Immediate action needed on US waste policy

27 January 2012

After nearly two years of work, the Blue Ribbon Commission has issued its final recommendations for "creating a safe, long-term solution" for dealing with the USA's used nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste. Efforts to develop a waste repository and a central storage facility should start immediately, it says.

The Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future was set up in early 2010 following President Barack Obama's decision to halt work on a repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. Having released a draft report of its recommendations at the end of July 2011, the commission has now submitted its final report to US Secretary of Energy Steven Chu.

"Put simply, this nation's failure to come to grips with the nuclear waste issue has already proved damaging and costly. It will be even more damaging and more costly the longer it continues."

Blue Ribbon Commission

Federal responsibility for all US civil used nuclear fuel was enshrined in the 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act, 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. Obama's assertion that Yucca Mountain was "not an option" therefore derailed the country's entire waste management program.

"Put simply, this nation's failure to come to grips with the nuclear waste issue has already proved damaging and costly. It will be even more damaging and more costly the longer it continues," the Commission said. It continued, "The need for a new strategy is urgent, not just to address these damages and costs but because this generation has a fundamental, ethical obligation to avoid overburdening future generations with the entire task of finding a safe, permanent solution for managing hazardous nuclear materials they had no part in creating."

The Commission's strategy contains three crucial elements. Firstly, it recommends a consent-based approach to siting future nuclear waste storage and disposal facilities. Secondly, responsibility for the USA's radioactive waste management program should be transferred to a new organization, independent of the DoE. Thirdly, it recommends that the way in which the funds already paid into the Nuclear Waste Fund are treated in the federal budget are changed to ensure they are used for their intended purpose. These funds were estimated to be some $24 billion as of early 2010.

The report also calls for "immediate efforts to commence development of at least one geologic disposal facility and at least one consolidated storage facility, as well as efforts to prepare for the eventual large-scale transport of spent nuclear fuel and high-level waste from current storage sites to those facilities."

"The majority of these recommendations require action to be taken by the Administration and Congress, and offer what we believe is best chance of success going forward, based on previous nuclear waste management experience in the USA and abroad," the Commission told Chu in a letter accompanying the report. "We urge that you promptly designate a senior official with sufficient authority to coordinate all the DoE elements involved in the implementation of the commission's recommendations."

According to the Commission, the USA has a nuclear waste management policy "that has been troubled for decades and has now reached an impasse. Allowing that impasse to continue is not an option." It said that it has attempted to "recommend a sound waste management approach that can lead to the resolution of the current impasse, and can and should be applied regardless of what site or sites are ultimately chosen to serve as the premanent disposal facility."

Commenting on receipt of the Commision's report, Chu said: "The consensus report they have produced is a critical step toward finding a sustainable approach to disposing used nuclear fuel and nuclear waste. While the specifics of a new strategy for managing our nation's used nuclear fuel will need to be addressed in partnership with Congress, I believe that the Commission's recommendations represent a strong foundation for that effort." He added, "Congress has asked the department to develop a strategy for managing used nuclear fuel and other nuclear waste within six months of the completion of the Commission's report, and I look forward to working to do so. In the meantime, we will work in parallel to begin implementing the new strategy."

Industry response

The US nuclear industry welcomed the Commission's final report in a joint statement from the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NARUC), the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), the Nuclear Waste Stratgey Coalition (NWSC), the American Public Power Association (APPA), the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA) and the Edisdon Electric Institute. It said that the Commission has "offcially endorsed a number of strategic used fuel management initiatives that our members and other experts have long supported."

The organizations added, "We believe actions can be taken to encourage and achieve consolidated interim storage in a willing host community within the next ten years, well before a repository could be opened." While noting that the Commission was not called upon to give any opinion of the suitablility of Yucca Mountain or any other location as a disposal site, they said they believed that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission should complete its review of the DoE's licence application Yucca Mountain to determine its suitability for a repository.

There are currently over 65,000 tonnes of used nuclear fuel stored at about 75 operating and shut down reactors sites across the USA, with an additional 2000 tonnes being produced annually. The DoE is also storing a further 2500 tonnes of used fuel and large volumes of high-level waste - mostly from past weapons programs - at a few government-owned sites.

Researched and written
by World Nuclear News