BROWNVILLE, Neb. — Back in the early 1980s, the federal government offered what sounded like a reasonable deal to nuclear plants in Nebraska and other states.
It went something like this: Pay us to take your most highly radioactive waste — material that is potent for 10,000 years — and we'll store it in a secure underground repository.
Since then, customers who buy nuclear-generated electricity from the Nebraska Public Power District and the Omaha Public Power District have paid hundreds of millions of dollars to the federal government.
But they've received nothing in return. Funding for a plan to build a national repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada has been blocked by opponents, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of that state.
So the waste has remained in Nebraska. About 70,000 metric tons of spent fuel are stored at the nation's 104 nuclear reactors, including Iowa's Duane Arnold Energy Center, eight miles west of Cedar Rapids.
Experts say that without a long-term storage solution, nuclear plants are forced to store substantially more spent fuel than they were designed to keep.
That increases the risk to land, water and people, said David Lochbaum, a nuclear safety specialist with the Union of Concerned Scientists, who testified about the problem before Congress this summer.
“Because the federal government failed to meet its obligation,” Lochbaum testified, “spent fuel pools contain much more irradiated fuel and are essentially loaded guns aimed at neighboring communities.”
To deal with the problem, Cooper Nuclear Station near Brownville and Fort Calhoun Nuclear Station north of Omaha have been buying or building massive steel canisters encased in concrete. Unless a better solution can be found, such dry cask storage units will remain in place long after the reactors retire — perhaps for several centuries.
NPPD and OPPD, the state's largest electrical generators, have joined other utilities in bringing breach of contract lawsuits against the U.S. Department of Energy, which has been collecting the waste storage payments for three decades. The department has settled some of those claims, for $1.6 billion, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office. Nebraska nuclear utilities have received some of that money.
Like the waste itself, the amount of legal damages Americans will have to pay over the matter will only increase in coming years.
“It's not a pretty or comforting picture from the standpoint of the ratepayers or taxpayers,” said Steve Kerekes, spokesman for the Nuclear Energy Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that represents the industry.
The picture was more clear in 1982, when most scientists agreed the safest way to store spent fuel was in a secure, underground facility. Congress passed an act that year assigning the task of building a repository to the Energy Department, with a deadline for starting spent fuel collections in 1998.
To pay for the expenses of collecting, transporting and storing the waste, the department signed agreements with nuclear plants to collect 1/10th of a cent on each kilowatt hour of electricity produced by reactors. The waste fund is currently supposed to have $35 billion in it, which includes accrued interest.
OPPD, operator of Fort Calhoun, has sent more than $112 million to the federal fund, while NPPD, which runs a larger plant at Cooper, has paid $181 million.
The Energy Department failed to meet the 1998 deadline. In 2002, with the support of President George W. Bush, Yucca Mountain was selected as the repository site.
Scientists, however, couldn't fund construction of the repository. Only Congress could. And for years, it didn't — largely because Sen. Reid argued the project represented a threat to the safety of the people of his state. A message left with Reid's staff was not returned last week.
Opponents of the mountain project have cited several concerns, including that, over time, the casks that would encase the buried spent fuel rods could leak plutonium that would seep into the soil and groundwater.
Finally, in 2008, the Energy Department submitted Yucca Mountain to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for review. But two years later, after spending about $8 billion on technical and development work for the project, the department withdrew it from consideration. Reid and other opponents, it appeared, had finally killed the project.
Technically, Yucca Mountain hasn't flat-lined yet. Recently a federal appeals court ordered the NRC to restart the evaluation, but there's not enough funding to complete the process.
With no long-term solution for disposing of highly radioactive waste, Nebraska's nuclear utilities joined in lawsuits to recoup money they paid to the government to cover their costs of developing alternative on-site waste storage. The two districts settled, with OPPD collecting $28 million and NPPD receiving about $87 million.
The settlements represent less than what the two districts have paid the federal government, but the litigation could have dragged on for years, said Mark Becker, NPPD's spokesman. He estimated that about 90 percent of the district's cost for temporary waste storage has been covered.
“The settlement is considered by NPPD to be favorable,” Becker said.
In the meantime, Congress has spent the $35 billion that is supposed to be in the waste fund, said Jay Silberg, a Washington, D.C., attorney whose utility clients include NPPD and OPPD. It was spent over the years on other government functions.
“We would have liked it to go into a lockbox, but it didn't,” Silberg said. “It went to the Treasury. There is no pile of money, just a pile of paper.”
Here's the kicker: Customers who use nuclear power continue to pay into the fund, even though there is no viable plan to build a waste dump. Once again, OPPD and NPPD have joined lawsuits to stop the surcharge.
Meanwhile, the state's nuclear power plants must store their waste as safely as possible.
Both plants use a two-step storage process. The first step involves putting the spent fuel assemblies in 40-foot-deep pools that circulate cool water around the rods and remove heat. After at least five years in the pool, the spent fuel is cool enough for the dry cask storage process.
After years of no action on a national repository, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission started allowing plants to store more spent fuel in their pools. Nearly all plants have done so, and some of the fuel in their pools has been stored there for much longer than five years.
If the pools were to somehow lose all of their water, the hot fuel would catch fire and potentially send large amounts of radioactivity into the environment, said Lochbaum, the safety specialist with the Union of Concerned Scientists. Although such a catastrophe has never happened, there have been a couple of “near misses,” Lochbaum said.
Lochbaum's group says a secure national repository is the safest way to store the waste, but dry cask storage represents the next-best option. When it comes to spent fuel more than five years old, Lochbaum argued, nuclear plants must move faster to transfer it out of pools and into dry casks.
Because of the government's current partial shutdown, a representative of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission was unavailable to comment on the safety concerns Lochbaum raised. But in the recent past, the agency has said both wet and dry storage methods are safe.
“The NRC believes spent fuel pools and dry casks both provide adequate protection of the public health and safety and the environment,” according to the NRC's website. “Therefore there is no pressing safety or security reason to mandate earlier transfer of fuel from pool to cask.”
Both of Nebraska's nuclear stations already have dry storage casks on their grounds. Fort Calhoun has filled 10 casks with spent fuel while Cooper has eight. Because the government didn't build a national repository, local construction crews were put to work the past few months at the Cooper plant.
Over the summer, workers have poured more than 3,000 tons of reinforced concrete. Each concrete cask is 3 feet thick, 12 feet tall and 15 feet long.
The casks sit in the secure area of the plant, behind razor-wire fence and under the around-the-clock watch of armed guards. The casks are designed to both shield radiation and to keep the spent fuel secure, said Brian Voss, dry fuel storage manager for Cooper.
Back in the 1990s, Nebraska famously fought off an effort to build a storage facility for low-level nuclear waste in Boyd County. In the end, the state paid a $146 million settlement to the company that planned to build the nuclear waste dump.
The waste at Cooper and Fort Calhoun is much more hazardous, and it has cost Nebraskans hundreds of millions to manage.
But the question no one can answer is: How long will it be there? The waste will continue to be potent long after the Nebraska reactors are retired.
The NRC has been working on that question, trying to determine a realistic time frame for how long dry casks can remain safe and secure.
“That's the question that faces the industry and the country,” Voss said. “What is the plan?”
Correction: The amount of spent fuel stored nationally at nuclear power plants was incorrectly reported in a previous version of this story.