"There is a very clear issue that utilities have to figure out what they are going to do," Mariotte said. "Just from a regulatory standpoint, on the high-level waste, they can point to the waste confidence rule, but they don't have a counterpart for low-level waste."
Utilities have a simple, short-term option, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry group. "They are going to have to, they will end up filing plans to store on-site," said Doug Walters, senior director for new plants at NEI.
Walters said most existing nuclear power plants are already considering building on-site storage for low-level waste. Moreover, he said, most of the new reactors would be built on the same sites as current reactors.
But that approach is not that simple, nuclear foes say. It is likely to increase the already hefty cost of building reactors and increase the complaints of regulators and nearby communities that are already upset at the storage of spent fuel rods, Mariotte said.
Another possible solution would involve opening more waste disposal sites. But permitting a dump site for Class B and Class C material is almost as difficult as siting a high-level waste dump.
In 1980, Congress passed a law that made states responsible for disposal of their own wastes, but states were encouraged to form compacts to locate one low-level radioactive waste site for several states. The law also excluded low-level waste from the Interstate Commerce Clause, so shipments across state lines are not allowed unless approved by individual states or compacts.
Since the law passed, the Clive, Utah, facility has been the only waste site created. North Carolina and Nebraska pulled out of compacts after being chosen as disposal sites, and Michigan was expelled by the Midwest compact for failing to site a dump.
There is also little incentive for companies to try to license and develop new low-level waste sites, because nuclear plants, which generate most of that waste, have managed to dramatically reduce their volume and store more on site, according to Todd Lovinger, executive director of the Low-Level Radioactive Waste Forum, a nonprofit that is helping state compacts comply with the low-level waste law.
The low-level waste volume stands to rise somewhat if some new reactors come on line, but not significantly, said Mitch Singer, a spokesman for NEI.
There is currently one low-level dump proposal on the table. Waste Control Specialists LLC is trying to license a new low-level waste dump in Andrews County, Texas.
The proposal is facing a rough ride with regulators and advocacy groups and as a business proposition. Texas is a partner in a two-state compact with Vermont, but there are concerns that a new dump would open to other states with no place to put their wastes. It is also unclear whether a license for Class B or Class C waste storage would be granted.
The Texas location is also over the "precarious, irreplaceable" Ogallala Aquifer, which provides water for eight states in the Great Plains, said Kevin Kamps of Beyond Nuclear.
The lack of storage space for low-level radioactive waste has grabbed attention on Capitol Hill.
Lawmakers started getting involved after the operator of the Clive, Utah, Class A storage site filed a license in 2007 to import 20,000 tons of Italian low-level waste.
The Italian waste would take up less than 1 percent of total volume at the EnergySolutions facility, and CEO Steve Creamer promised to limit total foreign imports to 5 percent of the facility.
But Reps. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.) and Jim Matheson (D-Utah) say the Italian waste could just be the beginning of the low-level waste influx. They have introduced a bill banning foreign import of low-level radioactive waste unless there is an exemption from the president.
"We are going to run out of waste space here," Gordon told reporters after introducing the bill this session. "Of 104 nuclear power plants in this country, 94 have no other place to go but Utah."
Reprinted from Greenwire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net, 202-628-6500