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Tue, Jun 6, 2023, 4:02AM Radwaste Solutions

Hanford’s Waste Treatment and Immobilization Plant. (Photo: DOE)

A pair of recent reports by the U.S. Government Accountability Office and the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine highlight some of the challenges the Department of Energy faces in treating the millions of gallons of legacy radioactive waste at the Hanford Site in Washington state.

Both reports focus on recent efforts by the DOE to assess possible alternatives to vitrifying Hanford’s 54 million gallons of liquid tank waste, immobilizing it in a solid glass form. The DOE has long intended to vitrify all the tank waste after separating it into high- and low-level radioactive waste streams. That plan, however, may not be feasible, as the DOE continues to face technical problems, cost overruns, and schedule delays with building the site’s Waste Treatment and Immobilization Plant (WTP).

The issues: According to the GAO, construction of the WTP’s Pretreatment Facility, which would separate the waste streams, and High-Level Waste Facility, which would vitrify the HLW, cannot be completed as planned due to technical issues. Completing the facilities as planned, the GAO said, would be cost and schedule prohibitive.

Likewise, the WTP’s Low-Activity Waste Facility, which is currently being commissioned, does not have the capacity to vitrify all of Hanford’s LLW, and the DOE is seeking alternatives for treating the remaining waste, referred to as supplemental low-activity waste (SLAW). The DOE is currently reviewing the possibility of solidifying Hanford’s SLAW in grout and disposing of it on site, at an outside facility, or a combination of both.

The DOE is also negotiating with the Washington State Department of Ecology and the Environmental Protection Agency on revising court-mandated deadlines for treating Hanford’s tank waste.

High-level waste: The GAO report, Hanford Cleanup: DOE Should Validate its Analysis of High-Level Waste Treatment Alternatives, assesses the DOE’s consideration of 24 options for treating Hanford’s HLW. Those options were outlined in an analysis of alternatives report released by the DOE in January. The analysis also found that the life-cycle cost estimates for treating the HLW ranged from $135 billion to $5 trillion.

While the DOE plans to select an alternative for HLW treatment in the near future, the GAO found that the DOE has not committed to validating its analysis of alternatives. “Given the enormous cost and schedule implications of the decision, it is essential for DOE to take steps now to provide assurance that all viable alternatives for optimizing the tank waste treatment mission are considered,” the GAO said in its report.

The DOE agreed with the GAO’s recommendation to obtain an independent review of the department’s analysis of HLW treatment alternatives, adding that actions the department has and will take satisfy the recommendation. The GAO, however, said it believes further action is needed.

Low-level waste: The NASEM report, Review of the Continued Analysis of Supplemental Treatment Approaches of Low-Activity Waste at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, which is still in prepublication as of this writing, is the third and final report on the organization’s review of an analysis of options for treating Hanford’s SLAW. As directed by law, that analysis was conducted by a federally funded research and development center (FFRDC) led by Savannah River National Laboratory.

The FFRDC selected four alternative approaches to treating the SLAW, with a baseline alternative of vitrification with disposal at Hanford’s on-site disposal facility. The three other alternatives include solidification through steam reforming (similar to that of Idaho’s Integrated Waste Treatment Unit) with on-site disposal, off-site grouting and disposal, and a phased approach that begins with off-site grouting and disposal and transitions to on-site operations.

According to the NASEM, the FFRDC has made a strong technical case that off-site grouting and disposal is for the most part the preferred option, and may be a technically valid option with on-site disposal if found acceptable from a waste acceptance standpoint.

The NASEM also found that “a clear and persistent difference exists” between grouting and vitrification and steam reforming, and that grouting “dominates the other two alternatives on the basis of lower cost and shorter time to operational startup”.

Before reaching a decision on specific alternatives, the NASEM said that a detailed analysis will still be needed for a wider variety of grouting options. This includes the location of grouting plants, the possibility of on-site commercial SLAW facilities, and a detailed assessment of the waste acceptance criteria, cost, and other aspects of off-site treatment or disposal, including regulatory and public acceptance.

