STORAGE SEARCH: The U.S. government continues to search for a safe geologic home for the spent nuclear fuel from the nation's nuclear power plants. Image: markwgallagher, courtsey Flickr
The embarrassing and damaging failure of U.S. policy on spent nuclear fuel can be repaired if the administration and Congress begin work now on new strategies, the co-chairmen of a presidential commission said yesterday.
"The basic choice here is whether or not we're going to continue a system that has not worked for 40 or 50 years ... or do you try going toward with a new approach," said former Indiana Rep. Lee Hamilton (D), co-chairman of the Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future (BRC), which issued its final report yesterday.
The BRC proposes establishing one or more interim storage facility for spent reactor fuel and beginning a search for a permanent geological repository.
Both would be managed by a new federally chartered organization like the Tennessee Valley Authority, and would require the consent and support of the host states, tribes and communities, the BRC proposes. The Yucca Mountain waste fuel repository in Nevada was approved by Congress without such comprehensive state support and has been sidetracked by the Obama administration at the behest of Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.).
That has left operators of U.S. reactors and decommissioned nuclear plants no alternative but to store spent nuclear fuel on-site and has exposed the federal government to costly lawsuits for breaching its contractual commitment to remove and store it.
"This is an urgent matter. It is a problem the government has not solved. It is creating all kinds of negatives for the U.S. in many different ways," Hamilton added. "We think we have a way forward."
Hamilton and co-chairman Brent Scowcroft, a former national security adviser, said in a joint interview that the Energy Department and the administration can initiate parts of the new policy now, even though Congress would have to rewrite the Nuclear Waste Policy Act to carry out the plan's fundamental changes.
A legislative and financial challenge
New legislation would be required to create the proposed new nuclear waste management organization, and to create interim waste storage facilities before a new permanent geological repository is opened. Both the interim and permanent facilities should be developed simultaneously, the commission said.
"That is probably a year at a minimum, or two years, to achieve that," Hamilton said of the proposed new federal corporation. "We certainly don't want the DOE to stop in its track to wait until the new organization is in place." DOE can continue discussions with communities that may volunteer to host interim or permanent storage sites and begin work on the challenging issues of transporting spent fuel, he added.
The administration should also act to secure the roughly $750 million that utilities and their customers pay in each year to the Nuclear Waste Fund. It was intended to finance a permanent federal storage program, but now goes into general government funds to fund current spending, leaving the industry and ratepayers with a congressional IOU, the BRC said.
"The commission is putting pressure on to try to straighten out this financial challenge," said Richard Meserve, a commission member and former Nuclear Regulatory Commission chairman. "The $750 million disappears into the Treasury. It should be held instead by a reliable custodian to make sure that money is available when needed and doesn't have to be appropriated for the federal corporation."
Congressional attention on spent fuel has been riveted on the Yucca Mountain controversy, particularly after Energy Secretary Steven Chu shut down the program and NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko halted the NRC's licensing review. "In light of the current $15 trillion federal debt, I'm not sure why this administration and Senator Reid insist on spending even more money trying to find alternatives to something that is already in place," said Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.).