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Panel: Set up federal corporation to deal with spent nuclear fuel

By Mike M. Ahlers, CNN
President Obama stopped Nevada's Yucca Mountain nuclear waste storage project, shown here in an undated photo.
President Obama stopped Nevada's Yucca Mountain nuclear waste storage project, shown here in an undated photo.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • "New institutional leadership is needed," the Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future says
  • President Barack Obama created the commission last year
  • Corporation should use "consent-based" approach to find communities willing to take spent fuel, panel says

Washington (CNN) -- A presidential commission charged with addressing what to do with the nation's nuclear waste is recommending that a new "federal corporation" be created to solve the problem.

It said the corporation should be entrusted with an existing $25 billion fund and adopt a "consent-based" approach to find communities willing to take spent fuel.

"New institutional leadership is needed," the Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future says.

President Barack Obama created the commission last year after he halted the controversial Yucca Mountain project in Nevada, which was to be the final destination for the nation's radioactive waste. Obama asked the group to recommend options for the safe storage and disposal of the used fuel.

In its 154-page report, the commission avoids drawing conclusions about the suitability of Yucca Mountain or any other site as a storage site. But it pointedly says America has the where-with-all to develop safe deep-Earth storage sites, saying the government must find a way to convince communities "that their interests have been adequately protected and their well-being enhanced -- not merely sacrificed or overridden by the interests of the country as a whole."

Experience has shown that any attempt to force a "top-down, federally mandated solution" will fail, the commission said. Instead, the United States should adopt a "staged, consent-based" approach, it said.

There are no quick fixes, the commission said. "Any attempt to short-circuit the process will likely lead to more delay," it says.

The commission's draft report, released Friday, will be followed in six months with a final report after the commission considers public comment.

Few are worried the problem will disappear in the interim. The search for a safe dumping ground for radioactive waste dates back to the dawn of the nuclear age.

Meanwhile, an estimated 63,000 metric tons of spent fuel has accumulated at commercial reactors in 33 states as of January 2010, and the stockpile is increasing at approximately 2,000 tons per year, according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

The March 11 earthquake and tsunami in Japan have only added to the urgency of the issue, the commission said. Following the tsunami, workers at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant were unable to monitor water levels and fuel conditions in four spent fuel pools, and had to resort to pumper trucks and high booms to replenish water.

Among the highlights of the commission report:

-- The commission said Congress should give the new "federal corporation" control of the $25 billion nuclear waste fund, with congressional oversight. "We recognize that these actions mean no longer counting nuclear waste fee receipts against the federal budget deficit and that the result will be a modest negative impact on annual budget calculations," the commission said, but adds "The bill will come due at some point."

-- The commission said the new "consent-based" approach "in practical terms... means encouraging communities to volunteer to be considered to host a new nuclear waste management facility while also allowing (the government) to approach communities that it believes can meet the siting requirements."

-- Congress should remove responsibility for finding a site from the Department of Energy and give it to a single-purpose, congressionally-chartered "federal corporation." "New institutional leadership is needed," the report says, and a federal corporation "is best suited to provide the stability, focus, and credibility needed to get the waste program back on track."

-- Congress should pass legislation to transfer the unspent balance of a $25 billion Nuclear Waste Fund to the new corporation, so the corporation could carry out its mission independent of annual congressional appropriations.

-- The commission notes that even if the Yucca Mountain project is resurrected, the inventory of spent fuel soon will exceed the amount that can legally be placed at Yucca Mountain. "So under current law, the United States will need to find a new disposal site even if Yucca Mountain goes forward," the report says.

-- The commission says both interim and permanent storage facilities are needed. Developing interim storage capacity "would allow the federal government to begin the orderly transfer of spent fuel from reactor sites to safe and secure centralized facilities independent of the schedule for operating a permanent repository," the commission said. Interim facilities are especially crucial for fuel from shut down nuclear plants, it said.

-- The commission says it sees no unmanageable safety or security risks with current methods of storing nuclear waste. But it says research should continue on degradation issues, vulnerability to terrorism, and other issues.

In the draft report, the commission expresses both frustration and optimism. "The overall record of the U.S. nuclear waste program has been one of broken promises and unmet commitments," the report says. "And yet the Commission finds reasons for confidence that we can turn this record around."

The commission is co-chaired by former congressman Lee Hamilton and Gen. Brent Scowcroft.

The report can be found at http://brc.gov/sites/default/files/documents/brc_draft_report_29jul2011.pdf.