The first part of this story briefly described the American nuclear weapon and commercial nuclear reactor programs and their lack of foresight regarding the inevitable waste products generated during production processes. In 1982, the Nuclear Waste Policy Act was created, and with it, a potentially well thought-out (financially, at least) plan which would be self-funding and therefore would pay for the future efforts of disposing and/or storing the radioactive waste being produced, at least, by commercial American utility companies.
Now, however, you must factor in the US Congress: myopic, greedy, short-sighted and not wanting to look bad. What you get is an already big and potentially unsolvable problem which gets made into a hydra headed clusterfuck which can be boiled down to it’s very, very barest parts and summarized as such:
1) Lots of radioactive waste. Nowhere to put it. No one wants to get stuck with it (just ask the people of Nevada who have been fighting off having Yucca Mountain become a dumping site for years);
2) It’s going to cost a LOT of money to deal with all this waste and involve very complicated technology and different systems including, and not the least, transporting this stuff all over the country. First, the good news: A self-funding mechanism is simultaneously created in 1982 to handle the expense. The bad news: Congress finds a way to get it’s grubby hands on it, so, folks, there is a “problem” with the Fund;
3) Because of Part #1, there are lots and lots of lawsuits and mounting liabilities which (correctly) put the blame for all this nuclear waste left sitting around squarely on the “shoulders” of the US government.
Now, let’s get on a chronological “off-ramp” in our discussion of the big picture and examine, in particular, what happened to this colossal pile of money, which, as you may recall, was being steadily created by utility companies as they were creating the nuclear waste and which was, therefore, being paid for by the consumers (aka taxpayers).
To recap, the Nuclear Waste Policy Act (NWPA) created a “polluter pays” funding mechanism to ensure that the full costs associated with all aspects the disposal and storage of the high-level nuclear waste would be paid for, up front, and as it was being created, by the utility companies and, by extension, their ratepayers. There was, intentionally, to be absolutely NO IMPACT on, contact or interaction with the US federal budget or the appropriations process. Imagine that it was kind of like how your personal bank account does not have ANYTHING to do with a jar of coins on a kitchen counter in the Australian outback.
For the purposes of illustrating how this would work, let’s imagine that I own and operate a utility company which provides electricity to the northeast part of the United States. Let’s call it Schatzie’s Energy Company. For every kilowatt hour of nuclear-generated electricity that I produce, I automatically pay into the federally mandated NWPA Fund with the contractual and explicit (not implicit) understanding that the US government will handle the radioactive waste I am creating during the process of making your electricity.
The Fund was created, on paper, in 1982. The payments began in 1983, and the US government’s contractual obligation to remove and take possession of the spent fuel rods or high-level waste away from “my” nuclear facility was mandated to begin on January 31, 1988. Sort of like your city’s garbage collection. Except WAY more dangerous.
So, in the meantime, I have to deal with my own radioactive garbage at Schatzie’s Energy Company, which is another story completely. It is incredibly, insanely complicated to deal with this type of waste, which involves the careful moderation of temperature and all other manners of keeping the nuclear “Genie in the Bottle.” Here is a picture of two types of storage employed by companies such as “mine.” One is dry storage and the other is in water, keeping the spent fuel rods from getting too hot and melting down, or exploding, or some other kind of bad ending. There is an enormous amount of maintenance here and round-the-clock monitoring and security. Keep in mind that some of this material can be used to make nuclear weapons, not that anyone would want to get that close to it, but I’m just sayin’.
Wet pool storage of radioactive waste:
Here is a photo of dry storage (I think they should have a silhouette of a man, but that is just my opinion):
The Secretary of the Energy Department has the authority and obligation to keep reviewing the rates that “I pay” (as owner of the nuclear reactor) and adjust the rate I pay, up or down, based on what they calculate it is going to cost to take care of this storage and disposal problem. Also, remember that we are not at all talking about the enormous amount of nuclear waste that the Department of Defense creates. You’re paying for that disposal too, as a US taxpayer. Does our government want to mix these two together? Yep. They call it “commingling” which sounds downright cozy. Anyway, I digress. Here is a diagram, courtesy of those thoughtful buffoons over at the Department of Energy, which explains the fuel cycle:
In 1982, the clear intent of Congress was to establish a self-financing mechanism based on user fees and to make sure that the Fund was available when needed, without having to get in line in front of Congress and ask for money, potentially leaving the Department of Energy and nuclear regulators at the mercy of a fickle US political environment. Did that happen? Nope. In fact, in reading the final reports (hundreds and hundreds of pages, in total) of the Blue Ribbon Commission (which, by the way, were almost immediately “archived” in a website ominously called the “cybercemetary”) which was created by President Obama in January 2010 to study this problem hilariously states:
Leave it to Congress to see all this cash, just sitting around with no one putting it to use (since no one would allow a permanent storage facility to be built in their state). Much like a kid who keeps passing a mountain of toys in a warehouse which he knows are scheduled to be delivered to sick kids in a hospital, but which he really, really wants to play with. He waits a while, but he’s working on a genius plan (he’s 10 years old, in my head, so you can imagine how great this plan would be). He thinks to himself, “Hey, I know! I’m gonna borrow these toys and just put A TON OF IOU’s in the warehouse in their place and I’ll give them back when they’re needed. I pinky swear!” And that’s what happened. Thanks to these legislative sleights of hand:
The Nuclear Waste Policy Act Fund, which, on PAPER, has about $28 BILLION of taxpayer dollars in it from the collection of between $750-800 million dollars a year, over the course of three decades, which were dedicated to siting, building, maintaining and transporting commercial, high-level nuclear waste off the premises and out of the responsibility of utility companies, such as “mine,” is now EMPTY and literally, full of IOU’s so those funds could be used to “offset” the federal deficit, making it look smaller.