Krall LM, Macfarlane AM, and Ewing RC, Nuclear waste from small modular reactors, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS); (2022); 119 (23): e2111833119. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/35639689/. https://www.pnas.org/doi/10.1073/pnas.2111833119

[A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) in May 2022 indicates that small modular reactors (SMRs) – nuclear reactors designed to produce <300 megawatts (MW) of electricity – are likely to exacerbate the challenges of nuclear waste management and disposal. (Krall et al, 2022) The study, coauthored by Lindsay M. Krall and Rodney  C. Ewing of the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University and Allison M. Macfarlane, of the School of Public Policy and Global Affairs at University of British Columbia Vancouver, a former Chair of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).
Developers, vendors and others touting SMRs and other “advanced” reactors claim that they will create less spent nuclear fuel (SNF) or high-level waste (HLW) than traditional 1,000 MW pressurized water reactors (PWRs), the prevalent type of reactor in commercial operation today. However the promoters “often employ simple metrics, such as mass or total radiotoxicity” to support their claims. 

About 30 of the 70 SMR designs listed in the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Advanced Reactors Information System are characterized as “‘advanced’” reactors, which would use non-water coolants (e.g., helium, liquid metal, or molten salt). 

For this study, Krall et al estimated the amount and characterized the nature of the nuclear waste from 3 distinct proposed SMR designs championed as advanced under development by NuScale, Terrestrial Energy, and Toshiba.  The designs, respectively, involve proposed water-cooled, molten salt–cooled, and sodium-cooled SMRs.  Krall et al analyzed the energy-equivalent volume, radio-chemistry, decay heat, and fissile isotope composition of spent fuel, high-level waste (HLW), and low- and intermediate-level (LILW) low-level waste streams. Their calculations indicate the SMRs are likely to “produce more voluminous and chemically/physically reactive waste” than traditional light water reactors. 
Specifically the research group’s calculations indicate SMRs may generate 2 to 30 times more radioactive waste in need of management and disposal than conventional reactors per unit energy extracted. 
Although the Krall analysis focuses on only 3 of dozens of proposed SMR designs, it advances that intrinsically higher levels of neutron leakage (causing activation of reactor materials) associated with SMRs suggests that most designs are inferior to traditional commercial reactors with respect to the generation, management, and final disposal of nuclear waste.
“This increase of volume and chemical complexity will be an additional burden on waste storage, packaging, and geologic disposal. Also, SMRs offer no apparent benefit in the development of a safety case for a well-functioning geological repository.”
The finding of additional waste volume is attributed to the use of neutron reflectors and/or of chemically reactive fuels and coolants in SMR designs. 

Moreover, the volume of waste and energy-equivalent volume of waste are not the only important evaluation metrics.  “Nuclear reactors generate several distinct waste streams, which contain variable concentrations of radionuclides that have a range of half-lives from hours to millions of years and a variety of very different nuclear and chemical properties.” The radionuclide composition and speciation are “important parameters” for consideration of nuclear waste disposal in a geologic repository. 

In the analysis, Krall et al note that management and disposal of SNF or HLW must take into account metrics beyond mass, volume, or radioactivity and consider: “ • the chemistry of the SNF matrix and its radionuclide contents, which influences the environmental mobility of radionuclides and their consequent potential to deliver radiation doses to humans in the biosphere;  •  the heat generated by radioactive decay, which can damage the SNF matrix, as well as other components of the barrier system (e.g., the stability of backfill clays used to inhibit radionuclide transport);  and • the concentrations of fissile isotopes in the SNF, which influence its potential to sustain a heat-generating critical chain reaction that can damage the fuel and barrier systems in a geologic repository .” 
“These variables depend on the SNF radiochemical composition (i.e., the radionuclide amount and type, including their chemical properties, half-lives, decay modes, and daughter products), which in turn, depends on the initial fuel composition, its final burnup, and the time elapsed since it was discharged from the reactor. In addition, the in-core neutron energy spectrum affects the types and amounts of radionuclides formed in the fuel and reactor materials, such that the composition of SNF generated by a moderated thermal-spectrum reactor will differ from that generated by a fast reactor.”
The specifics of waste chemistry is also relevant for determination of how any particular nuclear material may be stored. Proposed SMRs “employ chemically exotic fuels and coolants (e.g., metallic sodium, metallic uranium, and uranium tetrafluoride) that react rapidly with water and/or atmospheric oxygen.” Experience with the handling and disposing of these chemically unstable waste streams is limited. 
Krall et al add that exotic spent fuel, coolant, and/or moderator materials will require treatment and conditioning prior to disposal, but, as the properties of the by-products and infrastructure associated with such processes are uncertain, the additional waste streams generated by treatment and conditioning processes are not addressed in this study.
Krall et al conclude: 

