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.).

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.

Moniz countered that it is far too premature for the United States to chart such a course now. Instead, the commission recommended continuing research and development on possible new nuclear fuel and reactor options, such as a "fast" reactor employing a closed fuel cycle technology. If successful, it could increase the efficiency of fuel use, extending the uranium fuel resources and reducing the volume of wastes requiring storage.

"The whole trajectory of nuclear power is extremely uncertain," Moniz said. "If nuclear power has its renaissance and becomes a major zero-carbon energy source, then going to alternative fuel cycles will become a lot more compelling." But that isn't clear now, nor have the technological and economic issues been answered, he said. The commission's approach is to create "a sensible approach that preserves options," he said.

Hamilton and Scowcroft said they are encouraged by the comments they've received from Chu and White House officials.

"I don't want to speak for them, but our impression is they are taking the report very seriously," Hamilton said. "They recognize the problem has to be resolved. And thus far, they've commented positively. So, so far, so good."

Scowcroft said the commission, whose members brought a range of views to the issue, have given it a thorough study. "Hopefully, that will create the necessary confidence -- which is badly lacking -- for Congress, the administration and the American people to move forward."

"I think the signals we've been receiving are pretty encouraging," Moniz said. "Maybe we can pull together and get something done."

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC., 202-628-6500