Potentially jumpstarting long-paralyzed efforts to address the federal management of spent nuclear fuel (SNF), the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) on Nov. 30 issued a request for information (RFI) that could determine where the agency will temporarily consolidate and store spent fuel from nuclear reactors across the nation.

Under the RFI, the DOE is seeking input from all interested stakeholders (including from communities; local, state, and tribal governments; organizations; and corporations) on a broad range of questions related to the consent-based approach. These include how barriers could impede successful siting of federal interim storage facilities, how development of interim storage facilities should relate to progress on establishing a permanent repository, and whether the DOE should include social equity and environmental justice considerations in its siting process. Responses will ultimately inform development of a consent-based siting process, an overall strategy for an integrated waste management system, and possibly result in a funding opportunity, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy Dr. Kathryn Huff told reporters on Tuesday.

A Funding Opportunity Announcement Possible Next Year

Responses to the RFI are due on March 4, 2022. “We fully expect thousands of responses to inform our process moving forward, as well as to give us new insight into who thinks what and where they are,” Huff said. “We will take some significant time to incorporate these into our forward movement,” she said, noting the DOE will also consider comments submitted as part of a 2017 consent-based siting process document.

However, the timeline for reaching resolution on any concrete direction on interim storage facility siting remains murky, Huff acknowledged. “Depending on what the final program looks like, the timeline could be very different depending on what input we get from RFI respondents,” she said. “The reality is it will be a few years. There are a significant number of things that have to happen,” she noted.

Under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act (NWPA) of 1982, the DOE cannot build an interim facility until the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) issues its construction authorization of a repository. “That will require completion of a series of significant steps including site identification and the completion of a fulsome NRC licensing process,” Huff said. “Once the DOE has the ability to begin construction, it could take on the order of seven to 10 years to license and construct an interim storage facility after a host has been identified for that interim storage facility through a consent-based siting process,” she said. Over the near-term, the DOE expects, however, that with public input, it “should be able to at least issue a funding opportunity announcement next year,” Huff said.

A Gnarly History of Progress and Setback

The DOE’s push to revive its long-stalled consent-based siting activities on Tuesday stems from the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021, which President Trump signed into law in December 2020. The law allots $27.5 million to the DOE to carry out nuclear waste disposal activities, including as they relate to its development of interim storage activities. The law requires that at least $7.5 million will be derived from the Nuclear Waste Fund.

Since 1983, about $54 billion has been credited to the Nuclear Waste Fund, including more than $21 billion collected from electric ratepayers, and more than $28 billion in interest that continues to accumulate at a rate of over $1.7 billion a year. Meanwhile, owing in part to a political deadlock in Congress, and the DOE’s decades-long default on a “standard contract” to begin disposing of SNF as required by the 1982 NWPA, more than 86,000 metric tons of commercial SNF and high-level waste is currently stranded at 75 operating and decommissioned reactor sites in 33 states “without their consent.” According to a September 2021–issued U.S. Government Accountability Office report, the volume of SNF grows by about 2,000 metric tons each year.

As directed by Congress in a 1987 amendment to the 1983-enacted NWPA, the DOE exclusively explored efforts to site a permanent deep geologic repository at Yucca Mountain, Nevada. But, though the George W. Bush administration submitted a license application for construction of the Yucca Mountain repository to the NRC in 2008, the Obama administration in 2010 deemed the site an “unworkable solution” and suspended activities at the site.

The Obama administration instead established the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future to develop a new nuclear waste policy. That panel of experts in January 2012 ultimately recommended the DOE adopt a “consent-based approach” to siting nuclear waste facilities. In 2015, the administration accepted that recommendation and announced the DOE would pursue a consent-based approach to siting facilities for interim storage and disposal. A few days before the start of the Trump administration in 2018, the Obama administration also issued a draft consent-based siting process.

Private Interim Storage Facility Developers Facing Host Pushback 

Given the DOE’s inactivity, efforts to build consolidated interim storage facilities have been notably spearheaded by private industry. Holtec, a New Jersey–based energy industry equipment supplier, in March 2017 submitted an application to the NRC for a license for the construction and operation of a consolidated interim storage facility in Eddy County and Lea County, New Mexico. For the first phase of the project, Holtec has requested initial authorization to store up to 8,680 metric tons of uranium in up to 500 HI-STORM UMAX system dry in-ground canisters for a license period of 40 years. Holtec eventually wants to apply for amendments for up to 20 phases, which would cover an area spanning 330 acres. 

Another consolidated interim storage facility was originally proposed by Waste Control Specialists (WCS), an entity that currently operates a licensed 1,338-acre low-level radioactive waste facility in western Andrews County, Texas. In April 2016, WCS filed an application for an NRC license to build an interim SNF storage facility at its 14,000-acre site near Andrews, Texas. A revised application submitted in June 2018 by a joint venture comprising WCS and Orano’s U.S.-based arm called Interim Storage Partners (ISP) calls for an initial 40-year license to consolidate and store an eventual total of 40,000 metric tons of used nuclear fuel over eight “flexible” phases.

Both storage facilities, however, are facing strong opposition from their two proposed host states—New Mexico and Texas. New Mexico filed a lawsuit against the NRC on March 29, 2021, and the Texas governor signed a law banning new spent fuel storage facilities in the state on Aug. 9, 2021.

[This story is being updated]

Sonal Patel is a POWER senior associate editor (@sonalcpatel@POWERmagazine).