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While President Obama's plan to find alternatives to storing high-level nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain, Nev., is grabbing headlines, another problem has begun threatening license applications for new reactors.
What can be done with low-level nuclear waste?
There are dwindling places to put low-level nuclear waste – contaminated resins, filters, wood, paper, plastics, pipes, structural steel and pressure vessels that can be hazardous for up to 500 years. And nuclear-power opponent groups are filing and winning legal fights to force utilities to present disposal plans for low-level waste before they can build a new reactor.
"I'm going to argue low-level waste is a bigger issue than high-level waste right now," Edward Sproat, then-director of the Energy Department's Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management, warned at a Center for Strategic and International Studies event last fall.
While the nuclear industry is unhappy about Yucca Mountain's impending demise, officials recognize it will not immediately threaten the 17 license applications filed for new reactors. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has determined that spent fuel can be stored on-site for the next century and is reviewing a possible extension of that.
But the low-level waste problem is already affecting reactor applications.
The Southern Alliance for Clean Energy this month won a legal contention from the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board against Southern Nuclear Operating's Vogtle reactor license application for Georgia. The same contention has already been granted in reviews of the Tennessee Valley Authority's Bellefonte application in Alabama; Unistar's Calvert Cliffs, Md., application; and Dominion Power's North Anna application in Virginia.
Advocacy groups plan to similarly contest Progress Energy's Levy County, Fla., application and have already filed against Detroit Edison's Fermi application.
Sara Barczak, program director for the Southern Alliance, said the focus on low-level waste represents a significant shift for regulators and utilities. "I think most people, when they see 'low level,' they say, 'Oh, low level of radioactivity,' but the definition of low level is so broad," she said.
U.S. low-level waste comes from a wide range of places, including hospitals and laboratories, but the greatest – and most toxic – volume is produced by the Energy Department and the 104 commercial nuclear reactors.
Toxic for up to 100 years, Class A waste has just three storage options – sites at Clive, Utah; Richland, Wash.; and Barnwell, S.C. Only Richland and Barnwell accept Class B waste, which is toxic for up to 300 years, and Class C, toxic up to 500 years.
But there is another complication: Barnwell closed its gates to all states but Connecticut, New Jersey and South Carolina last summer. And Richland only accepts waste from 11 states in the Northwest and Rocky Mountain compacts.
That means 36 states with reactors, hospitals and other industry with radioactive materials have no place to send much of their waste.
Existing disposal facilities have adequate capacity for most low-level radioactive waste and are accessible to waste generators in the short term, but constraints on the long-term disposal of class B and C wastes have become clear, according to a report by the Government Accountability Office last year.
"The nuclear industry has really been hiding their head in the sand about the waste for all issues," said Michael Mariotte, executive director of the nonprofit Nuclear Information and Resource Service, which opposes nuclear power.
Mariotte said utilities that want to build new reactors have known for 10 years that Barnwell would close but failed to include on-site storage or options for handling low-level radioactive waste in their license applications.