Note: This transcript is the raw transcript of this podcast. Minimal edits have been made only for clarity purposes.
James Taylor (00:10):
When I started out in college in 1987, the problem existed. And as I’ve worked the last 33 years, it’s still a problem for the country with no disposition in place.
Hello, and welcome to Nuclear Waste: The Whole Story, a series designed to explore perspectives of nuclear waste disposal. About half a million metric tons of high-level nuclear waste is temporarily stored at hundreds of sites worldwide. No country has established a permanent home for spent commercial fuel. In the US alone, one in three people live within 50 miles of a storage site. That fact may be surprising, but it’s not for lack of technical solutions. Experts worldwide agree that a deep geological repository would be the best final resting place for this hazardous substance. So what’s the delay you ask? The answers are complex and controversial. In this series, we’re interviewing experts and stakeholders representing pieces of this complicated puzzle to give you a clearer picture of Nuclear Waste: The Whole Story.
In this episode, Emmy award-winning documentary filmmaker and Deep Isolation adviser, David Hoffman talks to James Taylor, General Manager of the Environmental Division of Bechtel’s Nuclear Security and Environmental Global Business Unit about the long-term costs of temporarily storing nuclear waste above ground.
At Deep Isolation, we believe that listening is one of the most important elements of a successful nuclear waste disposal program. A core company value is to seek and listen to different perspectives on the matter of nuclear waste, nuclear energy, and disposal solutions.
The opinions expressed in this series are those of the participants and do not represent Deep Isolation’s position.
David Hoffman (02:13):
First question. Just give me a sense of your background, how you got to do this, and you’ve been in it a long time, right?
James Taylor (02:23):
I’ve been in the nuclear industry now for over 33 years. I spent my entire career around waste and nuclear waste, both commercially and with the Department of Energy. I’m currently the General Manager with Bechtel Corporation running our environmental business, which is basically all of the Department of Energy, environmental management contracts, and responsible for the work we’re doing in the UK for the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority. All of that work is related to waste and waste disposition.
David Hoffman (02:52):
It seems like the government said certain things. They were going to take care of this and the industry said, okay, government, you’re going to take care of this. But that hasn’t happened. What is the issue that’s causing the stuff to just stay above ground without any ultimate solution? Do you feel, what’s going on?
James Taylor (03:12):
Part of the problem is they canceled the program that was supposed to take care of the high-level waste and the spent nuclear fuel. Back in 1982, 83, timeframe, Congress passed the waste, the Nuclear Waste Policy Act. And that, in that act, it put the Department of Energy responsible for this material and its ultimate disposition. So right now, since they do not have a disposal path for this material, it’s sitting across the Department of Energy sites. That’s the site in Hanford, Washington. There’s a site in Savannah, Riverside in South Carolina, and there’s another site in Idaho. So currently, the spent nuclear fuel and the high-level waste generated from our nuclear weapons programs is sitting in storage. And the same thing has happened with the spent nuclear fuel that our commercial nuclear power plants use to produce, produce power for the nation or a significant amount of power. And that material is sitting at where it was generated, at about 70 different nuclear power plant sites in 30 different States.
David Hoffman (04:26):
That sounds like a mess. And the question I want to ask you is a long-term one. When you started, you must have been concerned about this issue. This is an environmental issue. What do we do with the waste from this incredible power that we get from nuclear power and military waste as well? And you’ve spent your whole life so far, 30 plus years without a resolution. Tell me, is that correct? And how does that feel for you as a person who obviously cares about this issue and knows a lot about it?
James Taylor (04:55):
Yes. When I started out of college in 1987 the problem existed and as I’ve worked the last 33 years, it’s still a problem for the country with no disposition in place. It certainly had programs and plans to establish these facilities, but they, but that was canceled when they canceled the Yucca project back in, I guess it was 2011, I think 2011. So we still are sitting here with no site and available for disposal of this material.
David Hoffman (05:36):
Bechtel supports a lot of companies, as well as the government in this issue. What effect is that having on the nuclear power companies who didn’t think they’d have this problem and just, how do they feel about this? Are they frustrated? Are they glad that the problem exists? Are they making money or losing money? What’s the situation for the companies?
James Taylor (05:58):
It’s a big business because the material has to be stored safely. So in the interim, this material is having to be placed in canisters and in canisters placed in safe storage above ground. And that’s big business because not only do you have to store the material in these canisters and at these sites, and that’s about a million dollars per canister to give you an idea. And then the annual costs to manage these facilities is about six to 8 million per year. So it’s big business. And of course the utilities since the Department of Energy and the government’s responsible for this material, they simply sue the government and it goes to court and they win. And then the government has to reimburse those costs. Then that’s currently at about 800 million per year. The taxpayers are paying to manage the storage of the material that’s generated today.
James Taylor (06:55):
Of course, there’s a lot more material that will be generated over the next 40 years that again, they’ll have to sue, the government will have to reimburse them. And it’s going to turn into something in the order of, let’s say 3 billion per year in annual costs. And of course, for the defense-related materials, materials that are Department of Energy sites, that has to be stored safely as well. And they’re having to build new facilities. They’re having to store this material in these facilities. They have to do the operation and maintenance of these facilities at similar costs. So when you really look at it, you know, the government’s collected a bunch of money and I probably need to talk about that. So since they put the Nuclear Waste Policy Act in place, the government collected about one 10th of a cent per kilowatt produced of power from these utilities. So that’s about one mile per kilowatt-hour. So, and they’ve collected now about 43 or so billion dollars to dispose of this material. And of course, the bad part about that is now that they’re having, they don’t have a disposal site to put the material. All these increased costs that I just talked about are building up and in my calculation, the fact that they don’t have disposal just doubled the cost of disposition, if they have to store it for the next 50 years in these safe interim locations.
