A New Nuclear Waste Administration?

WASHINGTON – Legislation dealing with how to handle nuclear waste now that a proposed repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada has been nixed represents “a thoughtful approach” in the view of Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, but he passed when given the opportunity to give the Obama administration’s imprimatur to the proposal.

Appearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on Tuesday, Moniz said the bipartisan measure offered by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), the ranking member, “supports the goals of establishing a new, workable, long-term solution for nuclear waste management” and promised to meet with lawmakers to develop an equitable plan.

“Any workable solution for the final disposition of used fuel and nuclear waste must be based not only on sound science but also on achieving public acceptance at the local and state/tribal levels,” Moniz said.

A “consent-based solution for the long term management of our used fuel and nuclear waste,” Moniz said, “is one that meets the country’s national and energy security needs, has the potential to gain the necessary public acceptance and can scale to accommodate the increased needs of a future that includes expanded nuclear power deployment.”

Nuclear power, Moniz said, “has an important role in President Obama’s all-of-the-above approach to energy and will play a significant part in reducing carbon pollution under the president’s Climate Action Plan.”

Congress has been wrestling with the nuclear waste issue for years, unsure what to do with the spent reactor fuel and high-level radioactive waste. Lawmakers thought they reached a solution in 2002 when Congress designated a site in Yucca Mountain, about 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas, as the official repository.

But the option attracted strong opposition, particularly from Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid, of Nevada, who argued that the repository “threatened the health and safety of Nevadans and people across our nation” and insisted that it is “simply not a safe or secure site to store nuclear waste for any period of time.”

After grappling with the issue, Congress, acting at the request of the Obama administration, terminated the project in April 2012. In his budget request looking to kill the project, President Obama acknowledged that nuclear power is “an important source of electricity for many years to come and that how the nation deals with the dangerous byproduct of nuclear reactors is a critical question that has yet to be resolved.”

The nation, he said, “needs a better solution than the proposed Yucca Mountain repository,” hinting that any facility dedicated to holding nuclear waste must carry local support, which Yucca Mountain decidedly did not.

The termination left the U.S. without prospects for a long-term storage site for radioactive waste. Remnants currently are stored at various nuclear facilities across the country. The delay in opening the federal repository resulted in spent fuel accumulating at plant sites. By the end of 2011, more than 67,000 metric tons of spent fuel remained at plant sites. None of it resided in a federal repository.

“When this administration took office, the timeline for opening Yucca Mountain had already been pushed back by two decades, stalled by public protest and legal opposition, with no end in sight,” Moniz said. “It was clear that the stalemate could continue indefinitely. Rather than continuing to spend billions of dollars more on a project that faces such strong opposition” the Department of Energy continues to seek alternatives.

As it turns out, Yucca Mountain probably wasn’t substantial enough to get the job done anyway. The site was not designed to be big enough to handle all of the spent fuel and nuclear waste that will need disposal.