UPDATED: DOE and Senators Separately Outline Steps to Manage U.S. Nuclear Waste

Adds Moniz’s March 25 comments on the future of the nation’s nuclear waste beyond Yucca Mountain.

As four bipartisan U.S. senators unveiled a bill that tasks a new independent agency with permanent disposal of the nation’s spent nuclear fuel, Department of Energy (DOE) Secretary Ernest Moniz on Tuesday outlined steps the agency would take to manage the nation’s nuclear waste, including undertaking a consent-based approach to siting storage and disposal facilities.

The DOE Looks Forward

In remarks on March 24 before the Bipartisan Policy Center, Moniz announced that President Obama has authorized the DOE to begin “the process of developing a repository to be used for disposal of some DOE-managed high-level radioactive waste.” However, the DOE was also committed to “moving forward” with a solution for disposal of waste from commercial nuclear reactors, he said.

He added that as a next step, the DOE will work to develop a consent-based process that can be used to support both development of a defense waste repository and initial work to support development of interim storage for commercial spent nuclear fuel.

The DOE’s plans are rooted in its 2013-issued “Strategy for the Management and Disposal of Used Nuclear Fuel and High-Level Radioactive Waste,” he said, including those to develop a pilot interim storage facility that could accept spent fuel from decommissioned reactors.

“Although the construction of an interim storage facility requires new authority, DOE will soon initiate a consent-based siting process,” the agency confirmed on Tuesday.

A New Nuclear Waste Disposal Bill

The new legislation introduced by four bipartisan U.S. senators on Tuesday meanwhile calls for an independent agency to manage the country’s nuclear waste program in place of the DOE and directs that agency to build a pilot storage facility to hold spent fuel from decommissioned reactors.

The Nuclear Waste Administration Act of 2015 introduced by Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) conforms to many recommendations made in the Blue Ribbon Commission’s February 2012 final report.

If enacted, it calls for the new independent agency—the Nuclear Waste Administration (NWA)—to be headed by an administrator appointed by the president and subject to Senate confirmation.

It also authorizes the administrator to begin siting a pilot storage facility for priority waste “immediately” but does not set waste volume restrictions on storage. The bill also directs the NWA to build consolidated storage facilities for non-priority spent fuel for utilities or defense wastes for DOE on a temporary basis.

Significantly, the bill establishes a new working capital fund to collect fees from utilities. “These funds will be available to the administration without further appropriation,” the lawmakers said in a statement. Fees already collected remain in the Nuclear Waste Fund, where they will continue to be subject to appropriation.

The Blue Ribbon Commission report was compiled by a 15-member panel appointed in January 2010 by former Energy Secretary Steven Chu to provide comprehensive recommendations for a long-term solution to managing and disposing of the nation’s spent nuclear fuel after the Obama administration scrapped the Yucca Mountain permanent waste repository project.

Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) President and CEO Marvin Fertel in a statement on Tuesday said the bill holds potential to “finally bring some progress to the nation’s long-neglected nuclear waste management policy.”

But the industry group also urged continued development of Yucca Mountain, saying it is a “key element” that must be part of a comprehensive program.

“Consumers of electricity from nuclear power plants, and the Defense Department to a lesser amount, have committed tens of billions of dollars to the Nuclear Waste Fund to develop a repository both for commercial used nuclear fuel and defense high-level waste,” said Fertel. “The government has spent more than $12 billion from the Waste Fund developing Yucca Mountain in accordance with the Nuclear Waste Policy Act. That program is the law of the land and should be completed.”

Beyond Yucca Mountain: A Private Future?

At a March 25 hearing before the Senate Committee on Appropriations to vet the DOE’s Fiscal Year 2016 budget, Sen. Alexander outlined three options beyond the now-stalled Yucca Mountain project. One is the pilot site proposed by the Blue Ribbon Commission, and the second involves proposals stemming from the legislation proposed on March 24, he said.

“Another option is a private consolidated storage site like the one recently proposed by a group from West Texas, who vindicated their interest in filing with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for an application,” said Alexander, referring to Dallas-based Waste Control Specialists’ recent proposal.

The company in February announced it will seek a license to build an interim storage site on 1,000 acres in Andrews County, Texas.  Waste Control Specialists’ President Rod Baltzer has said the company won’t seek federal funds to build or operate the site.

“What they have said is that they may build a private site in units of 10,000 tons but up to 40,000 tons. So the site could hold as much as half as Yucca Mountain, if it were open,” said Alexander. Noting about $36 billion has been collected from Americans to pay for nuclear waste storage, he asked Moniz whether a private repository is realistic.

“In terms of timing, its pretty clear … that moving towards a pilot-scale storage facility is the thing that we can bring on the fastest—six to eight years, perhaps,” Moniz responded.

Most experts, including those on the Blue Ribbon Commission, had envisioned a federal facility to store the nation’s nuclear waste, and the “new dynamic” posed by the announcement out of Texas is “extremely interesting,” he added. “We want to learn more about that.”

Sonal Patel, associate editor (@POWERmagazine, @sonalcpatel)

UPDATED on March 26:  Adds Moniz’s March 25 comments on the future of the nation’s nuclear waste beyond Yucca Mountain. 

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