Nuclear Industry Hopeful Congress Will Resolve Spent Nuclear Fuel Impasse

Maria Korsnick, president and CEO of the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), told POWER on March 9 that the U.S. nuclear industry is optimistic this Congress will work to resolve the nation’s long drawn out spent fuel predicament.

Speaking at CERAweek by IHS Markit last week, Korsnick said that optimism was based on Republican domination of both houses of Congress, as well as on the retirement of Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) in December 2016. Reid was “‘a very challenging figure in terms of creating conversation relative to nuclear waste,” she later said at a media briefing, in response to a question by POWER about how nuclear waste policy would fare under the Trump administration.

“We think there will be avid discussion in this Congress relative to a long-term storage and an interim storage solution for nuclear waste.” That solution will likely include Yucca Mountain, the now defunct permanent waste repository mandated by the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982, she said.

But “Even if we were to start Yucca Mountain today in terms of revitalizing the licensing process, we’ll still be many years away,” she said. “So we believe that progress should continue on Yucca, and in parallel with that, interim storage.”

Korsnick said during a panel discussion that resolving the nuclear waste predicament wasn’t far-fetched. “It’s important to know that the fuel issue isn’t a technological issue. It’s not a scientific problem or challenge. It’s a political challenge here in the U.S.,” she said. “It’s a matter of us putting our minds to it and deciding what the best solution is.”

She added that it was important to note that the nation was dealing with a relatively “small amount of waste.” All the waste that the nuclear industry has generated since the 1950s would “fill a football field, and I think it would be 20 feet deep,” she said.

“We’re not talking about a huge amount; it’s not something insurmountable here,” she added. “We are more than capable of coming up with a long-term answer.” With both parties willing to “put their minds to this in Congress,” progress was possible, she said.

Daniel Poneman, who participated in the same panel as Korsnick at the event in Houston, and who served as deputy energy secretary during the Obama administration between 2009 and 2014 and is now president and CEO of Centrus Energy, told POWER that “geologic disposal” was necessary for future spent fuel management.

The consent-based process worked in Finland, Poneman noted, where, after a “long multi-decadal process,” the country ended up with “two communities competing to host a repository.” The process will require “lots of patience, lots of education, and it does require consent of the people in the communities,” he said. “But it’s not mysterious, it’s been done before, and frankly, it was the approach that was taken by the Blue Ribbon Commission that was appointed under President Obama, and I wish Sen. [Lisa] Murkowski and her colleagues success to try to pass it.”

Poneman said “a lot of bipartisan work” was done in the form of the Blue Ribbon Commission, which was “championed” by Sen. Murkowski (R-Alaska). “Now we actually have a fresh opportunity, given, I think the restoration of nuclear leadership at a time when you’re seeing this massive expansion of nuclear in other countries,” he said.

“I think it may give a further impetus to this, and I hope, because it will be further beneficial to everyone.”


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

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