Industry observers are hopeful that recent initiatives by the Obama administration and Congress could help to break the long-running impasse over the storage and disposal of high-level radioactive waste.
On March 24, President Obama signed a directive to enable federal officials to identify a site to store high-level defense-related waste, and a group of senior senators introduced a bill to establish a policy for addressing the long-term storage of nuclear and defense-related radioactive waste. And, on March 27, Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), one of the most vocal opponents of the Yucca Mountain geological storage site in the Senate, announced his plan to retire in two years.
"There's definitely been some positive developments in recent weeks," says Everett Redmond, the Nuclear Energy Institute's senior director of fuel-cycle and technology policy.
At the same time, administration officials have decided to search for a separate repository for high-level radioactive waste from atomic-energy defense activities. Carving out defense-related waste from spent fuel from nuclear plants could create greater flexibility in site selection and bring costs down for a variety of reasons, Moniz said.
Timothy Frazier, who served as a designated federal official on the Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future and is now director of the Bipartisan Policy Center's Nuclear Waste Initiative, says identifying both commercial spent fuel and defense-related storage on parallel tracks "will help them both move along faster."
With Reid's decision not to seek re-election in 2016, some advocates are hopeful that the Yucca Mountain repository project, halted in 2010, could be revived. For that to happen, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission would need to receive additional federal funding to conduct a series of hearings related to the project before it could release a final recommendation.
But the BPC's Frazier says it should not be assumed that Yucca Mountain is a "done deal." Opposition at the state level in Nevada and from some federal law- makers still exists, he says, and the administration is very focused on obtaining local consent.
Moreover, in his March 25 remarks, Moniz noted, "We don't view Yucca Mountain as workable," adding that the lack of support received from the state of Nevada "is a fatal flaw."
The Senate legislation, introduced by Energy and Natural Resources Chair Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and the committee's top Democrat, Maria Cantwell (Wash.), is a sign that at least some in Congress want to tackle the waste- disposal issue. "We're very supportive of the introduction of [the bill] and look forward to hearings and hopefully markup," NEI's Redmond says.