A White-House appointed commission tasked with finding long-term solutions for storing the nation’s spent nuclear fuel says that the government needs to simultaneously operate a centralized interim storage facility and several permanent geological repositories for nuclear waste, regardless of what becomes of long-delayed plans to dump nuclear waste under Nevada’s Yucca Mountain.
In a draft report obtained by National Journal that is to be released on Friday, commissioners said that “a program to establish consolidated storage will succeed only in the context of a parallel disposal program that is effective, focused, and making discernible progress in the eyes of key stakeholders and the public.”
The commission, appointed by President Obama after he suspended plans to dispose of the nation's spent nuclear fuel at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, said an interim storage solution is needed now while at least two permanent sites are readied. The idea of using interim storage sites while permanent sites are being readied has faced criticism from states that fear that an interim storage facility could become a de facto permanent disposal site in the absence of a long-term disposal program.
So the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future recommends that the Obama administration move forward on both fronts simultaneously “without further delay.”
Obama shuttered the Yucca Mountain site and cut its federal funding soon after taking office, making good on a campaign promise. Although the decision is still under fire from industry groups and Republican lawmakers, the commission notes that the U.S. inventory of spent nuclear fuel will soon exceed the amount that can be legally placed at Yucca Mountain anyways. The commission recommends that two permanent sites be found.
(BACKGROUND: Consensus Elusive on Storing Nuclear Waste)
“There is a limit on what Yucca could handle,” Robert Thormeyer, a spokesman for the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, told National Journal Daily. “At least two repositories—including Yucca—will be needed to handle the nation’s spent nuclear fuel.”
The nation now has 104 nuclear power plants supplying about 20 percent of U.S. electricity needs, but those plants also generate 2,000 to 2,400 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel in total every year, nearly all of which is stored at the reactor sites. About 80 percent of that nuclear waste is stored in on-site, water-filled pools, with the rest stored in dry steel-enclosed casks.
Storing the waste on-site is costly, requiring security and monitoring at both active and inactive sites. And it is potentially dangerous, as highlighted by Japan’s nuclear disaster in March.
The earthquake and tsunami that hit the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant damaged the water-filled pools meant to cool the plant’s spent-fuel rods, exposing them and causing the water to boil. A 2011 report from Robert Alvarez, senior policy adviser to the Energy secretary during the Clinton administration, found that America’s spent fuel pools are more dangerous than Japan’s, in part because some have more nuclear waste being temporarily held.
The draft report recommends tapping the about $25 billion in funds collected from utility consumers to transport and store nuclear waste at the interim and permanent site. It also recommends establishing a new federal organization solely concerned with nuclear-waste management.
The presidential commission will gather public comment on the draft report through October 31 and issue its final report to the Energy secretary in January.
(BACKGROUND: Interim Solution for Nuclear Storage?)
This article appears in the July 29, 2011, edition of National Journal Daily PM Update.