A bipartisan Senate bill introduced on June 27 seeks to break gridlock over a permanent nuclear waste repository by establishing a new nuclear waste administration and creating a consent-based process for siting nuclear waste facilities.

Essentially, the Nuclear Waste Administration Act of 2013 establishes a new independent agency to manage the nation’s nuclear waste program instead of the Department of Energy (DOE). The so-called "Nuclear Waste Administration (NWA)" would be headed by a single administrator who would be appointed by the president and be subject to confirmation by the Senate. The bill also establishes a five-member (appointed by the Senate) oversight board to oversee the NWA.

Significantly, the bill also directs the new agency to build a pilot spent fuel storage facility to store spent fuel from decommissioned nuclear plants and emergency shipments from operating plants.

The agency is also directed to build one or more consolidated storage facilities to store non-priority spent fuel for utilities or defense wastes for the DOE on a temporary basis. It also establishes separate, but similar, siting processes for storage facilities and one for repositories.

The bill allows the NWA to begin siting a pilot storage facility for priority waste immediately and does not set waste volume restrictions on storage. Finally, it establishes a new “working capital” fund in the Treasury into which fees collected from utilities for a permanent waste repository (about $765 million a year) would be deposited. These funds will be available to the NWA without further appropriation. Fees already collected (about $28.2 billion as of January 2013) remain in the Nuclear Waste Fund, where they will continue to be subject to appropriation.

The new bill implements recommendations of the president’s Blue Ribbon Commission and is similar to S.3469, a nuclear waste bill last year introduced by now-retired Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.).

It was introduced today by Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.)—who head up the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development—and Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Ron Wyden, (D-Ore.) and Ranking Member Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska).

Those senators had released a draft version of the bill in May. The final version introduced today contains two significant changes based on more than 2,500 comments the senators received.

The first change is the provision linking construction and siting of a consolidated storage facility with progress on a repository. The draft did not include a volume limit on consolidated storage, but instead required the administrator to cease shipments of nuclear waste to the storage facility if progress is not being made on the repository. The introduced bill removes the requirement to cease shipments in the event of no progress on the repository. Instead, for 10 years after the enactment of the NWA, the administrator may site storage facilities and ship fuel as long as funds have been obligated toward the siting and/or construction of a repository. After 10 years, the administrator may not site an additional storage facility unless one or more repository sites have been selected for evaluation.

The second change is in the structure of the Oversight Board for the NWA. "Rather than incorporate three government officials, the Oversight Board will now consist of five members appointed by the President with the consent of the Senate. No more than three members will be of the same political party," a summary of the bill says.

The senators said in a joint statement that the bill will enable the federal government "to address its commitment to managing commercial nuclear waste, limiting the costly liability the government bears for its failure to dispose of commercial spent fuel."

The Energy and Natural Resources Committee is planning a hearing on the bill in July. The date and witnesses will be announced when they are confirmed.

Nuclear industry group the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) hailed the new bill, saying it "recognizes the urgent need to address the nation’s management of used nuclear fuel. The Nuclear Waste Administration Act of 2013 proposes a consent-based siting process for both interim and permanent used fuel storage facilities."

"This is an important step. This bipartisan legislation recognizes the urgency for Congress to reform federal used fuel policy. Whether the Congress decides to pursue consolidated storage or Yucca Mountain or, as the industry recommends, both, there needs to be attention focused to this issue. We welcome the introduction of bills, hearings, and, eventually, consideration in the House and Senate of used fuel legislation. While there is inaction, the government’s liability continues to accrue and used fuel continues to build up at plants across the country."

The bill, if passed by Congress, could help revitalize the nation’s "long-failed" spent-nuclear fuel policies, the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NARUC) said in a statement on June 27.

“It is unfortunate, though, that we are in this situation at all. Congress more than 30 years ago passed the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, charting a clear roadmap forward. Despite the plain language of the law, decades of research, and a more than $30 billion investment from nuclear-power consumers, the [a]dministration—for no apparent scientific reason—has derailed this policy," said NARUC President Philip Jones of Washington and Committee on Electricity Chair David Boyd of Minnesota.

"We are confident the courts will expeditiously direct the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to resume their statutory duties and make a determination on whether the chosen spent-fuel geologic repository is indeed safe."

Sources: POWERnews, SENR, NEI, NARUC

Sonal Patel, Senior Writer (@POWERmagazine, @sonalcpatel)

Editor’s Note: This story was originally published on June 27. Update includes NARUC remarks.