“This analysis of three distinct SMR designs shows that, relative to a gigawatt-scale PWR, these reactors will increase the energy-equivalent volumes of SNF, long-lived LILW, and short-lived LILW by factors of up to 5.5, 30, and 35, respectively. These findings stand in contrast to the waste reduction benefits that advocates have claimed for advanced nuclear technologies. More importantly, SMR waste streams will bear significant (radio-)chemical differences from those of existing reactors. Molten salt– and sodium-cooled SMRs will use highly corrosive and pyrophoric fuels and coolants that, following irradiation, will become highly radioactive. Relatively high concentrations of 239Pu and 235U in low–burnup SMR SNF will render recriticality a significant risk for these chemically unstable waste streams.”

“SMR waste streams that are susceptible to exothermic chemical reactions or nuclear criticality when in contact with water or other repository materials are unsuitable for direct geologic disposal. Hence, the large volumes of reactive SMR waste will need to be treated, conditioned, and appropriately packaged prior to geological disposal. These processes will introduce significant costs—and likely, radiation exposure and fissile material proliferation pathways—to the back end of the nuclear fuel cycle and entail no apparent benefit for long-term safety.

Although we have analyzed only three of the dozens of proposed SMR designs, these findings are driven by the basic physical reality that, relative to a larger reactor with a similar design and fuel cycle, neutron leakage will be enhanced in the SMR core. Therefore, most SMR designs entail a significant net disadvantage for nuclear waste disposal activities. Given that SMRs are incompatible with existing nuclear waste disposal technologies and concepts, future studies should address whether safe interim storage of reactive SMR waste streams is credible in the context of a continued delay in the development of a geologic repository in the United States.”]

Key Findings

NuScale and the Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems (UAMPS) announced costs of a 462-megawatt small modular reactor (SMR) have risen dramatically.

As recently as mid-2021, the target price for power was pegged at $58 per megawatt-hour (MWh); it’s risen to $89/MWh, a 53% increase.

The price would be much higher without $4 billion federal tax subsidies that include a $1.4 billion U.S. Department of Energy contribution and a $30/MWh break from the Inflation Reduction Act.

The higher target price is due to a 75% increase in the estimated construction cost for the project, from $5.3 to $9.3 billion dollars.

Last week, NuScale and the Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems (UAMPS) announced what many have long expected. The construction cost and target price estimates for the 462-megawatt (MW) small modular reactor (SMR) are going up, way up.

From 2016 to 2020, they said the target power price was $55/megawatt-hour (MWh). Then, the price was raised to $58/MWh when the project was downsized from 12 reactor modules to just six (924MW to 462MW). Now, after preparing a new and much more detailed cost estimate,  the target price for the power from the proposed SMR has soared to $89/MWh.

