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DOE issues new strategy for nuclear waste that would require federal legislation; calls for some interim storage by 2021

From the January 17, 2013 issue of Public Power Daily

Originally published January 17, 2013

By Jeannine Anderson
After taking a year to reflect on the recommendations made early last year by a blue ribbon commission on nuclear waste, the Department of Energy has issued a report outlining a new long-term strategy for finding and constructing storage sites for spent fuel and other high-level nuclear waste produced by nuclear power plants.

Providing that Congress passes the appropriate legislation, DOE said, the federal government plans to carry out a process over the next 10 years that would:
•  site, design, license and build a pilot interim storage facility by 2021;
•  make progress toward the siting and licensing of a larger interim storage facility that would be available by 2025; and 
•  work toward having a geologic repository in operation by 2048.

The Energy Department's January 2013 report, Strategy for the Management and Disposal of Used Nuclear Fuel and High-Level Radioactive Waste, draws heavily on the recommendations issued by the Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future, which was headed by former Indiana Congressman Lee Hamilton  and General Brent Scowcroft. (See Public Power Daily, Jan. 30, 2012.) Among other things, the commission recommended a "consent-based" approach to finding sites for the storage of nuclear waste.

"At its core, this strategy endorses a waste management system containing a pilot interim storage facility; a larger, full-scale interim storage facility; and a geologic repository in a timeframe that demonstrates the federal commitment to addressing the nuclear waste issue, builds capability to implement a program to meet that commitment, and prioritizes the acceptance of fuel from shut-down reactors," DOE said in its report describing the new approach.

"It's important that we act quickly to resolve the federal government’s outstanding liability issue with interim storage facilities, while continuing to work on a permanent solution," said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, ranking Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. The Alaska Republican, who plans to introduce legislation on nuclear waste early in the 113th Congress, said DOE’s study is "an important and constructive step." Establishing an interim storage facility "makes a lot of sense, and the best option is to use a consent-based siting approach," Murkowski said. "I’m hopeful that Congress and the administration will work together to enact legislation that will advance our nuclear energy strategy."

The Nuclear Energy Institute, the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners and the Nuclear Waste Strategy Coalition said they "stand ready to work with Congress and the administration on legislative proposals that contribute to the development of a sustainable used fuel management program for this country. " 

NEI, NARUC and NWSC noted that DOE has endorsed several used nuclear fuel management initiatives outlined by the Blue Ribbon Commission and said that "many of these concepts have long been supported by our members and other experts."

NEI and the two other groups said Congress and the administration should place high priority on: 
•  making sure the nuclear waste management program has access to the revenues generated by electricity customers' payments to the Nuclear Waste Fund;
•  developing one or more consolidated storage facilities at volunteer sites, with priority given to the used fuel from decommissioned reactors; and
•  a new, congressionally chartered federal corporation "dedicated solely to implementing the waste management program and empowered with the authority and resources to succeed."
After two years of deliberations by the Blue Ribbon Commission and an additional year for DOE to develop its strategy, "it is essential that the nuclear waste fee be used solely for its intended purpose -- to cover the cost of used fuel management and disposal," said NEI and the others. The fee of one mill per kilowatt-hour paid by consumers of electricity from nuclear power plants, which totals about $750 million each year, "is effectively unavailable for its intended purpose," the groups said. The Nuclear Waste Fund currently has a balance of about $28 billion.

NEI, NARUC and NWSC said they continue to support the completion of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's review of DOE's license application for the proposed repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. 

The Energy Department announced in 2010 that it was abandoning the Yucca Mountain project after spending billions on it. Under the Nuclear Waste Power Act of 1982, DOE was obligated to begin accepting high-level nuclear waste from nuclear power plants by 1998. The Government Accountability Office has estimated that if there is no interim repository in place by 2021, taxpayers are likely to be on the hook for $500 million a year because of the federal government's liability for the waste.

"We cannot have a serious conversation about solving America’s nuclear waste problems without talking about Yucca Mountain," said House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., and Environment and the Economy Subcommittee Chairman John Shimkus, R-Ill. "There remains a gaping hole in this implementation plan because President Obama precluded the commission from considering Yucca Mountain in its report," they said.

"We cannot afford to start over -- billions of dollars and decades of work have
been invested in Yucca Mountain," the two House leaders said. "If politics are allowed to derail a project set forth in 1983, there is no reason to believe this new effort will be any more successful."


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