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Nuclear Waste Management’s Future: John Kotek Discusses the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future’s Conclusions

Submitted by on April 30, 2012 – 9:46 pmNo Comment

John Kotek converses with Idaho Falls residents following his luncheon presentation.

By Mark Mendiola

 

Getting past state-versus-federal rights objections ultimately will be the most challenging aspect of charting a new course for managing the nation’s nuclear waste, the former staff director for the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future says, explaining the commission’s recommendations in its final January 2012 report.

Co-chaired by ex-Indiana Rep. Lee Hamilton and former National Security Affairs Director Brent Scowcroft, the 15-member commission was formed in January 2010 after President Obama announced federal funding for developing the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository in Nevada would be sharply curtailed, effectively shutting it down.

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) spent more than $9 billion on the Yucca Mountain project and anticipated shipping about 70,000 metric tons of high-level nuclear waste to the site about 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas, next to the Nevada Test Site. About 80 percent of its stored waste would have been commercial fuel and the rest DOE spent fuel. Many Nevada officials have opposed the federal repository in their state.

Addressing the City Club of Idaho Falls on May 18, 2012, and assessing the commission’s conclusions, John Kotek said, “We’ve got to stop trying to force these facilities down the throats of unwilling host states.”

Prior to joining Boise-based Gallatin Public Affairs as a partner in 2006, Kotek was deputy manager of DOE’s Idaho Operations Office. He also worked for Argonne National Laboratory as Generation IV and nuclear hydrogen programs manager.

“The commission has urged the administration and the Congress to act on these recommendations – get a new nuclear waste program started in the U.S. so we can make good on this commitment that the federal government has failed to uphold for more than 50 years,” Kotek said.

In 1957, the National Academy of Sciences issued a report on land disposal of spent nuclear fuel and high level waste, recommending deep geologic disposal of highly radioactive waste from nuclear reactors, suggesting buried salt deposits and other rock formations be investigated for permanent repositories.

In the early 1970s, the Atomic Energy Commission announced a salt mine at Lyons, Kansas, US, would be developed as a high-level radioactive waste repository, but backed off it in 1974 after geologists expressed concerns.

In 1984, Congress enacted the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982, which directed DOE to consider Yucca Mountain as the primary site for the nation’s first geologic repository, requiring that it start accepting spent fuel by 1998. “That hasn’t worked out,” Kotek said.

The act established a Nuclear Waste Fund to pay for the waste program with fees collected from utility rate payers who have paid a tenth of a cent per kilowatt hour on electricity generated by the nation’s operating commercial reactors the past 30 years. That has raised about $750 million annually for the Nuclear Waste Fund, which now stands at $27 billion.

About 65,000 metric tons of commercial nuclear waste, plus government-owned high level waste, has been produced, but it is not going anywhere, Kotek said, noting that has created ethical, legal and financial responsibilities – and a sense of urgency to resolve the problem.

The Blue Ribbon Commission was created to deal with the “back end” of the nuclear fuel cycle. The cycle’s front end entails turning uranium and plutonium into fuel inside reactors. The back end deals with what to do with the highly radioactive spent fuel from the reactors, which must be kept isolated. About 95 percent of it is uranium; the rest, primarily plutonium, cesium and strontium.

Of the nation’s 65,000 metric tons of nuclear waste, about 75 percent is kept in pools of water, while 25 percent is kept in dry storage in concrete and steel containers at dozens of “guns, guards and gates” commercial sites throughout the country. Most DOE high level waste is kept at Hanford, the Idaho National Laboratory (INL), the Savannah River National Laboratory in South Carolina and Fort St. Vrain, Colo., presenting another major disposal problem, Kotek said.

About 900,000 gallons of liquid waste remain to be processed at the Integrated Waste Treatment Unit at INL and converted into dry granular sodium carbonate by December 2012 in accordance with DOE’s 1995 Idaho Settlement Agreement.

“Hanford is the biggest challenge,” Kotek said, adding it may be optimistic to believe Hanford will start vitrifying its liquid waste into a stable glass form by 2019.

Blue Ribbon Commission representatives visited Sweden, Finland, the United Kingdom, Russia, Japan and France nuclear waste disposal sites in addition to fact-finding visits to INL, Hanford, Savannah River and the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico. “The commission tried to cast a wide net and learn from the ways it is done in the United States and overseas,” he said.

Among its eight recommendations, the commission concluded a new consent-based approach needs to be adopted in regards to siting and developing nuclear waste sites, Kotek said. It also advised that a new organization dedicated solely to implementing a waste management program be empowered with the authority and resources to do so.

The commission said the new organization should be given access to the Nuclear Waste Fund to build credibility with host states, communities and tribes. “DOE commitments are contingent on funding,” Kotek said. “The way the (federal) budget is going, there’s no guarantee the money will be there.”

Developing one or more geologic disposal facilities and one or more consolidated spent fuel storage facilities in the nation also was recommended. “There’s no technological silver bullet to make the problem go away completely,” Kotek said.

At the behest of states like Idaho, the commission added a recommendation to its final draft that transporting spent nuclear fuel and high level waste be coordinated, including inspecting rails and exploring research and development options.

It also advocated continued U.S. innovation in nuclear energy technology and work force development, as well as US leadership in international efforts to address safety, waste management and non-proliferation security.

In response to questions, Kotek said a general set of standards needs to be established for siting criteria “so people don’t think you’re moving the goal posts.” There has been increasing suspicion that Yucca Mountain’s siting standards were tailored to the Nevada site, he said.

“You don’t ask a state or community to go from no to yes overnight,” Kotek said, adding that arbitrary deadlines should not be imposed as was done with Yucca Mountain, which creates “sub-optimal decision making.”

WIPP’s acceptance of defense-originated transuranic waste in New Mexico grew out of the abandonment of plans for the Lyons, Kan. repository, but it took 25 years to open it in 1999, Kotek noted, mentioning Carlsbad residents enthusiastically support WIPP in their backyard.

The proposed new waste management organization needs to be able to provide substantial financial and technological support as incentives for participating host states, communities and tribal governments, Kotek said.

“The commission believes really the overall record of the U.S. nuclear waste program has been pretty bad. It’s one of broken promises and unmet commitments,” he said. “Other nations are ahead of us in developing geologic facilities.”

The Obama administration is deciding what to do with the commission’s recommendations. DOE has until the end of July to finalize its plan. Congress also must amend the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 to implement the recommendations.

“Congress is in the driver’s seat if we change the Nuclear Waste Policy Act,” Kotek said, stressing DOE needs to start working on siting interim storage facilities. “Congress is starting to take some action to require DOE to implement common recommendations. There’s progress, but it’s going to take time.”

U.S. Sens. Diane Feinstein, D-California; Lamar Alexander, R-Tennessee; Jeff Bingaman, D-New Mexico, and Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, have formed a bipartisan partnership to draft a bill by this summer, but there is not as much traction on the U.S. House side where many representatives want to resurrect Yucca Mountain, Kotek said.

The commission’s former staff director said he is proud that all of its 15 members were unanimous in supporting the final report, and there was no minority opinion. “They agreed to put their names to the report.”

Based in Pocatello, Mark Mendiola has been an Eastern Idaho journalist for more than 30 years, primarily covering business and economic issues. In addition to working in communications for AMI Semiconductor Inc. and CH2M-WG Idaho, Mendiola has hosted and produced “Business Dynamics,” an interview program on Vision 12, Pocatello’s cable access television station, since December 2000. His articles and photographs have appeared in numerous publications.

 

 

 

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John Kotek converses with Idaho Falls residents following his luncheon presentation.

 

 

 

 

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