UAMPS NuScale SMR Target Price of Power

Remarkably, the new $89/MWh price of power would be much higher if it were not for more than $4 billion in subsidies NuScale and UAMPS expect to get from U.S. taxpayers through a $1.4 billion contribution from the Department of Energy and the estimated $30/MWh subsidy in the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA). 
It also is important to remember that the $89/MWh target price is in 2022 dollars and substantially understates what utilities and their ratepayers actually will pay if the SMR is completed. For example, assuming a modest 2% inflation rate through 2030, utilities and ratepayers would pay $102 for each MWh of power from the SMR—not the $89 NuScale and UAMPS want them to believe they will pay.
The 53% increase in the SMR’s target power price since 2021 has been driven by a dramatic 75% jump in the project’s estimated construction cost, which has risen from $5.3 billion to $9.3 billion. The new estimate makes the NuScale SMR about as expensive on a dollars-per-kilowatt basis ($20,139/kW) as the two-reactor Vogtle nuclear project currently being built in Georgia, undercutting the claim that SMRs will be cheap to build.
NuScale and UAMPS attribute the construction cost increase to inflationary pressure on the energy supply chain, particularly increases in the prices of the commodities that will be used in nuclear power plant construction.
For example, UAMPS says increases in the producer price index in the past two years have raised the cost of:
  • Fabricated steel plate by 54%  
  • Carbon steel piping by 106%  
  • Electrical equipment by 25%  
  • Fabricated structural steel by 70%  
  • Copper wire and cable by 32%
In addition, UAMPS notes that the interest rate used for the project’s cost modeling has increased approximately 200 basis points since July 2020. The higher interest rate increases the cost of financing the project, raising its total construction cost.
Assuming the commodity price increases cited by NuScale and UAMPS are accurate, the prices of building all the SMRs that NuScale is marketing—and, indeed, of all of the SMR designs currently being marketed by any company—will be much higher than has been acknowledged, and the prices of the power produced by those SMRs will be much more expensive.
Finally, as we’ve previously said, no one should fool themselves into believing this will be the last cost increase for the NuScale/UAMPS SMR. The project still needs to go through additional design, licensing by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, construction and pre-operational testing. The experience of other reactors has repeatedly shown that further significant cost increases and substantial schedule delays should be anticipated at any stages of project development.
The higher costs announced last week make it even more imperative that UAMPS and the utilities and communities participating in the project issue requests for proposal (RFP) to learn if there are other resources that can provide the same power, energy and reliability as the SMR but at lower cost and lower financial risk. History shows that this won’t be the last cost increase for the SMR project.
David Schlissel (dschlissel@ieefa.org) is IEEFA director of resource planning analysis
The message about the soaring cost of NuScale’s proposed SMR is getting out.
"This is nuts:" European power prices go negative as springtime renewables soar | RenewEconomy
California prices are in negative territory this morning.  The Spring brings this out – solar production is high, loads are low.  Add some wind, and you have a glut.  
In the US, this is compounded by the production tax credit for earlier wind products.  Producers receive 1.9 cents/kwh when they produce.  So they continue producing when the price goes negative.  This is devastating for nuclear, as it does not have the flexibility to follow the market.  
In the Pacific Northwest, we have an interesting twist on this.  During the “fish flush” season, when juvenile salmon need to get to the ocean by the time their bodies evolve to salt water species, we have to run hydro through the turbines.  We cannot spill too much of it over the top, as that results in nitrogen supersaturation of the water, which can contribute to gas bubble disease in the juveniles.
But, the article that Arnie sent, with prices predicted to go to -235 Euro/MWh, is really quite extraordinary.

“This is nuts:” European power prices go negative as springtime renewables soar
31 May 2023

Balmy springtime weather across Europe and growing renewable energy capacity has led to multiple days of negative wholesale power prices across the continent, highlighting the need for increased energy storage capacity.
A number of factors have led to consistent negative wholesale power prices across Europe over the last few weeks.
Energy analyst Gerard Reid has been highlighting these trends stemming not only from increased renewables and favourable weather conditions, but also the impediment to stable generation levels caused by nuclear power.

For example, according to Reid, Denmark “consistently meets 85% of its weekly energy needs from renewables. However, on particularly windy days … Denmark’s strong interconnections with neighbouring countries enable it to export up to 50% of excess power.
“This demonstrates the benefits of interconnection, but it also reveals the limitations when considering the current situation of excess power across Europe.
“Countries like Spain, France, the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark, and Sweden are experiencing zero or negative prices due to surplus production as they have reached the limit of what they can use or even export.”
Reid followed this up a week later, explaining that wholesale power prices dropping to zero or negative in the Nordics “stems from substantial snow melt in Norway, Sweden, and Finland, fuelling hydro turbines and generating large amounts of electricity.”
MetDesk meteorologist Theo Gkousarov concurred, explaining how the recent weather conditions have led to negative prices.
“An area of high pressure dominating across much of central and north-west Europe” resulted in ‘lots of solar power generation across the area,” he said.
Similarly, in Finland, “an oversupply of hydroelectric power” resulted from “excessive springtime meltwater”.
But it is not just the weather that is delivering abundant renewables, while also making life difficult for network operators.
“Additionally, the inflexibility of nuclear power exacerbates the situation, as it’s difficult to adjust its output,” explained Reid.
“Furthermore, the region witnessed the addition of new generation capacity last year, including 5 GW of wind power and the Olkiluoto 3 nuclear reactor in Finland, boasting a capacity of 1.6 GW.
“Simultaneously, weak power demand in the Nordics, primarily due to Sweden’s weak economic environment, compounds the issue of oversupply. Consequently, the least flexible generators, such as run-of-the-river hydro and nuclear plants, incur costs to offload excess power.”
Reid and Gkousarov both highlighted the recent price volatility of wholesale power prices across Europe that has been seen over the last 10 days.
Over the weekend in Europe, negative wholesale prices hit across a huge portion of Europe, with prices rising from negative by on average EUR100 per MWh when the sun set.
On Sunday, power prices in the Netherlands were expected to hit negative EUR235/MWh, while prices in Germany at lunchtime hit -EUR129/MWh.
As Reid put it: “This is nuts.”
The problem is that companies are having to pay to offload excess electricity generated due to the inflexibility in the systems.
And while long-term solutions, according to Reid, include “building more pumped hydro storage … upgrading existing hydro facilities … increasing flexible demand … building out grid infrastructure,” the immediate solution is short-term batteries.
“Batteries are destined to become integral components of our power systems in the future,” said Reid.
“The pressing question is whether traditional power generators can act swiftly enough to avoid losses from generating and selling electricity below their operating costs.”

