A solution for nuclear waste from power plants could finally be moving forward after the U.S. House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly May 10 to authorize continued licensing of Yucca Mountain as well as interim waste storage.

H.R. 3053 passed by a bipartisan vote of 340-72 and now goes to the Senate, where it faces stiff opposition from the Nevada delegation and environmental groups, but could pass, according to Skopos Labs, an analytical firm.

“This bill is an important step in resolving the nuclear waste issue and the pilot for interim storage is an important part of spent fuel management,” says Eric Howes, public and government affairs director for Maine Yankee, a nuclear plant that shut down in 1996 and was decommissioned in 2005. Fuel used in the reactor from 1972 to 1996 is the only thing left at the 180-acre former reactor site. It costs Maine Yankee about $10 million a year to store the waste.

“Our hope is the bill will lead to a bipartisan solution to resolve this long-standing problem,” Howes says. DOE does not comment on pending legislation, but it supports interim storage and has requested $120 million to resume processing Yucca Mountain’s license application and for an interim storage program, the agency tells ENR.

Finding a solution for spent nuclear fuel (SNF) has been a 36-year process. It was first address by Congress in 1982, when it gave DOE responsibility for permanent waste disposal. The Obama administration halted plans for disposal at Yucca Mountain in 2009 and in 2012 recommended interim storage with a priority for waste stored at decommissioned sites.

Nearly 80,000 MTU (metric tons of uranium) of SNF is located at 121 sites in 39 states. It increases by about 2,000 MTU a year. Rep. Darrell Issa, (R-Calif.)called H.R. 3053 an important step in moving nuclear waste out of local communities, where most of the current inventory is stored in wet pools or dry casks. 

The bill makes “targeted and practical updates” to the 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act, says a report by the Energy and Commerce committee. It directs DOE to begin taking ownership of the spent fuel and authorizes it to enter into agreements with private sites for temporary storage. “The provisions create a structured, predictable and cost effective program to provide options for DOE while the permanent repository is licensed and constructed,” the committee report says.

If the bill is enacted, DOE would report to Congress by June 1, 2019 on the need for and feasibility of the construction of private interim storage sites. It authorizes $150 million for DOE to contract with one private site, and would allow approval for a second private site after Yucca Mountain’s license review is complete. The bill also allows DOE to pursue building its own interim site.

Two private storage sites have been proposed to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Waste Control Specialists has teamed with Orano, formerly AREVA, to license a consolidated interim storage facility in Andrews County, Texas. WCS originally submitted a license application in April 2016, but withdrew it in 2017 for financial reasons. WCS was acquired in January by J.F. Lehman and Co., and will refile for review of its application with the NRC in June, Jeff Isakson, CEO of the joint venture, Interim Storage Partners, tells ENR. Once approved, it would take about 18 months to build. Waste would be stored in storage canisters inside concrete casks, called over packs, already approved by NRC, he says. Those casks would be placed on concrete pads.

WCS’s Texas site would expand the low-level radioactive waste disposal operations already located in Andrews County. Orano’s experience includes nuclear fuel packaging, storage and transportation.

David McIntyre, an NRC spokesman, says it takes about three years for the agency to complete its review of the interim storage applications.

NRC is focused on the application submitted in February by Holtec International, Camden, N.J., McIntyre says. The project in New Mexico, called HI-STORE CIS, is an underground system with a maximum storage of 10,000 canisters. The initial application is for half that size, about 8,680 MTU.

The bill directs DOE to take ownership of commercial spent fuel once it is off the site of the nuclear plant. The nuclear waste fund, supported by utility ratepayers to pay for the disposal of spent nuclear fuel, has a balance of $37 billion.