Panel: Search for nuclear waste dump could last up to 20 years

Story highlights

  • Commission's 158-page report is a blueprint on how to begin the search for a nuclear repository
  • Panel's "consent-based approach" may take 20 years to find permanent storage site
  • Anti-nuclear activist: Report likely to disappoint both sides in nuclear waste debate
  • Panel says new agency should have responsibility for nuclear waste, not Energy Department
Three years after the Obama administration killed controversial plans to store the nation's nuclear waste permanently at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, a presidential commission said Thursday that the nation needs to adopt a "consent-based approach" to position disposal facilities, gaining the approval of any community before moving forward with future sites.
Such an approach -- which may include "substantial incentives" for a community, if necessary -- would be frustratingly slow, the commission conceded, suggesting it could take five to 10 years to find a temporary nuclear storage site and 15 to 20 years to identify a permanent one.
But the commission said, "Experience ... leads us to conclude that there is no shortcut, and that any attempt to short-circuit the process will most likely lead to more delay."
The Obama administration formed the Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future to find a strategy for disposing of the 65,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel stored at 75 commercial nuclear power plants across the country. More than 2,000 tons of waste are created every year.
Much of the used fuel is stored in dry casks at nuclear power plants. But some is stored in above ground pools, and the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan -- and subsequent problems with spent fuel pools at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant -- have added urgency to the problem.
The commission's 158-page report, released Thurday, is a blueprint on how to begin the search for a nuclear repository, and not a report on how to end the search. Indeed, the commission noted it was specifically not tasked with rendering an opinion on the suitability of the politically charged Yucca Mountain proposal nor any other site or disposal method.
The report probably will be a disappointment to advocates at both ends of the nuclear waste debate, said Tom Clements of the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability, an anti-nuclear advocacy group. "It doesn't offer the concrete decisions that some people were looking for. It may have had too big of a challenge in front of it, given the politics in front of it," Clements said.
But commission members, in a letter to Energy Secretary Steven Chu, said they believe the recommendations offer "the best chance of success going forward" of finding a permanent solution to the growing hazardous nuclear waste problem.
"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," former U.S. Rep. Lee Hamilton and ex-national security adviser Brent Scowcroft, the commission's co-chairmen, wrote in the letter.
The report said, "This generation has a fundamental ethical obligation to avoid burdening future generations with ... managing hazardous nuclear materials they had no part in creating."
The strategy proposed by the commission has eight key elements, topped off by the theme that consent of any potential site is key. While the United States has sought unsuccessfully for 50 years to find a community that is both geologically suitable and politically accepting of a waste dump, commission members say it is not impossible. As evidence, they note New Mexico's agreement to the positioning of a transuranic radioactive waste facility as well as positive outcomes in Finland, France, Spain and Sweden.
The commission also recommends Congress transfer responsibility for nuclear waste from the Department of Energy to a new organization, independent of that agency, that would license, build and operate nuclear waste facilities. It said this congressionally chartered federal corporation should have substantial authority and access to funds to accomplish its mission. A board, nominated by the president and confirmed by Congress, would oversee the organization.
The commission said the administration and Congress should change the budgetary treatment of some $27 billion in the Nuclear Waste Fund. Under current rules, the money is "effectively inaccessible to the waste program," it said.
"The federal government is contractually bound to use these funds to manage spent fuel," the commission said. Changing the rules will have a "modest negative impact" on the annual budget calculations, it said, but "the bill will come due at some point."
Other recommendations include:
• The government needs to continue looking for a deep-earth repository for waste.
"Deep geologic disposal capacity is an essential component of a comprehensive nuclear waste management system," the report said. "Very long-term isolation from the environment is the only responsible way to manage nuclear materials."
• The government needs to develop one or more consolidated storage facilities. That will allow the government to begin the orderly transfer of spent fuel from reactor sites -- particularly shutdown sites -- to a permanent repository.
• The government needs to allow substantial lead time to prepare for the transportation of nuclear waste, which has historically drawn intense interest.