Joshua S Hil
The amounts of Fukushima waste water  radioactive inventory are listed further down in this linked TEPCO document. It doesn't specifically mention plutonium, but plutonium is part of the inventory.

This waste water radioactive inventory reinforces the point we should not focus only on tritium in any radioactive waste water.
A biochemist once told me, "think of radiation as bullets. Whatever it hits is what it harms."
Tap water quality reports in the U.S. give limited or no information about radionuclides in our drinking water. The below EWG database provides public tap water reports for water utilities in the U.S.
Donna Gilmore
NRC Revokes License of West Virginia Company
The NRC has issued an order revoking the license of a Huntington, West Virginia, industrial 
radiography company based on its submittal of inaccurate information and lack of a qualified 
radiation safety officer.
The NRC’s Office of Investigations conducted an investigation involving APINDE Inc., which led to a 
determination that in the company’s initial application to the agency for a license to use nuclear 
materials, as well as in related correspondence, APINDE submitted an inaccurate training 
certificate and inaccurate information regarding the recent radiography experience for the 
individual proposed as the radiation safety officer. In addition, the company subsequently 
requested a new radiation safety officer be added to its license, but submitted an inaccurate 
training certificate for that individual.
Following the NRC’s initial identification of the issues, the agency issued an order on Aug. 22, 2019,
suspending APINDE’s license. Although the company provided a response acknowledging the 
errors and stating it would take corrective actions, it failed to take steps to provide the agency 
with reasonable assurance that it had addressed the issues.
Based on this lack of action, the NRC is revoking the company’s license. The revocation and 
termination of the license will take effect within 30 days unless the company can demonstrate good 
cause for that not to occur.
A copy of the revocation order will soon be made available in the NRC’s electronic documents 
system, ADAMS.
APINDE cannot conduct NRC-licensed activities unless it applies for and receives a new license.

Nuclear Information and Resource Service


On April 15, 2023 utilities in Germany shut down the country’s three last remaining nuclear power plants. These closures mark the successful planned phase-out of German nuclear energy from the nation’s grid.  

Our latest blog explores Germany’s Energiewende (“energy transition”), the overarching policy commitment to achieve a low-carbon, nuclear-free economy and transition to renewable energy. The recently completed phase-out of nuclear power is a major milestone for Germany’s energy transition.  

It is a success story. 

Germany’s energy transition has, so far, resulted in a massive build-out of renewable energy and significant reductions in emissions. Germany’s transition shows that an energy policy grounded in environmental values works – and the earlier climate policy is implemented, the sooner the climate policy goals can be realized. Above all, the German energy transition shows the tremendous power of active citizenry, organized social movements, and activism to transform policy and successfully demand change. 


Thank you for all you do!  

The NIRS Team

Diane D’Arrigo

Denise Jakobsberg

Tim Judson

Quinn McCann

Hannah Smay  

Dear Friends and Colleagues,

We are striving to block Holtec from barging high-level radioactive wastes on Lake Michigan, from Palisades in Covert Township, Michigan to the Port of Muskegon. But non-Holtec nuclear power plant sites could also barge highly radioactive wastes on Lake Michigan, if this Holtec dump in New Mexico opens, as from Wisconsin's three reactors, to the Port of Milwaukee. The barges would off-load the high-level radioactive waste containers onto trains at the ports, for the rest of the shipment journey by rail.

