Storage of nuclear plant waste a consumer issue

September 11, 2011
| By Pete Daly |
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A staff job in the Energy Policy Division of the Michigan Public Service Commission may not sound terribly exciting to some people, but for Greg White, “that was where I really started to have a lot of fun.”

“It was a fun job because as soon as you worked your way through one issue, you were handed the next one,” he said.

The real “fun” began for White in 1989, and one controversial issue he has been involved with ever since is the ongoing debate over where to dispose of the spent fuel waste that has been accumulating at America’s nuclear power plants for decades. In June, for example, he provided expert testimony at a congressional hearing in Washington, representing Michigan and the MPSC, as well as the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, of which he is a member. White echoed previous NARUC statements expressing frustration with the stalled nuclear-waste disposal program.

White, who lives in Cascade Township and works in Lansing, is one of the three members of the Michigan Public Service Commission. Each member is appointed by the governor with the consent of the Senate. The members serve staggered six-year terms. Their mission is to “grow Michigan’s economy and enhance the quality of life of its communities by assuring safe and reliable energy, telecommunications, and transportation services at reasonable rates,” according to the state website.

White grew up in Big Rapids and, after his first year at what was then Ferris State College, went off to Michigan State University for a degree in forestry because he “wanted to work outside.” At MSU, however, he learned that there were virtually no jobs in forestry. Then he took a class on energy policy and later saw an advertisement for an energy policy analyst.

“I was looking for something that would always be in demand,” he said.

Greg R. White

Company/Organization: Michigan Public Service Commission
Position: Commissioner
Age: 53
Birthplace: Detroit
Residence: Cascade Township
Family: Children Lauren, 20; Lindsay, 18; and Eric, 14.
Business/Community Involvement: Michigan board member of PJM Interconnection, a regional transmission organization that coordinates the movement of wholesale electricity in all or parts of 13 states and the District of Columbia.
Biggest Career Break: Advice from MSU faculty to seek a career in energy policy rather than forestry.

After earning a Bachelor of Science degree in the early ’80s, White took a job in the geological survey unit within the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, tracking oil and gas wells in the state as part of the permits data process. Later he was hired by the Michigan Energy Administration, where he worked for four years in the new area of renewable energy development. All states and the federal government were promoting renewable energy as a result of the first energy crisis of the 1970s.

In 1987, he joined the Consumer Services Division of MPSC, and from there went to the Energy Policy Division. In the early 1990s, he earned a master’s degree in public administration at GVSU.

White left the MPSC staff in 2008 to take a position as associate director of the Institute of Public Utilities at MSU, but then was appointed to the MPSC by Gov. Jennifer Granholm in late 2009. His term will expire July 2, 2015.

White — whose comments reflect his personal opinions alone and not the MPSC as a whole — said some people consider disposal of spent nuclear plant fuel “an environmental issue — and it is. But I consider it a consumer issue.”

Since 1982, he said, about $36 billion has been collected from America’s electricity customers specifically to pay for federal disposal of nuclear plant spent fuel, and about $750 million of that was paid by Michigan residents via their electric utility bills. But the government has never been able to get agreement on where that hazardous spent fuel should go.

“No nuclear waste has ever left the plant site in all that time. All the waste that’s been generated in the country remains at the plant site at which it was generated, so we basically have nothing for our money,” said White.

The nuclear power industry in the U.S. is “the brainchild of the federal government looking for a peacetime use for the technology” developed during World War II, said White. President Eisenhower’s administration launched Atoms for Peace, offering the nuclear technology free to American electricity utilities as a way to generate “extremely cheap” power.

The utilities balked, however, because they had no experience dealing with hazardous nuclear waste and did not want to be responsible for its disposal. White said the government then said, “Don’t worry, we’ll take care of the waste. You go ahead and develop this technology.”

“Ever since then we’ve been trying to get the waste issue (resolved),” added White.

In the 1950s, the National Academy of the Sciences recommended disposal of spent nuclear fuel in deep geological formations. Thirty years later, the federal government finally passed the Nuclear Waste Policy Act “and set about trying to find a site,” he said.

The government decided in 1987 that Yucca Mountain in Nevada was the best site, and a 5-mile tunnel was bored into the mountain to store the spent fuel. More than $12 billion was sunk into the project before the Obama administration requested last year that the licensing application be withdrawn, saying the project wasn’t workable and didn’t have enough support. According to a report last month in the Chicago Tribune, Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., had long fought it, arguing that it would put the health and safety of Nevadans at risk.

“I find it hard to imagine there is a better place in the United States to put this stuff,” said White.

White said the only part of the federal nuclear waste storage program that has ever worked “was the collection of money from the customers to pay for it. Every other aspect of the program has basically failed.” He said Obama’s order to the Department of Energy to withdraw the Yucca Mountain license application “basically put an end to the program, and there is no Plan B.”

White said the administration’s view is “the waste is fine where it is. We’ll just leave it there and we’ll leave it to a future generation to come up with a solution to this problem.”

“I find that unconscionable. We should not be passing this issue on to future generations. It’s not a technical issue — it’s a political issue,” he said. “There is no reason why we cannot safely store, recycle and eventually dispose of the highly radioactive components of spent nuclear fuel — other than, again, politically it’s a hot potato. And that’s an issue I have been involved in since 1989.”

The NARUC is now waging a court battle with the Obama administration, maintaining that the Department of Energy does not have the authority to withdraw the Yucca Mountain application.

The U.S. has 104 operating nuclear reactors; Michigan has three operating nuclear power plants with four reactors, according to White.

The Palisades plant, a roughly 750-megawatt reactor on Lake Michigan near South Haven, has been online since 1971. It was originally owned by Consumers Energy but is now owned by Entergy Nuclear. The D.C. Cook nuclear plant owned by American Electric Power is near Bridgman, also on southern Lake Michigan. Cook has two reactors, each generating about 1,100 megawatts, making it “a very large nuclear power plant,” according to White. Both units went online in the mid-1970s. The Enrico Fermi II plant is owned and operated by Detroit Edison and went online in 1988. It is a single unit, 1,100-megawatt reactor located in Monroe on Lake Erie.

Michigan had two other small nuclear power plants that have since been shut down and either fully decommissioned or undergoing decommissioning, according to White. The Big Rock Point plant was a very small reactor in Charlevoix that generated 65 megawatts from 1962 to 1997, when it was shut down by Consumers Energy. The plant was decommissioned during the early 2000s. The Enrico Fermi I plant was a 90-megawatt experimental reactor that operated for a very short period of time in the 1960s and was shut down due to an accident in 1966, according to White. Located next to the Fermi II plant, it is currently undergoing decommissioning after being kept in a cold shutdown mode since the 1966 accident.

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