A New Nuclear Waste Administration?

Currently, there are roughly 70,000 metric tons of spent fuel already sitting at nuclear power plants around the country. The Government Accountability Office estimates that amount will double just from the current generation of nuclear power plants to more than 140,000 metric tons. The statutory capacity limit for Yucca Mountain was 70,000 metric tons – leaving no room for the spent fuel of the future.

Operators of nuclear power plants have sued the federal government for failing to provide for the management of nuclear waste as contractually required. The breach of contract has cost almost $3 billion and is likely to reach $20 billion if the government doesn’t accept used fuel by 2020.

The Wyden-Murkowski bill, called the Nuclear Waste Administration Act of 2013, creates a new agency, the Nuclear Waste Administration, with a five-member independent oversight board to site and manage the government’s nuclear waste storage and disposal facilities, thus relieving the Department of Energy of the responsibility. The proposal requires that new agency to immediately begin identifying facilities for the storage of priority waste, which includes spent fuel from decommissioned nuclear plants and emergency shipments of spent fuel that present a hazard where it’s stored.

Initially, storage would be temporary to allay safety concerns. The board is further required to find a permanent repository.

“It’s my strong belief that the country needs a way to permanently dispose of nuclear waste from commercial nuclear power plants and from defense programs,” Wyden said. “Simply continuing to pass the burden of safely disposing of nuclear waste to future generations is not an option, and that’s true whether the waste is at shuttered nuclear power plants or if it’s in tanks alongside the Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest.”

The federal government, Wyden said, “is morally obligated to make sure that wastes from the nation’s nuclear weapons programs are safely disposed of in a permanent repository.”

Murkowski noted the measure is unlikely to gain unanimous approval but she noted the intent was to “put forward legislation that can get us from where we are today on the back-end of the nuclear fuel cycle – namely a process that has mastered the art of going nowhere slowly – to a place where actual progress has been made.”

The measure has, in fact, drawn objections from some environmental groups, including the Natural Resources Defense Council, for placing what the organization perceives is an emphasis on stopgap measures instead of a permanent solution to nuclear waste storage.

“The bill wrongly prioritizes the narrow aim of getting a government-run interim spent fuel storage facility up and running as soon as possible – a priority with potential financial benefits for business interests,” said NRDC senior attorney Geoffrey H. Fettus.

“Adopting a short-term, politically expedient course for interim storage at the expense of durable solutions is the recipe for failure for both storage and disposal facilities,” he said.