Spent Nuclear Fuel Costs at the Columbia Generating Station Soar After 2019


On October 25th, Oregon and Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility released a report indicating that the public could save as much as $1.18 billion in radioactive waste management and disposal expenses if the Columbia Generating Station (CGS) in Washington would close by 2019. The plant is the region's only nuclear power plant, operated by Energy Northwest and licensed to operate until 2043. If allowed to operate that long, the metric tons of spent nuclear fuel at the plant is projected to nearly double.

The report was prepared by Robert Alvarez, Associate Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C. and a former Senior Policy Advisor to the U.S. Secretary of Energy during the Clinton Administration. Alvarez wrote the report based on data from Energy Northwest, nuclear industry sources, and recent U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) studies. The report compares the cost of storage and disposal of spent nuclear fuel between the closure of CGS in 2019 or 2043 when the reactor’s operating license expires.

Storage and disposal costs of 891 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel following closure of the CGS in 2019 range from approximately $711 million to $1.56 billion. If the reactor operates until 2043, storage and disposal costs of a projected 1,539 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel range from $1.17 billion to $2.74 billion. Potential cost savings, if the reactor is closed in 2019, are between $459 million and $1.18 billion.

“As reflected in the range of cost estimates, large cost uncertainties remain,” says Alvarez.  

For instance,

  • If the cancelled Yucca Mountain repository project is reactivated, it is designed to hold less than half of the total currently projected spent fuel to be generated in the United States at a total cost of $113 billion.
  • High-burnup, which effectively doubles the amount of time the fuel can be used, has raised concerns. There is growing data indicating that prolonged storage of high-burnup spent fuel in dry casks may damage fuel cladding and create leakage.  Since the Nuclear Regulatory Commission concedes that “data is not currently available” supporting the safe transportation of high-burnup spent nuclear fuel, U.S. Energy Department researchers suggest it may be “trapped” at reactor sites for a significant period before removal.
  • Dry cask storage systems are not licensed for disposal and pose major problems for a geological repository. DOE researchers conclude that “Waste package sizes ..are significantly smaller than the canisters being used for on-site dry storage by the nuclear utilities,” At the CGS, 10 times as many canisters than currently projected - each holding a much smaller number of spent fuel assemblies - may be required for disposal. Repackaging could add as much as $915 million to pre-disposal costs for the CGS.

“In the end, electricity ratepayers and taxpayers will be saddled with very large costs for the spent nuclear fuel generated by the Columbia Generating Station.” Alvarez concluded. "The basic facts are quite simple: the more spent nuclear fuel that is generated, ratepayers and taxpayers will pay an even more enormous price for its disposition.”

"Alvarez's report is another piece of evidence that the continued operation of the Columbia Generating Station is not in the public interest," said Damon Motz-Storey, a staffer for Oregon PSR "The plant is too dirty, dangerous, and expensive for Oregon and Washington ratepayers. Wind and solar are cheaper, more responsible energy solutions."

Two other reports released in 2017 support claims that the Columbia Generating Station is not economically wise for the Pacific Northwest. Renowned energy economist Robert McCullough released an economic study in February that suggests ratepayers could save at least $261 million over 10 years if the CGS were replaced with renewable energy. Economist Philip D. Lusk of Port Angeles, WA pointed out in a market test that switching from CGS power to mid-Columbia market purchases could save Eugene Water & Electric Board ratepayers up to $53 million between 2006 and 2028.