The nuclear crisis in Japan provides an impetus for Congress to confront a failed national policy on dealing with spent fuel from U.S. reactors, witnesses told a Senate subcommittee yesterday.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Ernest Moniz called for an accelerated transfer of spent nuclear fuel rods from storage in water-covered pools at reactor sites to concrete and steel "dry" casks. Secondly, Moniz said, the federal government should create several regional facilities to store the containers for an extended period until a new strategy for managing nuclear waste fuel can be put in place -- a position he and MIT colleagues have argued for since before the emergency at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex.

"The Fukushima problems with spent fuel pools co-located with reactors will undoubtedly lead to a re-evaluation of spent fuel management strategies," Moniz told members of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development.

"We should really think hard about consolidated storage, presumably at federal reservations," Moniz said.

"I agree with you," replied Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the subcommittee chairwoman.

Congress voted to create a permanent spent fuel repository at Yucca Mountain, Nev., and the Energy Department has spent $10 billion on research and construction of the facility. But under pressure from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), the Obama administration has shelved the project.

The Energy Department seeks to withdraw "with prejudice" the government's license application submitted to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission -- a decision that Yucca Mountain project supporters are challenging in the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.

Temporary storage for a century?
Having no permanent waste fuel repository in sight, the NRC has concluded that spent fuel may be safely stored at reactor sites for as long as a century, if necessary. Feinstein challenged Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko on that conclusion at yesterday's hearing.

"We must begin to rethink how we handle spent fuel," Feinstein. "I'm amazed at the idea of storing it there for 100 years."

Two other witnesses before Feinstein's subcommittee, representing the nuclear industry and one of its frequent critics, differed on the implications of the reactor crisis on the safety of spent reactor fuel stored at the 104 U.S. nuclear power plants. But both agreed it was time to confront the stalemated issues surrounding the spent fuel.

"For unfathomable reasons, reactor fuel is considered benign after it is taken out of a reactor but before it is placed in a repository," said David Lochbaum, head of the nuclear safety program for the Union of Concerned Scientists. While irradiated fuel inside reactors is protected by multiple layers of shielding and redundant systems for preventing the overheating of fuel rods and release of radioactive contamination, spent fuel pools are typically covered with sheet metal roofs, "like that in a Sears storage shed," he said.

One of the spent fuel pools at the top of Fukushima reactor No. 4 suffered a hydrogen explosion and lost all or most of its cooling water during the emergency, permitting the fuel units to ignite and release radioactive elements into the atmosphere through the shattered metal roof.

"The irrefutable bottom line is we have utterly failed to properly manage the risk from irradiated fuel stored at our nations' nuclear power plants," he said. He, too, called for faster transfer of fuel units from pools to dry cask storage, after the required five- or six-year initial cooling period in the water-filled pools. Systems and procedures to deal with spent fuel pool accidents for must strengthened, as well, he said.

Lack of national policy found troublesome
William Levis, president and chief operating officer of PSEG Power LLC, a New Jersey-based nuclear plant operator, said that U.S. spent fuel pools are safe -- an assurance stressed earlier to the subcommittee by Jaczko.

Cask storage is an expensive option. Jaczko said the NRC does not set a maximum time that fuel rods must be moved out of the pools, but regulates the fuel units' placement in the pools.

After Feinstein expressed frustration and bewilderment over why U.S. nuclear plant operators hadn't shifted more fuel from pools to dry casks, Levis said the reason wasn't the industry's reluctance.

"It's really our lack of a national strategy of what we're going to do with it," he said. The NRC reviews and approves designs for dry cask storage containers, which typically encase spent fuel in sealed metal cylinders surrounded by a concrete or metal outer shell. Casks in use today typically are designed for storage at the reactors, or to be transported to other storage sites. But no casks have been designed for permanent disposal in an underground repository, a National Research Council report notes.

"We want to limit the number of times we have to handle used fuel," Levis said.

Alex Flint, senior vice president of the Nuclear Energy Institute, said he is hearing more Senate and House members focusing on the need for a spent fuel strategy, following the Japanese crisis. He said the push is not necessarily to reopen the debate over Yucca Mountain -- although nuclear power advocates in the Republican Party are eager to resume that battle. "I'm hearing an emphasis on the whole federal used fuel program," he said.

As the Japanese crisis began following the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, the first wave of concern that members of Congress heard about at home was about the safety of U.S. reactors, he said. Now that concern has evolved into a focus on spent fuel issues, he said.

Martez Norris, executive director of the Nuclear Waste Strategy Coalition, formed to support completion of the Yucca Mountain project, was recently in Washington speaking to members of Congress and staffs about the nuclear waste issue. "Members of Congress in the past -- knowing they had spent fuel on reactor sites in their districts -- had not spoken up to say we need to move it, or centralize it in storage," she said. The Japanese disaster is beginning to change that response.

A $35 billion failure
"The impression we got is that it's beginning to get their attention. We hope so," she said. The primary complaint by Norris and the coalition of state and utility company officials centers on the deadlock regarding the Yucca Mountain site, and the fact that utilities are required by law to pay $760 million to the government every year to fund a permanent federal storage program that does not exist. Since the payments began, the federal government has collected more than $35 billion from the industry, minus the $10 billion spent on the Yucca Mountain facility, Norris estimates.

Moniz, in his testimony, said the utility payments should fund creation of centralized federal spent fuel storage sites -- not permanent repositories -- which could be used initially for wastes from the government's nuclear weapons program. That step could be followed by transfers of spent reactor fuel, assuming that success with the military program built public confidence in the strategy, he said.

Moniz, a former undersecretary of Energy, is a member of the Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future, appointed by President Obama to devise alternatives to the Yucca Mountain plan. Moniz and MIT colleagues have said centralized storage of fuel in dry casks is the right interim move while research continues on long-term approaches.

They range from new, safer materials to encase reactor fuel to waste processing approaches that would separate short- and long-lived radioactive elements, with separate treatments for each. The commission is due to make its first report this summer. The research could take decades.

The commission is likely to put the issue squarely before Congress, said Brian O'Connell, director of the nuclear waste program at the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, a plaintiff in the Yucca Mountain lawsuit opposing the Obama administration's decision to cancel the project.

"There is an expectation that the commission will endorse central or regional storage," at least for the nine decommissioned nuclear reactor sites where everything is gone except for the leftover spent fuel casks, he said.

"Everything that the Blue Ribbon Commission is likely to recommend will require modification of the law," he added.

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