Nuclear waste management needs overhaul, says commission

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Storage and disposal of spent nuclear fuel in the United States needs a drastic makeover, says a draft report from a commission chartered by President Barack Obama following his administration's 2010 decision to withdraw the license application for the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository.

The draft report, released July 29, recommends setting up consolidated wet and dry storage facilities for the interim storage of spent fuel and an effort to develop a new deep geologic disposal facility. It also recommends transferring responsibility for nuclear waste management away from the Energy Department to a new independent federal entity.

"We know what we have to do, we know we have to do it, and we even know how to do it," the draft report says, urging immediate action. The commission is co-chaired by former Rep. Lee Hamilton and Brent Scowcroft, who was national security adviser to Presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush.

The hunt for a new permanent disposal facility buried deep in the ground must occur regardless of the ultimate outcome of Yucca Mountain, the report notes, since the U.S. inventory of spent fuel will soon exceed the amount that would be able to legally go into the Nevada storage site under current law.

Currently, about 65,000 metric tons of spent fuel from commercial nuclear reactors--including shuttered plants--have no location for storage other than the grounds of the reactors themselves. About three quarters of the spent fuel resides in pools, which originally had been intended only as a short-term storage area. The National Regulatory Commission estimates that nuclear power plants will reach full pool storage capacity in 2015. The remainder of the spent fuel is in "dry casks," multi-layered containers with inert gas inside that rely on passive air cooling to dissipate heat buildup.

An interim site--or sites--for spent fuel storage would free up existing pools and create an emergency storage location should an accident arise requiring the quick removal of still hot, newly-spent fuel, the report states. It would also provide a location for spent fuel stored in dry casks from the nation's nine shuttered commercial nuclear reactors. Dry cask storage at the closed sites costs between $4.5 and $8 million annually, meaning that savings made through storage at a centralized facility would be sufficient to pay for the facility itself, the report says.

However, an interim site would only succeed if local communities around it don't believe that it would become a de facto permanent site, the report says. It adds that experience with Yucca Mountain shows that siting a permanent disposal facility requires the consent of locals, meaning that a search for a new location must be adaptive and flexible, despite the apparent slowness and vagary of such a process.

Commissioners also say the Energy Department is no longer the best institutional home for federal nuclear waste management efforts. A new organization could establish a track record in areas where the DOE has lost trust, such as "consultation, transparency, accountability, and scientific and technical credibility," the report says.

Funding for the new organization should come from the Nuclear Waste Fund - set up in 1982 to collect fees from nuclear utilities, the report says.

Currently, money in the Nuclear Waste Fund is counted as an offset against federal benefits spending, "which raises the criticism that the fee is simply being used to reduce the budget deficit instead of for its intended purposes," the report adds.

It recommends a funding mechanism whereby only the amount appropriated by Congress for nuclear waste management would be collected from utilities, with any remainder placed in a trust fund administered by the utilities.

For more:
- download the draft report (.pdf)
- go to the website of the Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future

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