For more info., see: https://www.nirs.org/wp-content/uploads/factsheets/mibargefactsheet92804.pdf

The Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, working in cahoots with DOE and NRC, is also exploring options for additional nuclear power plants to barge high-level radioactive waste, not only on Lake Michigan, but also upon the surface waters of additional Great Lakes. See: https://archive.beyondnuclear.org/radioactive-waste-whatsnew/2016/1/20/doe-undertaking-logistical-planning-for-shipment-of-stranded.html

Please get this press release below out to reporters/your media lists. Thanks!

---Kevin Kamps, Beyond Nuclear and Don't Waste Michigan



  For immediate release 

  Contact: Kevin Kamps,  kevin@beyondnuclear.org, 240-462-3216
  Diane D’Arrigo, dianed@nirs.org, 301-270-6477, extension 3
  Michael Keegan, mkeeganj@comcast.com, 734-770-1441

Rose Gardner, nmlady2000@icloud.com, 575-390-9634

Terry Lodge, Legal Counsel for DWM et al., tjlodge50@yahoo.com, 419-205-7084

Stephen Kent, skent@kentcom.com, 914-589-5988




Today, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) announced it approved licensing for Holtec International’s controversial consolidated interim storage facility (CISF) in southeastern New Mexico’s Lea County, not far from the Texas border.  The facility is designed to store high-level radioactive waste from nuclear power plants across the U.S. But NRC approval notwithstanding, a recently enacted New Mexico State law and multiple federal court challenges may yet block the project.

Holtec’s Bid to Enter the Nuclear Waste Storage Business

Holtec International is a New Jersey-based company which manufactures radioactive waste containers and decommissions nuclear power plants. But, in an unprecedented scheme, Holtec recently sought to return to operations a reactor in Michigan which was already shut down and which it supposedly acquired for the purpose of decommissioning only. It has also proposed building two-dozen so-called Small Modular Nuclear Reactors (SMNRs) of its own design, using federal and state subsidies including $7.4 billion in U.S. Department of Energy (DOE)-issued nuclear loan guarantees. The SMNRs are proposed to be built in New Jersey, Michigan, and Ukraine.   

Holtec now seeks to branch out into consolidated storage and its associated high-level radioactive waste transportation. On the New Mexico CISF scheme it partnered with the Eddy-Lea Energy Alliance (ELEA), a quasi-governmental entity comprised of Eddy and Lea Counties (which border one another), as well as their county seats of Carlsbad and Hobbs, New Mexico.  ELEA owns the targeted nuclear waste CISF site’s land surface, and would take a large cut of the proceeds.

Giant Capacity May Signal Storing Foreign and Military Nuclear Waste

The Holtec-ELEA nuclear waste CISF would store up to 173,600 metric tons of highly radioactive irradiated fuel (often euphemistically called “spent” nuclear fuel or SNF, despite the fact it is highly radioactive and lethal), as well as Greater-Than-Class-C (GTCC) radioactive waste from commercial nuclear reactors. The facility would hold up to 10,000 canisters of nuclear waste, inserted into pits in a platform which sits on the surface.  Part of the canisters would stay above the natural land surface.

“If opened, the site could become home to the biggest concentration of radioactive waste in the world,” reported Diane D’Arrigo, Radioactive Waste Project Director at Nuclear Information and Resource Service.

The Holtec-ELEA CISF’s nuclear waste storage capacity would be in addition to another planned CISF some 40 miles to the east in Andrews County, Texas.  If built, it would be able to store 40,000 metric tons of irradiated fuel and GTCC in above-ground dry casks. The Texas facility, proposed by Interim Storage Partners, LLC (ISP), was granted construction and operation license approval by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission on September 13, 2021.

Since the entire SNF inventory at U.S. commercial reactors is just over 90,000 metric tons, experts have questioned why the Texas and New Mexico facilities would need a combined capacity of 213,600 metric tons, and whether the projects may be aiming to store nuclear waste from abroad and/or from the military.

There is precedent for shipping irradiated fuel from other countries to the U.S. for storage at Idaho National Labs. And in 2018, a test shipment of a mock SNF cask was transported from Europe to Colorado. Lead ISP partner Orano (formerly Areva) of France services the largest nuclear power reactor fleet of any single company in the western world. It lacks facilities in France to permanently dispose of the country’s own waste. 

