August 8, 2011 | last updated June 1, 2012 10:33 am

Panel urges speedy removal of CT nuclear waste

HBJ FILE PHOTO
HBJ FILE PHOTO
The dry casks storing 412 metric tons of spent uranium at the former site of Connecticut Yankee in Haddam.

Connecticut's electric utilities and the state's largest power generator cheered a federal panel's report urging the U.S. Department of Energy to do what the state advocated for years — remove nuclear waste from Connecticut, rapidly.

The federal Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future issued its draft report on July 29, addressing the problem of storing uranium once nuclear reactors finish with it. The report is a precursor to a final report in January, and the commission is accepting comments through October.

In the report, the commission ripped current and past presidential administrations unfulfilled obligations to remove nuclear fuel from power plants, thus destroying consumer confidence in nuclear power.

The commission called for the immediate construction of intermediate facilities to consolidate nuclear waste from around the country during development ofa permanent disposal site. The panel said priority should be given to decommissioned reactors, a switch from current policy and an important distinction for Connecticut.

"We are very pleased with that recommendation," said Bob Capstick, director of government and regulatory affairs for Connecticut Yankee. "Our stuff is packed and ready to go."

Connecticut has 1,350 metric tons of spent uranium stored in cooling pools and dry casks at the nuclear Millstone Power Station in Waterford, owned by Dominion. Another 412 metric tons is in dry casks in Haddam, site of the decommissioned Connecticut Yankee nuclear plant, owned by a collection of New England electric utilities, including Berlin-based Connecticut Light & Power and New Haven-based United Illuminating.

In a 1982 agreement, the U.S. Department of Energy agreed to develop a permanent repository for nuclear waste and collect it from power plants starting in 1998. The Energy Department never came to collect the uranium; and in 2009, President Barrack Obama shut down of development of Yucca Mountain in Nevada, which was supposed to be the permanent repository.

Connecticut ratepayers pay $8 million per year to store the nuclear waste in Haddam and Waterford, in addition to $340 million paid since 1982 into the Nuclear Waste Fund for the development of permanent repository.

The Connecticut state government has participated in lawsuits to recoup the money paid for nuclear storage, and last year received $40 million for the first three years of storage in Haddam. Another $264 million lawsuit — covering seven more years — is pending.

But money takes a backseat to efforts to develop a solution to the storage problem.

"For better than a decade this office has argued that federal law mandates that spent nuclear fuel (SNF) is legally the responsibility of the federal government and that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Department of Energy must plan, study and site a safe national nuclear waste repository. The continued indefinite storage of SNF in overloaded fuel pools is unacceptable," state Attorney General George Jepsen.

The Blue Ribbon Commission said the system governing nuclear waste has broken down and urged the creation of a new agency with existing funds to address the issue. The report emphasized removal of fuel from its temporary storage facilities and development of interim and long-term storage.

Capstick said Connecticut Yankee officials will speak during the commission's comment period, especially backing the recommendation giving decommissioned sites priority.

The 588 acres occupied by Connecticut Yankee would be returned to a natural state and sold, if not for the uranium in storage.

Officials at Millstone nuclear believe getting the storage issue solved is vital to the long-term health of the nuclear industry, said Ken Holt, Dominion spokesman. More than 45 percent of Connecticut's power is produced by the nuclear Millstone.

"Nuclear power today plays a vital role in the cost-efficient, emissions-free generation of in the United States," Holt said. "It is our belief that the commission's work will help nuclear power continue that role by making sure that the waste funds are available."

Even though Connecticut's nuclear facilities don't want to store spent uranium, waste fuel isn't an added liability, according to Glastonbury-based American Nuclear Insurers, the only insurers of U.S. nuclear facilities.

Dry casks of uranium aren't a liability on the facilities' insurance coverage, as the storage is rather innocuous, said Mike Cass, ANI vice president and general counsel.

"All nuclear facilities use fuel, and they all generate spent fuel," Cass said.

If the time comes when the federal government takes possession of the nuclear waste, the transport of the fuel might create new liability concerns, as it adds more risks, Cass said. That could affect insurance premiums.

Any real solution is still a long way off. Assuming the Blue Ribbon Commission sticks to its original draft recommendations in the final report in January, the final decisions still lie with the U.S. Department of Energy and the Obama administration.

Attorney General Jepsen plans to state Connecticut's case during the Blue Ribbon public comment period, specifically addressing concerns about the location of the interim storage facility and the possibility of those becoming de facto permanent sites.

Even if the Blue Ribbon recommendations are implemented, the federal government must still pick locations for interim and permanent storage facilities. The commission made no recommendations for sites — per Obama's instructions — but given all the problems that arose with Yucca Mountain, the draft report said the storage facilities should be based in cities and towns that volunteer for the job.

"It was such a challenge siting Yucca Mountain, I can't imagine what it will be like siting new storage facilities," Cass said.

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