A U.S. Congressional subcommittee on Thursday (June 7) addressed a question states have long hoped the federal government would answer: Where will nuclear power plants permanently store their growing stockpiles of spent fuel and other hazardous waste?
It's a problem that has gone unresolved for decades, as the federal government struggles to find a suitable storage site that state and local officials can agree on.
“The time has come to take action,” Andrew Orrell, director of nuclear energy and fuel cycle programs at Sandia National Laboratories, testified to the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works.
On that notion, few experts disagree. More than 65,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel is stored at operating and shuttered reactor sites throughout the country. But those 72 sites, in 34 states, were meant to be temporary. And they're filling up. Some 2,000 additional tons of waste are produced each year, according to a report released this year by the president's Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future.
Congress' failure to act on the issue has long stirred anger in states.
Several states have enacted moratoriums on nuclear power plant construction that aren't to be lifted until a permanent solution is found.
For more than two decades, that solution was thought to be Yucca Mountain, in Nevada, where the federal government spent some $100 billion in readying it to serve that purpose. But the Obama administration has abandoned those plans amid fierce and ongoing political opposition to the Nevada project.
Meanwhile, since 1983, federal law has required utilities to pay fees into the Nuclear Waste Fund, meant to finance permanent storage beginning in 1998 — but that storage site never materialized, and the unspent balance on that account tops $25 billion. The plan's failure has irked state utility commissioners because the fees are passed on to electric ratepayers.
“The government has our money — we have their waste,” David Wright, of the South Carolina Public Service Commission told the subcommittee.
In its report, the Blue Ribbon Commission urged Congress to change an amendment in the Nuclear Waste Policy Act that names Yucca Mountain as the country's lone waste depository, and to negotiate with officials elsewhere. Several experts agree, saying that Yucca Mountain may not have the space to house all of the waste anyway.
Many experts agree that states and localities should receive economic incentives for accepting the waste and that each level of government should play significant roles in negotiations. Some suggest giving states an opt-out if conditions change.
“To be successful, we have to have state and local communities working together. If we're not together, it's not going to work,” said Lieutenant General Brent Scowcroft, a member of the Blue Ribbon Commission. Such collaboration was lacking in Nevada over Yucca Mountain, and it sparked animosity from state officials.
Several witnesses who testified agreed with the Blue Ribbon Commission's recommendation that the federal government develop generic environmental standards for permanent storage before courting a location to avoid the appearance of political influence. In the case of Yucca Mountain, such standards were altered while the project was under way.
“Short-circuiting those standards led directly to the loss of support from Nevada,” said Geoffrey Fettus, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council.
U.S. Senator Jeff Bingaman, a New Mexico Democrat, is expected to propose a comprehensive bill aimed at addressing the nuclear waste problem, but he has released few details. Even Bingaman acknowledges the bill has little chance to wiggle through gridlock on Capitol Hill.
“Passing anything so controversial as a nuclear waste bill is not that likely in this Congress,” he said Wednesday, according to E&E News. “Even if we were able to get a bill out of the Senate, the House seems more interested in continuing to fight over Yucca Mountain than implementing the Blue Ribbon Commission recommendations.”