David Hoffman (08:27):
Are we talking about an American problem or is it a global problem? I mean, Bechtel’s a global corporation. So I assume, is every country the same as us? So are they all dealing with the same thing all at the same time of disposal above ground and interim storage?
James Taylor (08:42):
All the countries that are having trouble finding a location to put the material, mainly because no one wants it in their backyard, you know, not in my backyard. That’s a fact. So every country who has several nuclear power plants and defense-related sites that generate high-level waste and spent fuel, they all need to dispose of this material safely. Right now, most of them are storing it and they have programs that are being developed just like the States, where they’re trying to locate a site, get consensus on where to site, where to put the site, and then build it and move the material to that site. So most countries are not very far along. I think the French are pretty far along. I think some of the other countries in Europe are moving their programs forward. And of course, in some of the countries in Asia, like Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, they’re very, very early on in the process of getting a deep repository in place for disposal, this material. So all of the countries that have nuclear power and defense waste have this issue and are in various stages of getting a, you know, a disposal site in place. But, but just like the States, they’re all struggling.
David Hoffman (10:00):
You don’t hardly ever hear about nuclear waste in the general news, but in one of the industry news, I just was reading recently that it is less safe than it should be. We, we never think about the safety issue. Really. You do, I’m sure, but general public doesn’t in general. Does this make you nervous? Are we, is this uncomfortable, to say the least, to have this interim unresolved situation?
James Taylor (10:27):
I think the bigger issue is not the safety of the material, because whether it’s stored in fuel pools at these commercial reactors or whether they remove it and put it in dry storage above ground or in buildings, they have all been designed from a safety standpoint to keep that material secure and safe. So I don’t think that’s the issue. The bigger issue is if those facilities are only designed to last so many years, let’s say 50 years to maybe a hundred on the outside. So eventually you’re going to have to be able to build new facilities to put that material in or find a repository to place the material in a permanent location. And all that’s going to do is increase the cost of this, of managing this material, which ultimately increases the cost to the ratepayers and to the taxpayers. And, and that is what is really worrisome.
David Hoffman (11:24):
If you have children and you’re going to retire someday, you have a hope here that things will be different. Or do you suspect this is going to go on and on and on and on you’ll retire and the next guy will come into your job and he’ll face the same issue as you do, essentially unchanged on a global scale?
James Taylor (11:42):
Certainly from my standpoint, I do have a son. My son, Preston, and he’s, he’s at the Boston university now going to college. And I certainly guided him to stay away from the nuclear industry because it’s, it’s dying and that’s unfortunate. And I’d like to see that turned around. And I think the first thing that has to happen is we have to get rid of the backend problem with this waste. The waste, we need to have an answer for that. It needs to be disposed of, and it needs to be disposed of in a cost-effective way. And I think that’s the only thing that’s going to turn the nuclear industry around here in the US and so, you know, I, I think this is a big problem. I think this problem needs to be solved and it needs to be solved now because as I said, as time moves on we’re, we’re going to continue to pay an extreme amount of money.
James Taylor (12:33):
And I think eventually in that, and soon the taxpayers and the government should step forward and realize that they’re spending vast amounts of money without solving the problem. And, you know, the 43 billion they’ve set aside, they still have to spend. And in between now and spending it, you know, they’re going to, you know, it’s doubling the cost. So it’s just not, not a healthy place to be. So I do think this problem needs to be solved and solved now, which is, which is why Bechtel supporting Deep Isolation because I think, you know, their main approach is consensus siting. So it, that solves the problem of not in my backyard, because most of the companies and the government that has all of this waste, they need to get rid of it. And, you know, we’ve done some work and it looks like you can actually dispose of this material at half of what DOE, Department of Energy, had estimated the cost to be.
James Taylor (13:35):
So, you know, I think it, it deserves a closer look. I think there’s a lot of work to be done, both in licensing and developing the facilities and maturing the technology. There’s a lot of work to be done, but I think in the next five to 10 years they can advance it to the point that it’s a viable solution that can be implemented and save everyone a lot of money and solve this back-end problem.
David Hoffman (14:00):
I want to thank you for James Taylor for the honesty and the clarity and the 30 some years you’ve put into this thing. And I do hope for your son Preston, that when he graduates and whenever he graduates with and steps into the world, that we’ve managed to put some of it down under the ground far under the ground in safe places. And we stopped spending the money as you say, and whatever risk there is, gets reduced by that process too. So thank you very much for doing this with me. You go on and have your day and good luck.
James Taylor (14:32):
Hi David. Thank you.
Thank you for listening. We hope you’ll share this podcast with others and feel free to send any comments or suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org. You can visit deepisolation.com to learn more. At Deep Isolation, we believe that listening is one of the most important elements of a successful nuclear waste disposal program. A core company value is to seek and listen to different perspectives on the matter of nuclear waste, nuclear energy, and disposal solutions. The opinions expressed in this series are those of the participants and do not represent Deep Isolation’s position.