Senior Director, Used Fuel and Decommissioning Nuclear Energy Institute
In this interview, Rod McCullum offers an insider’s perspective on commercial nuclear waste disposal and explains why any failure to solve this problem could threaten the development of the next generation of nuclear energy reactors.
Note: This transcript is the raw transcript of this podcast. Minimal edits have been made only for clarity purposes.
Rod McCullum (00:00):
The good news with the nuclear industry is we contain all of our wastes. All of our by-product waste. The bad news for the nuclear industry is we still got them.
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 spend 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 advisor, David Hoffman, talks to Rod McCullum, Senior Director of Used Fuel and Decommissioning of the Nuclear Energy Institute. Rod gives us an insider’s perspective on commercial nuclear waste disposal and explains why any failure to solve this problem could affect the development of the next generation of nuclear energy reactors.
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 (02:17):
So Rod, I’d first like you to tell me in your own words, even though you represent an organization, how you feel, what is the situation today in terms of nuclear waste. What’s going on in the United States today?
Rod McCullum (02:31):
Well, the situation is it’s, it’s like the beginning of that Dickens novel, the best of times, the worst of times. We have a very effective industrial infrastructure to manage nuclear waste, the dry cask storage industry. We’ve loaded 3000 of these dry cask storage systems at virtually every nuclear plant in the country. They’re safe. They’re, they’re tested. This has been incident-free. They are licensed for as long as 60 years, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has said that they’re good for at least a hundred. That being said, they’re all still at the plant sites, including the decommissioned sites. So that’s, that’s the best of times is that we have this tremendous industrial success story here.
Rod McCullum (03:13):
Dry cask storage didn’t exist before 1986 and now we have 3000 of them and they’ve been very effective and that lets us keep discharging waste from the plants and safely storing it. I’ve always said the good news with the nuclear industry is we contain all of our wastes. All of our by-product waste. The bad news for the nuclear industry is we’ve still got them. So here we have this dilemma where we’re very good at storing it but we need to move it and free up these sites as the older plants shut down so we can build the next-generation plants.
David Hoffman (03:44):
Is this costing the industry money? That is, how does the industry feel about the fact that year after year, the public is paying to keep these things above ground, which I don’t think was the idea initially. So if you could just say, tell me, how does the industry feel about the fact that billions of dollars are being spent?
Rod McCullum (04:05):
The industry is very frustrated and quite frankly, the billions of dollars that is being spent, the government just came out yesterday or last week with a new report that, that there’s already been $8 billion in damages collected for the federal government’s failure to remove nuclear waste from these, these are litigation settlements. Now, these reimburse the utilities for their costs. The greatest cost to the industry is the reputational damage we suffer. Here at NEI, we are heavily invested in the next generation of reactors. We have two dozen new reactor vendors. They’ve got great things on the drawing board. When I meet with them, the story I hear is one of the big constraints we have on getting investment capital for this. And that investment capital is private capital investment capital was also to what extent can the government get involved and that’s political. So when you have this issue, the reputational damage of not having a final solution, it doesn’t matter how successful we are at storing it in dry cask systems. It doesn’t matter how long we can store it in dry cask systems. Nuclear is the nation’s biggest form of carbon-free energy. In order for us to move nuclear forward, instead of preserving the existing fleet we have today when we want to do that, we want to build the fleet of tomorrow, and we’ve got to be able to tell investors, we’ve got to be able to tell Congress, we got a final solution to the waste problem. We still have all our wastes.
David Hoffman (05:28):
You’re saying the industry today is looking at new opportunities, new possibilities, making this work better. Tell me a bit more about that.
Rod McCullum (05:35):
The first nuclear reactors were designed to be cooled by water to drive steam turbines, just like every other thermal power plant. You heat up water. You make steam drive turbines. That’s cause how we knew how to build power plants. Well, it turns out that maybe when you’re talking about how neutrons move around inside a reactor when you’re talking about how steam interacts with the materials that we put around nuclear fuel in a reactor, and I’m not taking you over towards what happened at Fukushima and what happened at Three Mile Island, you know, maybe water cools. So you’ve, you’ve got some molten salt designs, sodium designs, you’ve got different gas-cooled designs, different types of fuels, even in the existing fleet. We are now innovating and putting in what we call accident tolerant fuels, which have different coatings, different cladding, and can really up the game of the existing reactors, both in terms of safety and in being able to, to produce more power. In 2018, we had our best year ever. We generated more nuclear, carbon-free energy than the industry ever had. Only 97 reactors. We had as many as 104, and we’re going to up the gain on those existing reactors. But we also, we’re looking at the next fleet and it gets down to the reputational damage. How do we address that?