The consortium backing the ISP facility includes Waste Control Specialists, LLC (WCS), a national dump for so-called “low-level” radioactive waste, located immediately adjacent to (and upstream of) the New Mexico border.  WCS loudly proclaims its ties to the U.S. military, which needs to dispose of its own highly radioactive wastes.

Nuclear Waste Transport Dangers 

Opening a CISF in the U.S. would trigger many thousands of shipments of domestic irradiated fuel across many of the Lower 48 states, through a large percentage of U.S. congressional districts. SNF canisters and transport casks are subject to so-called “routine” radiation emissions, as well as leakage and other failures, which would pose threats to thousands of communities along the transportation routes.

“Transporting highly radioactive waste is inherently high-risk,” said Kevin Kamps, Radioactive Waste Specialist with Beyond Nuclear. “Fully loaded irradiated nuclear fuel containers would be among the very heaviest loads on the roads, rails, and waterways. They would test the structural integrity of badly degraded rails, for example, risking derailments. Even if our nation’s infrastructure gets renovated someday, the shipping containers themselves will remain vulnerable to severe accidents and terrorist attacks.

They could release catastrophic amounts of hazardous radioactivity, possibly in densely populated urban areas.”

“Even so-called ‘incident-free’ shipments are like mobile X-ray machines that can’t be turned off, in terms of the hazardous emissions of gamma and neutron radiation, dosing innocent passersby, as well as transport workers," Kamps added.

Kamps’ February 24 letter to U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, cc'd to governors and state Attorneys General across the U.S., warned of the dangers of transporting high-level radioactive waste. "The recent train wreck at East Palestine, Ohio demonstrates the urgency of the problem and the potential for a serious radiological accident from nuclear waste transport," he wrote. "Environmental toxicologists have expressed deep concern that detection and response to release of hazardous chemicals in East Palestine were ineffective and untransparent and failed to protect public health and safety. But if the train that derailed had been carrying SNF or other highly radioactive wastes, the consequences would have been much worse."

The Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board has recommended spending a minimum of a decade to develop better irradiated nuclear fuel cask and canister designs before attempting to transport highly radioactive wastes. Yet Holtec and ISP expect their nuclear waste CISFs to open and start accepting shipments in just the next few years. 

State Laws Could Block CISF Projects

Multiple lawsuits in federal appeals courts and state laws opposing storage and disposal of irradiated nuclear fuel in both New Mexico and Texas could upend both nuclear waste CISF schemes.

Siting nuclear facilities is supposed to be consent-based, but both Texas and New Mexico have made it abundantly clear they do not consent.  In advance of the NRC licensing the ISP facility in September 2021, the Texas legislature overwhelmingly approved a bill banning storage or disposal of high-level radioactive waste including SNF in the state, and directing the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to deny state permits the ISP project needs. The measure passed the Texas Senate unanimously, and passed the Texas House 119-3. Texas Governor Greg Abbott then signed the bill into law.

"This kind of bipartisan vote is very rare", said Karen Hadden, Executive Director of the Sustainable Energy and Economic Development (SEED) Coalition based in Austin, TX. "The message should be loud and clear: Texas doesn't want the nation's deadliest nuclear waste and does not consent to being a dumping ground." 

In the runup to the Legislature passing the law, opposition to the ISP project in Texas was widespread and vocal. Abbott and a bipartisan group of U.S. Congressional Representatives from Texas wrote strong letters to the NRC opposing the project. Andrews County, five other counties and three cities, representing a total of 5.4 million

Texans, passed resolutions opposing importing nuclear waste from other states to Texas. School districts, the Midland Chamber of Commerce and oil and gas companies joined environmental and faith-based groups in opposing the ISP project. The City of Fort Worth, Texas submitted a Friend of the Court brief supporting appeals against ISP in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

Strenuous opposition to nuclear waste CISFs is also widespread in New Mexico. The state recently enacted Senate Bill 53 (SB53) barring storage and disposal of highly radioactive wastes in New Mexico without its explicit consent. New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham signed SB53 into law on March 17, 2023,  immediately after it had passed both houses of the State Legislature.  Grisham has strongly objected to both nuclear waste CISFs on either side of New Mexico’s southeastern border since before she became governor in 2019.

