Chu took the fate of the Yucca Mountain facility off the commission's agenda. "We are not a siting commission. That's the key," said commission member and Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Ernest Moniz.
The commission stated that "we have not evaluated Yucca Mountain or any other location as a potential site for the storage of spent nuclear fuel or disposal of high level waste, nor have we taken a position on the Administration's request to withdraw the Yucca Mountain license application. What we have endeavored to do is recommend a sound waste management approach that can lead to the resolution of the current impasse; an approach that neither includes nor excludes Yucca Mountain as an option."
"Regardless what happens with Yucca Mountain, the U.S. inventory of spent nuclear fuel will soon exceed the amount that can be legally emplaced at this site until a second repository is in operation. So under current law, the United States will need to find a new disposal site even if Yucca Mountain goes forward," the commission report says.
Wanted: a second permanent disposal site
House and Senate committees will begin hearings next week on the commission plan, which already has some support. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), top Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said yesterday that she was particularly glad to see the recommendation for a new nuclear waste organization "that's protected from political influence or annual funding bills to handle nuclear waste disposal. I think that's an idea that's overdue."
The National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), the Nuclear Waste Strategy Coalition, the American Public Power Association, the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association and the Edison Electric Institute all endorsed the commission's approach yesterday. While the groups called on the NRC to complete the safety review, they added, "We believe actions can be taken to encourage and achieve consolidated interim storage in a willing host community within the next 10 years, well before a repository could be opened."
There is interest in hosting a storage facility, particularly if ongoing federal research funding is available, the NEI said. The institute's Everett Redmond told reporters this week, "We've talked to a number of communities over the last few years, but southeast New Mexico is the one that has publicly announced their interest."
The commission buttressed its argument for a consent-based siting process by pointing to DOE's Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) outside Carlsbad, N.M., which stores low-level contaminated wastes from U.S. bomb programs in deep underground salt formations. "In stark contrast to Yucca Mountain, the WIPP facility in New Mexico has been operating successfully for more than a decade with broad local and state support, although that project too was often controversial, suffered numerous setbacks in the siting and licensing process, and took years longer to complete than originally planned," the commission said.
Confidence to move forward?
One issue on which commission members could not agree was whether to continue the current policy of ultimately separating high-level military and civilian nuclear wastes. That requires a prompt, high-level review, the report says.
Areva, France's nuclear reactor manufacturer, said the commission should have recommended a strategy for reprocessing spent fuel. "Recycling used nuclear fuel is a proven solution that conserves natural resources and simplifies waste management but we must think in terms of real and sustainable solutions. The rest of the world is moving forward with forward-thinking solutions and the U.S. should join and lead this effort," said Areva Senior Vice President David Jones in a statement.