The so-called Blue Ribbon Commission set up to develop a new strategy for the back-end of the nuclear fuel cycle in the USA has released its draft report outlining seven key elements to make an integrated approach to nuclear waste management.
The Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future was set up in early 2010 to identify future directions for the management of the USA's high-level nuclear wastes following the Obama administration's decision to halt work on a repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. The 192-page report released by the Commission is a draft of its recommendations and will be open to public comment until 31 October: it is expected to evolve in response to comments which may be submitted by mail or via the commission's web site. The Commission's final report is due to be delivered to the US Secretary of Energy on or before 29 January 2012.
The seven key elements set out in the draft report are:
- A consent-based approach to the siting of future nuclear waste management facilities;
- A new organisation to take sole responsibility for implementing the waste management program;
- Improved access to money held in the Nuclear Waste Fund;
- Prompt efforts to develop geologic disposal facilities;
- Prompt efforts to develop consolidated interim storage facilities;
- Support for nuclear technology innovation and workforce development; and
- An active role for the USA in international nuclear safety, waste management, non-proliferation and security efforts.
Federal responsibility for all US civil used nuclear fuel was enshrined in the 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act (NWPA), which was amended in 1987 to designate Yucca Mountain as the sole initial repository for the country's high-level nuclear waste, effectively tying the entire US high-level waste management program to the fate of the Nevada site. Under the legislation, the federal government was obliged - and failed - to start accepting used fuel from utilities for final disposal from January 1998. "Put simply, this nation's failure to come to grips with the nuclear waste issue has already proved damaging and costly and it will be more damaging and more costly the longer it continues", the commission says. But nuclear waste management is not an insurmountable problem, the Commission says: "We know what we have to do, we know we have to do it, and we even know how to do it."
Since the federal government's failure to deliver on the 1998 deadline, US utilities have been faced with storing used nuclear fuel on site. Storage space at some operating nuclear reactors has run out, and at many plants pool storage is being supplemented with dry cask storage. Existing legislation precludes the establishment of a consolidated interim storage site before a final repository is ready, a situation that the Commission says should be remedied. The Commission also says that so-called "stranded" used fuel, from plant sites that have already been shut down, should be first in line for transfer to a consolidated interim storage facility to enable plant decommissioning to proceed.
Under the NWPA, US utilities are required to pay a levy on every kilowatt-hour of nuclear electricity generated to fund waste disposal. This fund, known as the Nuclear Waste Fund, was estimated to stand at around $24 billion as of early 2010.
In 2010, state utility regulators, electricity utilities and US nuclear industry organisation the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) filed lawsuits seeking a suspension of payments into the fund during the hiatus in US waste management policy. The US government has also been the target of litigation from nuclear utilities for its failure to meet its commitment to accept used fuel from 1998. The Commission has called for the monies in the Nuclear Waste Fund to be made more readily available for their intended purpose and also for the federal government to take steps to resolve ongoing litigation between the Department of Energy and utilities "as expeditiously as possible."
Implementation of its recommendations will require changes to the NWPA and other legislation, the Commission notes, but highlights several areas for prompt action to "get the waste management program back on track" even before legislative action. These include developing lists of basic initial siting criteria for waste management facilities and developing a generic standard and supporting regulatory requirements early in the siting process, as well as encouraging expressions of interest from potentially suitable host communities and establishing initial program milestones.
Representing the US civil nuclear power industry, the NEI welcomed the draft report. NEI senior vice president for governmental affairs, Alex Flint, described a number of recommendations in the report as "sensible, desirable and, given time, achievable." The recommendations calling for the establishment of consolidated interim storage facilities and a permanent underground repository, the creation of a the new management organization, and legislation providing full access to nuclear waste fee revenues and the federal Nuclear Waste Fund were particularly welcomed by the industry, he said, and "should be among the nation's top energy policy priorities."
Researched and written
by World Nuclear News