“I am thankful that the New Mexico Legislature voted to stop this dangerous nuclear waste from coming to our state, and for Governor Grisham for signing it into law,” said Rose Gardner of Eunice, New Mexico, co-founder of the environmental justice watchdog group Alliance for Environmental Strategies. Gardner’s hometown is very close to the ISP project site in Texas, as well as to the Waste Control Specialists, LLC (WCS) national dump for hazardous and so-called “low-level” radioactive waste. Every single one of thousands of rail shipments of highly radioactive waste bound for the ISP CISF would pass through Eunice. 

“I live less than five miles from the ISP site, yet my community in New Mexico has had no vote and no choice, and gave no consent for nuclear waste to be stored at the facility,” she said. “I have long been concerned about WCS and its voracious appetite for bringing more and more nuclear waste to my area, claiming it now needs a license for high-level radioactive waste because the waste disposal business wasn't making enough money.  I hope my concerns will be heard by a higher court than the NRC."

Gardner has served as a standing declarant in legal challenges to both the Holtec and the ISP CISFs in federal court.

Lawsuits Argue CISFs Violate Federal Law 

Two sets of lawsuits seek to block the ISP project in Texas and the Holtec project in New Mexico on the grounds that they violate federal law. They have been pending before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit for years. 

In January 2023, the court rejected all opponents’ appeals against the Interim Storage Partners nuclear waste CISF in Texas. However, a separate federal court, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans, is still considering appeals against the ISP CISF from the State of Texas, as well as from Fasken Land and Minerals, LLC/Permian Basin Land and Royalty Owners. 

After being held in abeyance for several years, now that NRC has approved the license for the Holtec nuclear waste CISF in New Mexico, federal appeals against it are likely to move forward.  The briefing phase of the D.C. Court of Appeals lawsuit is expected to resume soon, and other federal appeals are also ripe for judicial consideration in the 5th and 10th (Denver) circuits, pending final agency action.

These lawsuits argue that nuclear waste CISFs violate federal law. Consolidated interim storage facilities are predicated on the assumption that the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) will enable SNF transportation by taking title to commercial reactor waste as it leaves the reactor sites, thus relieving the licensees of their liability for it. But transferring responsibility for highly radioactive nuclear waste from private businesses to the federal government is specifically prohibited by the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982, as Amended (NWPA) -- unless and until a geologic repository is open and operating.  By DOE’s own admission, an operating geologic repository remains at least 25 years away. 

The prohibition against DOE taking title to commercial reactor waste was included in the NWPA precisely to guard against “interim” storage sites becoming de facto permanent surface dumps for nuclear waste. But the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s CISF licensing process was pushed ahead anyway in defiance of the law, on the theory the law will be changed by Congress and the President. 

Former New Mexico U.S. Senator Jeff Bingaman, who chaired the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, was adamant that this “linkage” between any “interim” site to an operating final repository remain in the law.

“The NRC never should have even considered these applications, because they blatantly violate the federal Nuclear Waste Policy Act by assuming that the federal government will take responsibility for the waste before a permanent repository is licensed and operating,” said Diane Curran, an attorney for Beyond Nuclear, one of the groups that brought the suits.

”Licensing the ISP and Holtec facilities would defeat Congress’s purpose of ensuring that nuclear waste generated by U.S. reactors will go to a deep geologic repository, rather than to vulnerable surface facilities that may become permanent nuclear waste dumps,” Curran added.

Participants in the legal challenge to the Holtec CISF include the Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) Beyond Nuclear, Sierra Club, and Don't Waste Michigan, et al., a national grassroots coalition of watchdog groups, including the New Mexico-based anti-nuclear collective formerly called Nuclear Issues Study Group (recently renamed DNA, short for Demand Nuclear Abolition). Additional coalition members include: Citizens for Alternatives to Chemical Contamination (MI); Citizens’ Environmental Coalition (NY); Nuclear Energy Information Service (IL); and San Luis Obispo Mothers for Peace (CA). Federal appeals before the D.C. circuit court have also been filed by

Fasken Land and Minerals, Ltd., and Permian Basin Land and Royalty Owners, which advocate for ranching and mineral rights.

"The grand illusion that the nuclear power industry will figure out what to do with the lethal nuclear waste later, is now revealed,” said Michael J. Keegan of Don't Waste Michigan, one of the lead intervenors in the lawsuits. “There is nowhere to put the waste. No community consents to accept nuclear waste -- not Texas, not New Mexico, not Michigan, or anywhere on this planet.  We have to stop making it. No more weapons of mass deception!"