are for partial breach of contract only, not total breach. Thus, as partial breach cases, the utilities are not recovering payments made into the NWF.

“Instead, recoveries to date have been limited to the costs that utilities have incurred in connection with construction, operation, and maintenance of their dry storage facilities, provided that the utility bringing the claim would not have needed those dry storage facilities if the government had begun accepting SNF for storage by January 31, 1998.”

Getting Yucca Mountain built would eliminate a lot of industry uncertainty

Kuczynski said he is encouraged by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s recent decision, following court decisions against a government abandonment of the Yucca planning, to use available funds to complete the supplemental environmental impact statement for the Yucca Mountain repository, although additional funding will also be needed to allow the NRC to complete the licensing process. “In that regard, it is noteworthy that the House of Representatives Energy and Water Appropriations Bill for FY2016 (H.R. 2028), which was approved by the full House of Representatives on May 1, 2015, would provide $150 million for further progress on the Yucca license,” he added.

“While there is good reason for optimism, we also recognize that sustaining progress on the Yucca repository has been elusive. Failing to move forward with the permanent repository at Yucca Mountain would have several adverse impacts.”

  • First, continued inaction on Yucca Mountain would prolong regulatory uncertainty for the nuclear industry. “Our industry has seen firsthand how issues related to SNF can seriously complicate, or even prevent, licensing and operation of power plants. This was clearly seen in the period of time between the court order remanding the Waste Confidence Decision in June 2012 and the NRC’s issuance of the Continued Storage Rule in August 2014, when a virtual moratorium on new licensing decisions was in effect. Increased uncertainty about the future of SNF also risks impacting decisions to invest in new nuclear capacity, which is a source of clean, safe, and reliable energy.”
  • Second, continued inaction unfairly creates concern on the part of the public about nuclear power. “We are able to safely handle SNF, but the failure of the federal government to move it, using the funds already paid by customers, to a permanent repository could have a detrimental impact on public support for nuclear power at a time when nuclear energy is absolutely critical to meeting the nation’s economic, energy, and environmental needs.”
  • Third, inaction on Yucca Mountain means that nuclear power plant operators themselves must continue to manage, secure, and oversee SNF storage systems (whether spent fuel pools or dry casks), which takes up valuable space at power plants, causes operators to spend more on site security and storage facilities and drives up costs for operating nuclear reactors.
  • Fourth, inaction on Yucca Mountain will impose increased costs on customers, the federal government, and taxpayers. Nationwide, electricity customers have paid approximately $750 million annually in nuclear waste fees for these purposes, pushing the current balance of the NWF to more than $30 billion (with accrued interest).

“It is in the best interests of the nation, federal taxpayers, electricity customers, the general public, and the electric utilities to have all of the approximately 70,000 metric tons of nuclear waste— currently stored at nuclear facilities across 33 states—properly and safely disposed of in a permanent repository as required by the NWPA,” he added.

About Barry Cassell 20414 Articles
Barry Cassell is Chief Analyst for GenerationHub covering coal and emission controls issues, projects and policy. He has covered the coal and power generation industry for more than 24 years, beginning in November 2011 at GenerationHub and prior to that as editor of SNL Energy’s Coal Report. He was formerly with Coal Outlook for 15 years as the publication’s editor and contributing writer, and prior to that he was editor of Coal & Synfuels Technology and associate editor of The Energy Report. He has a bachelor’s degree from Central Michigan University.