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Department of Energy Issues Important Strategic Plan on Nuclear Waste

Richard M. Jones
Number 16 - January 24, 2013  |  Search FYI  |   FYI Archives  |   Subscribe to FYI

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A fourteen-page document released by the Department of Energy on January 11 continues to build on a path forward for the management and disposal of the nation’s civilian and defense nuclear waste.  This is important reading for anyone concerned about the future of nuclear energy in the United States. 

“Strategy for the Management and Disposal of Used Nuclear Fuel and High-Level Radioactive Waste” is the Obama Administration’s broad-brush response to the findings and recommendations of the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future (BRC).  The Department of Energy (DOE) established the BRC in 2010 following the Administration’s decision to terminate further work on the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository.  The commission issued its draft report in the summer of 2011, and sent its final report to President Barack Obama and DOE Secretary Steven Chu a year ago.

A key hearing in early 2012 by a Senate committee demonstrated considerable support for the commission’s findings calling for a consent-based approach to the location of one or more interim storage facilities and at least one geologic repository managed by a new organization.  In September, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee held an upbeat hearing on a bill introduced by its chairman, Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) who has since retired.  Bingaman’s bill, which died when the last Congress adjourned, would have implemented many of the commission’s findings.

Another step forward was taken when DOE released its strategy earlier this month.  Importantly, the first page of the report explains:

“The Administration endorses the key principles that underpin the BRC’s recommendations. The BRC’s report and recommendations provide a starting point for this Strategy, which translates many of the BRC’s principles into an actionable framework within which the Administration and Congress can build a national program for the management and disposal of the nation’s used nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste. The BRC report and the Strategy build on the body of physical and social science work completed during the prior decades and benefit from the lessons learned not only from our nation’s experiences, but also from those of other countries.”

The report continues:

“This Strategy includes a phased, adaptive, and consent-based approach to siting and implementing a comprehensive management and disposal system. At its core, this Strategy endorses a waste management system containing a pilot interim storage facility; a larger, full-scale interim storage facility; and a geologic repository in a timeframe that demonstrates the federal commitment to addressing the nuclear waste issue, builds capability to implement a program to meet that commitment, and prioritizes the acceptance of fuel from shut-down reactors. A consent-based siting process could result in more than one storage facility and/or repository, depending on the outcome of discussions with host communities; the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 (NWPA) envisaged the need for multiple repositories as a matter of equity between regions of the country. As a starting place, this Strategy is focused on just one of each facility.”

If Congress passes legislation allowing this process to move forward, the Administration estimates that a pilot interim storage facility would begin accepting waste by 2021.  A high priority would be given to “stranded” waste now being stored at eleven shut-down reactors sites.  A larger interim storage facility would accept waste by 2025, allowing “for acceptance of enough used nuclear fuel to reduce expected government liabilities.”  The Administration predicts this larger facility could hold 20,000+ metric tons heavy metal (MTHM).  There are currently 68,000 MTHM of spent fuel in storage at 72 sites, increasing by 2,000 MTHM annually.   Under this strategy, operations at a geologic repository would commence by 2048.  Changes would also be made to current law involving funding mechanisms and organizational responsibility.

The concluding paragraph of the strategy looks ahead to next steps:

“This Strategy translates the BRC’s report and recommendations into a set of broad steps that will ultimately benefit the entire nation. The Administration will work closely with Congress to develop a path forward that maximizes the likelihood of success. When executed, the new program will provide near-term and long-term solutions for managing the back-end of the nuclear fuel cycle, thereby resolving a longtime source of conflict in nuclear policy by providing safe, secure, and permanent disposal.

The report continues:

“Until the necessary new legislation has been enacted, the Administration will pursue components of the Strategy as described above pursuant to current law and in close coordination with Congress. Finally, in executing the program the federal government must work closely with potential host states, tribes, and communities whose engagement will be essential for successfully operating a comprehensive used nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste storage, transportation, and disposal system.”

Congressional reaction to the strategy has been mixed.  The Ranking Member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) commented:

“It’s important that we act quickly to resolve the federal government’s outstanding liability issue with interim storage facilities, while continuing to work on a permanent solution. DOE’s study is an important and constructive step in developing a viable path forward. Establishing an interim storage facility makes a lot of sense, and the best option is to use a consent-based siting approach. I’m hopeful that Congress and the administration will work together to enact legislation that will advance our nuclear energy strategy.”

Murkowski will introduce a nuclear waste bill “early in this Congress.”

Reaction in the House of Representatives was considerably less favorable. House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-MI) and Environment and the Economy Subcommittee Chairman John Shimkus (R-IL) commented as follows:

"We cannot have a serious conversation about solving America’s nuclear waste problems without talking about Yucca Mountain. There remains a gaping hole in this implementation plan because President Obama precluded the commission from considering Yucca Mountain in its report. The Blue Ribbon Commission emphasized the need for a long-term storage repository, and Yucca Mountain remains the most viable and thoroughly studied option.
 
"The implementation report proposes making ‘demonstrable progress’ toward siting a new nuclear repository that can be open by 2048. What the report fails to mention is the fact that we have already made ‘demonstrable progress’ on Yucca Mountain. Last summer, 326 members of the House, three out of every four elected representatives, voted on a bipartisan basis to continue that progress by increasing funding for the NRC license review. We cannot afford to start over - billions of dollars and decades of work have been invested in Yucca Mountain. If politics are allowed to derail a project set forth in 1983, there is no reason to believe this new effort will be any more successful. We have the responsibility under the law to pursue Yucca Mountain as the nation’s long-term nuclear waste solution. It's time to stop wasting time and move forward with the process we started 30 years ago."

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia is now reviewing the legality of the Administration’s actions terminating consideration of the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository.

Richard M. Jones
Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics
rjones@aip.org
301-209-3095