Go ahead. Just stare at the screen for a minute or two. I did. As a taxpayer, I was pissed off. Now imagine that you are the UTILITY companies, who, like Schatzie’s Energy Company, have been paying and dealing with all this dangerous nuclear waste, storing it, keeping it safe and as non-lethal as possible, just waiting for the US government to take it the hell away. Instead, the assholes in Congress appropriated all this money, some $28 billion dollars, which everyone’s been paying into a Fund, all these years, so it could be used to OFFSET the federal deficit (to make themselves look “good”) If you are a young person reading this, and you’re thinking, “Taxpayers? What do I care? I’m young and only just now starting to pay taxes.” Well, you should be doubly pissed off since you and your entire future are being “dinged” for this. A couple of times over. And if you think student loans aren’t fun, and the condition of the roads and public services which you rely on kinda suck, and hey, the economy isn’t that great, and the education system is horrible, with teachers paying for all their own supplies (when is the last time kids had textbooks, and not copied sheets of paper,?), and, hey, aren’t more of your friends living with their parents for a REALLY long time…well, it’s my generation that has saddled you with not only THIS mess, but a planet that gets hotter by the second. So, I am sorry. Back to our story.
So, what exactly are those IOU’s? They are US Treasury Bills. Now, wrap your mind around this: those Treasury Bills WILL have to be repaid. Who is going to pay for THAT when the time comes (actually pay for it AGAIN)? The US taxpayer, of course.
It is so many onion layers of stupid that you aren’t even going to believe this. Due to the constraints that Congress has put on this Fund, it is untouchable for the purpose for which it was specifically created. Because of the way Congress has screwed it up, legally, there is A) $0.00 (no money) readily available to build any kind of permanent storage facility (not that anyone wants it, anyway), and B) the Department of Energy and nuclear regulators need to beg and plead for any money they can get their hands on to deal with this problem from the very same Congress that legislated away what was supposed to be a dedicated Fund, and C) there is a literal avalanche of lawsuits being directed at the Department of Justice from utility companies and other corporations suing the US government. Here is a three year itemizatio from one of the Blue Ribbon Commission reports. It is out of date and thus they are way off in their $20 billion dollar liability estimate for what it’s going to cost the US taxpayers when you leave utility companies holding the (radioactive) “bag.”
These gigantic liabilities are now in the ballpark of $60-70 BILLION dollars, and claims are being paid for out of something called the Judgement Fund, and not the NWPA Fund since THAT pot of money is both gone, and is not legally allowed to handle such liabilities (as per Congressional decree). ALL THIS because the US government has NEVER taken away one bit of this enormous, steaming pile of radioactive waste, which it promised to do way back in 1988, and which is growing (and glowing) and scattered throughout the United States and being dealt with by companies such as my hypothetical one, and who fully realize that they’ve been paying (and by extension, the taxpayers have been paying) to make Congress look less fiscally irresponsible.
This situation is so much more complicated than I can even explain here, but I’m trying (desperately) to get to the actual POINT pertaining to the total “tush” kissing that the Native American tribal leadership SHOULD be getting from the US government. Instead, however, there is a very calculated, and entirely different “plan” underway (they call it The Strategy over at DOE) emanating, ultimately, from five decades of mounting desperation about an entirely self-created catastrophe which is coming to a head.
And, further proving that our government cannot learn from virtually any of its own mistakes, enter the “open (nuclear) fuel cycle,” upon which our Department of Energy has doubled down, and which means that we continue to create MORE radioactive waste and remain tethered to what can seriously NOT be called, “clean energy,” by a LONG SHOT as its radioactive by-products have absolutely nowhere to go. Stay tuned for Part III.