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How to store nuclear waste? New approach urged

Image: Trailer hauling nuclear waste
A 399-foot-long trailer assembly that will haul a retired steam generator component away from the nuclear power plant in San Onofre, Calif., is seen on Tuesday. A massive 192-wheel trailer will make four trips this year to haul old steam generator parts from the California nuclear power plant to Utah for disposal.Jebb Harris / Orange County Register via AP

Saying the US government “has not inspired confidence or trust” in nuclear waste management, a presidential commission recommended Friday the creation of a new federal corporation to spearhead a “consent-based” approach to finding sites to store highly radioactive spent fuel and military waste.

The highly anticipated report by ’s ’s Nuclear Future also calls for new interim storage facilities to hold used nuclear fuel until permanent underground repositories can be developed – and legislation to grant the new federal entity access to federal nuclear waste funds.

“The concludes that the needs a new, integrated strategy for managing the back end of the nuclear fuel cycle, including, in particular, a new approach to siting nuclear waste storage and disposal facilities,” the commission wrote.

Creating a new federal entity to take up the quest for a site is key since the Department of Energy’s credibility has been damaged in the decades-long failed process of trying to open a permanent repository at , Efforts to site the repository at Yucca Mountain ran into persistent political roadblocks and technical faults. Finally, President Obama and the Department of Energy pulled the plug on Yucca in early 2010.

“The overall record of DOE and of the federal government as a whole ... has not inspired confidence or trust in our nation’s nuclear waste management program,” the commission writes in the executive summary of the commission's draft. “For this and other reasons, the Commission concludes that new institutional leadership is needed.”

The US currently has more than 75,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel stacked up at 122 temporary sites in 39 states across the US, according to DOE reports. The nation's 104 commercial nuclear reactors produce about 2,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel annually. Thousands more tons of high-level military waste also need a final home.

Mr. Obama handed the commission the problem of what to do with spent nuclear fuel that will be dangerously radioactive for millennia and a big problem if it gets into the environment. Currently, spent-fuel pools and dry above-ground casks at reactor sites are being used for temporary storage. But a secure geologic site for permanent story remains key if nuclear power is to expand and the amount of spent fuel increases.

Overall, the commission recommends a strategy with seven elements, including:

• A new approach to siting and developing nuclear waste management and disposal facilities in the United States that is “adaptive, staged, consent-based, transparent, and standards- and science-based.”

• A new, “single-purpose organization” to develop a focused, integrated program for transportation, storage, and disposal of nuclear waste nationwide.

• Assured access by the nuclear waste management program to billions of dollars accumulating in the federal Nuclear Waste Fund and to revenues generated by annual nuclear waste fee payments.

• Prompt efforts to swiftly develop one or more permanent deep geological facilities for the safe disposal of spent fuel and high-level nuclear waste.

• Prompt efforts to develop one or more consolidated interim storage facilities as part of an integrated, comprehensive plan for managing the back end of the nuclear fuel cycle.

• Stable, long-term support for research, development, and demonstration (RD&D) on advanced reactor and fuel cycle technologies.

• International leadership to address global nonproliferation concerns and improve the safety and security of nuclear facilities and materials worldwide.

Nuclear industry representatives welcomed the report.

“A number of recommendations in the report strike the nuclear energy industry as sensible, desirable and, given time, achievable,” said senior vice president for governmental affairs, , in a statement. The industry, he said, concurs with the Blue Ribbon Commission’s idea that consolidated interim storage would provide “valuable flexibility” in the nuclear waste management system.

But while applauding creation of a new entity to develop long-term siting, nuclear critics questioned the idea of new interim sites and of holding out the option of reprocessing spent fuel. Interim sites would inevitably mean transporting masses of nuclear waste from all over the country to those sites – and then eventually to a long-term disposal site – raising cost and safety concerns.

“I don't think they made a compelling case for rapid deployment of interim storage facilities away from reactor sites,” says , a nuclear physicist with the in . “It’s not clear that the purported benefits of interim storage would outweigh the expense, political difficulty, and additional transportation risks involved.”

Consolidating the nation’s fuel from 65 active nuclear plant sites and a number of decommissioned reactor sites where fuel sits in “dry casks” outdoors – would put it all in a few “safe and secure” sites, and keep options for the future, the commission writes. At the same time, it reduces taxpayer liability since the nuclear power industry has sued the federal government for breach of an agreement to create a long-term nuclear waste repository and take away spent nuclear fuel building up at reactor sites.

But , president of the , says the government could simply insist that the nuclear utilities store the spent fuel in dry casks on reactor sites while waiting for the final repository – and avoid liability and the huge political and financial costs involved.

“Look, right now the nuclear industry is playing hardball with the government – but the government could play that too,” he says. “All the government needs to do is remind the industry that taxpayers are footing the bill for the – which caps industry liability in case of an accident at $12.5 billion. Maybe then they would be willing to participate in developing a permanent solution, but without suing taxpayers.”

Other experts also questioned the report’s recommendations on keeping options open for fuel reprocessing and other advanced fuel cycle technologies that might, in the future, be used to extract remaining nuclear energy from the tons of waste.

“Basically, when in doubt, ask for more R&D,” writes , a nuclear physicist at and an expert on nuclear weapons proliferation in an e-mail interview. “I am not aware of any strong nonproliferation, economic or environmental arguments for reprocessing and recycle.”

On the question of international leadership, it might be more useful, he says, to simply lead by example. Several new fuel enrichment plants in the US are under multinational ownership and through regulation could be nudged to “push their operations toward transparency of operations.” It would then be quickly apparent and nations “could forcefully object if there were plans to produce highly enriched uranium at the facilities, which are only licensed to produce low-enriched uranium.”

The report’s recommendations are now open to public comment until October. Final recommendations go to in January. Despite their criticism, some experts applauded the commission for its effort.

“The commission has an impossible task, so we can’t fault them if they haven’t come up with a perfect solution,” Dr. Lyman says. “We can wish as much as we want that a process can be developed for siting of the new repository. But it will take more than a commission report to effect that kind of change.”

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