No solution appears in sight to the nation’s growing problem of how to dispose of nuclear waste. A bipartisan group in the Senate is drafting a bill to address a blue ribbon panel’s recommendations for nuclear waste disposal, but with little time left in the current congressional session, no major nuclear waste bill is expected to go anywhere this year.
Moreover, with the Obama administration sticking to its 2009 decision to nix the repository site beneath Nevada’s Yucca Mountain, there has been no progress toward finding a permanent place to store spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste. Many observers believe that if no permanent repository for spent fuel is built, the nuclear power industry’s long-hoped for “renaissance” will not happen.
Nearly all of the country’s roughly 65,000 metric tons of commercially produced nuclear waste now are stored on nuclear plant sites in steel-lined concrete pools or in dry casks made of steel or steel and concrete. The Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), an industry group, says casks can safely store spent nuclear fuel for 50 to 100 years.
In another nuclear waste development, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled on June 8 that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in a 2010 action “failed to properly examine future dangers and key consequences” of long-term spent-fuel storage or the environmental impact of not having a permanent storage site. The court said that spent fuel “poses a dangerous, long-term health and environmental risk.”
There is wide agreement that pools or casks are only an interim solution to the waste problem. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) said on June 6, “Interim storage can play an important role in a comprehensive waste management program, but only as an integral part of the repository program and not as an alternative to, or de facto substitute for, permanent disposal.”
Meanwhile, the Dept. of Energy is looking at ways to implement recommendations of the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future, which released its final report in January, says Marshall Cohen, NEI senior director for state and local government affairs. Among the panel’s recommendations: developing a consent-based approach to siting future nuclear waste storage and disposal facilities; establishing a new organization, independent of DOE, to oversee storage and disposal of spent fuel and radioactive waste; and ensuring that the roughly $750 million a year in fees utilities pay into the Nuclear Waste Fund are used for waste storage. Bingaman and three other senators—Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), the energy committee’s top Republican; Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.); and Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.)—are working on a comprehensive bill to address the blue ribbon panel’s proposals.
Alexander says he and his colleagues are expected to release the bill in the next several weeks. But even the envisioned measure’s advocates doubt that it will pass both chambers this year. Bingaman, who is retiring at the end of the current Congress, said at a Bipartisan Policy Center forum in Washington, D.C., on June 6, “Even if we were able to get a bill out of the Senate, the House seems more interested in continuing the fight over Yucca Mountain than implementing the Blue Ribbon Commission’s recommendations.” Nevertheless, he added that "we can lay at least the foundation for legislation in the next Congress.”
The Republican-controlled House is trying to revive the Yucca Mountain site, approving on June 6 a fiscal 2013 energy and water appropriations bill that includes $10 million to allow the licensing process for Nevada site to move forward. DOE withdrew its license application for the Yucca Mountain plan in 2009, saying the site was not a viable option. With Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) strongly opposed to a Yucca Mountain repository, the House’s $10-million proposal isn’t likely to fly in the upper chamber.
Senate appropriators, for their part, did include language in their version of the FY13 energy and water bill authorizing DOE to conduct a pilot program to license, construct and operate one or more consolidated storage facilities for spent nuclear fuel and high-level waste.
NEI’s Cohen said at the Bipartisan Policy Center forum that although the conventional wisdom is that no real progress on the nuclear waste issue would be made until after the November elections, “what we do between now and when we get to that point is an important as when we get to that point.”