The Fault Lines of Nuclear Waste Storage

A bipartisan quartet of senators dropped a draft of a long-awaited bill on April 25, 2013 that would change how the United States stores nuclear waste.  The draft bill would enable the transfer of spent nuclear fuel currently housed at commercial nuclear facilities to intermediate storage sites. It also would allow states and local governments to apply to host the nation’s long-term waste repository.It also proposes creating a new federal agency to manage nuclear waste, taking that responsibility from the Energy Department (DOE). The president would appoint the head of that agency, which would be subject to Senate confirmation…The bill largely implements findings by the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future, an expert panel convened by President Obama in 2010. Some of the suggestions that made it into the draft bill will likely run into opposition.

Chiefly, Republicans will not be keen on moving nuclear waste to interim storage sites before a permanent repository has been identified.  The draft legislation calls for a pilot project to take in waste from high-risk areas — such as waste stored near fault lines — by 2021. After that, any nuclear waste could be sent to interim storage units so long as “substantial progress” is being made to site and select a permanent repository.  An alternative proposal by Feinstein and Alexander would require proposals for the pilot program to be submitted no later than six months after the bill becomes law.  But GOP lawmakers worry that interim storage sites would turn into de facto permanent ones without identifying a permanent facility.  They point to the recent flap regarding the Yucca Mountain site as a cautionary tale.  Obama pulled the plug on Nuclear Regulatory Commission reviews of DOE’s application to use the Nevada site in 2009.

Republicans viewed it as a political move — Obama campaigned on shuttering Yucca, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) opposes the site. They also said it was illegal because federal law identifies Yucca as the nation’s lone permanent repository.  Republicans, therefore, want to ensure a permanent site is selected before transporting waste to interim facilities to avoid a similar political kerfuffle.  GOP lawmakers might also oppose the draft bill’s call for a “consent-based” process that lets states and local governments apply to host the nation’s permanent repository.  Again, they say it’s a legal issue. Since a 1982 federal law fingers Yucca as the nation’s sole permanent nuclear waste dump, some Republicans argue there can be no others.  That’s the line House Republicans have taken.  They say any legislation coming over from the Senate that doesn’t identify Yucca as the nation’s permanent repository won’t move. And Senate legislation has almost no chance of including such a component considering Reid’s virulent opposition to Yucca.

Murkowski and the bill’s other backers have tried to minimize the Yucca issue by contending that more than one permanent storage site is likely necessary to handle the nation’s volume of nuclear waste.  The Alaska Republican has said she doesn’t want to give up on Yucca, but that she wants to do something about nuclear waste. She said the matter is urgent, pointing to leaking nuclear waste containers at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington state….

Zack Colman, Senators float nuclear waste storage draft bill, The Hill, April 25,  2013

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