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.

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.