Senators Propose New Agency to Deal with Waste from Nuclear Power Plants

A bipartisan group of senators have introduced legislation that would effectively shift responsibility for the disposition of spent fuel from U.S. nuclear power plants from the Department of Energy (DOE) to a new agency created solely to deal with nuclear waste issues.

A discussion draft was released on April 25 by the four senior senators who developed the proposal: Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), who lead the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development, as well as Energy and Natural Resources Committee (ENR) Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Ranking Member Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska).

The senators framed the proposal as a follow-up to recommendations of the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future. Senator Feinstein said that “It establishes a desperately needed nuclear waste policy, employing a consent-based approach that will expedite waste removal from at-risk locations and decommissioned plants.”

The U.S. has had a nuclear waste policy, of sorts, as mandated by the 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act; however, it has never worked as originally envisioned. The stalemate over Yucca Mountain as a permanent repository has led, most recently, to legal disputes over the collection of fees from nuclear utility customers intended to finance a permanent facility for warehousing spent nuclear fuel.

Earlier this year, the DOE introduced its "Strategy for the Management and Disposal of Used Nuclear Fuel and High-Level Radioactive Waste,” which calls for a phased, consent-based approach to siting and constructing a nuclear waste management and disposal system and for a pilot interim storage facility to be built by 2021.

That the proposed Nuclear Waste Administration Act of 2013 includes creation of “a new nuclear waste administration” suggests that the senators think a single-purpose federal entity would be more effective than the DOE. However, structurally, it does not appear to be any more independent or empowered than the DOE: “The bill establishes a new federal agency, headed by a single administrator, appointed by the President by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, to manage the nuclear waste program in place of DOE. It also establishes an Oversight Board—composed of the Deputy Director of OMB, the Chief Engineer of the Army Corps of Engineers, and the Deputy Secretary of Energy—to oversee the new agency’s administration of the program.”

The most immediate proposal for a change in the current spent fuel practice is to build a “pilot spent fuel storage facility” to serve decommissioned nuclear plants and “emergency shipments from operating plants.” That would include fuel from Kewaunee Power Station, which Dominion announced last fall would be decommissioned. At a meeting on April 24, Dominion said the plant on Lake Michigan, south of Green Bay, Wisconsin, would stop producing power on May 7.  Nuclear Regulatory Commission rules allow 60 years for full decommissioning.

As for financing, the senators propose moving the funds already collected by the Nuclear Waste Fund to the new agency. Those funds currently total $28.2 billion, with about $765 million added per year.

The senators are seeking comment on the discussion draft as well as policy and technical questions from a wide range of interested parties by May 24.

Sources: POWER, ENR, Green Bay Press, NRC

Gail Reitenbach, PhD, Managing Editor (@POWERmagazine, @GailReit)

Note: This story was originally published on April 26