David Hoffman (06:49):
You have children. Do you believe personally?
Rod McCullum (06:53):
I can tell you that when I was in high school in 1970s, I wanted to be a lawyer because that was where all the money was. And maybe I’ll get to be president someday. You know, I was big and idealistic. I was not big. I was just idealistic. I had big ideas and thoughts, so I wanted to be a lawyer. So because I wanted to be a lawyer, I was on the high school debate team. One year, the debate topic for that year was energy policy. And so I got to debate both sides of nuclear energy. And I decided, this is where I want to be, because I was thinking about the environment. I had a senior class project, right? Built a solar collector and heated water for, for a trade school in town, you know? And so I was all about, and this was before global warming, but I just saw the stuff. I was in a Midwestern, dirty industrial town. I wanted a clean Midwestern town. And so, you know, I was all about this cleaner energy. And I, after debating the topic of nuclear for such a period of time on both sides for a whole year, I decided, I decided I wanted to be a nuclear engineer. What really cinched the deal for me was Three Mile Island happened during my senior year of high school. And so not only did I believe we needed carbon-free nuclear energy, I believed that we needed a lot more engineers to make it work.
David Hoffman (08:01):
Rod McCullum (08:11):
I put my family in the shadow of nuclear facilities, a lot of my career because I’ve worked in nuclear plants. My wife, who’s a nurse, has trained on how to handle radioactive patients. You know, so yes, I, I am comfortable with nuclear safety enough that I don’t mind putting my family near it. But I also know that either my kids who both didn’t choose to become engineers, they’re both something else in their young adult lives. They would see a dry cask storage facility and think of it differently if they drove by and saw something that was just a surface facility for something I told them was, you know, 2000 feet below the ground.
David Hoffman (08:51):
When I visited one of the plants, you see guys with machine guns out in front and fences, it’s kind of scary. You’re absolutely right below ground, it’s no longer as scary, I mean, life goes on. In fact, there’s real estate people who are looking to do something with that land once it’s, once it’s below ground.
Rod McCullum (09:11):
Yes. Which plant did you visit?
David Hoffman (09:13):
I visited one in Maine. Maine Yankee.
Rod McCullum (09:16):
Yeah, that’s the only one in Maine. And so what you saw there was, was the epitome of why we need to put solutions in place for this problem because you have a beautiful coastal site in Maine. The reactor has been completely demolished. The only facility left there is the dry cask and they are surrounded by intimidating fences. And there are intimidating looking people with intimidating weapons standing around those fences. So, but if you took those casks away, which could easily be done, those casts all are licensed for transportation. Or, and I don’t, I don’t want to say the people of Maine would be happy with Deep Isolation going into their ground. I’m not saying they’re not, but if, you know, if you could do something with that material, other than store it in those casks, that site would be back to, it would be just as beautiful as any other that stretch that coastline.
David Hoffman (10:06):
Most people felt they wanted to get rid of it. Yet, whenever you say “truck it to Yucca Mountain“, they didn’t want to do that either. So there’s a lot of fear about this and there’s a lot of misunderstanding and I want to thank you for your honesty, your clarity and your personal view towards this. It gives me a certain faith that going forward, and I want to know if you have that faith, things can improve once the government stops locking everything up.
Rod McCullum (10:33):
Yes. If we get past the politics, I believe enough is known by the scientists. The geologic disposal is easy. If the politics isn’t so hard and I’m hopeful that the more solutions we can put on the table here, whether we’re, we’re moving it a little bit, whether we’re moving it halfway across the country, transportations well-established, but we need a solution that the scientists have confidence in, but the politicians don’t obstruct.
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.