The Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC) has issued a new report that endorses a “consent-based’ siting process for future repositories of spent nuclear fuel from atomic power plants.
“Moving Forward with Consent-Based Siting for Nuclear Waste Facilities” was issued by BPC in late September. It calls for carrying out many aspects of the 2012 Blue Ribbon Commission for America’s Nuclear Future.
The BPC report says that Congress should establish a new dedicated waste management organization outside of the Department of Energy (DOE); pursue voluntary participation from host communities and a transparent selection process; develop generic safety standards; provide potential host communities with access to needed technical expertise; avoid locking into a single option too early.
For decades, the United States has been grappling with the problem of what to do with the tens of thousands of tons of spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste generated by the nation’s commercial nuclear power industry and defense programs, the report says.
“Despite many efforts by the executive branch, Congress, industry, citizen groups and others—and despite the expenditure of billions of dollars, the United States still has no workable, long-term plan for permanently disposing of these wastes,” BPC said in the report.
Meanwhile, the federal government’s financial liability for failing to meet its contractual obligation to accept spent fuel from the nation’s commercial nuclear power reactors—a liability that is already in the billions of dollars—increases with every year of continued paralysis and delay, BPC notes in the report.
Launched by the Bipartisan Policy Center in 2014, the Nuclear Waste Council seeks to develop policy options that ultimately could lead to an implementable nuclear waste strategy. In the first phase of its work, the council convened five regional meetings across the United States. Each meeting included a private discussion among key stakeholders, chosen for their broad representation and varying perspectives on the nuclear waste issue, and a public event that provided an opportunity to hear local and regional concerns.
The objective of these meetings was to identify barriers to solving the nuclear waste problem and explore options for overcoming these barriers. Each meeting also provided an opportunity to focus on specific topics of particular interest to local groups and the host region (for example, stranded spent fuel in California and New England; the management of defense waste in the Southeast and Northwest; and waste transportation issues in the Midwest).
This report is the culmination of the second phase of the council’s activities. It provides an update on recent developments in the nuclear waste policy arena, including relevant legislative proposals, court decisions, and current federal efforts to launch a new consent-based siting process.
The report concludes with recommendations intended to help advance a new approach to siting nuclear waste facilities and spur renewed efforts by all parties to find durable solutions for managing and safely disposing of these materials.
“It is important to note at the outset that the council did not debate and has not taken a position or developed a recommendation on whether or how to proceed with efforts to license a geologic nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain,” the BPC report said.
Some members of the council take the position that the Yucca Mountain licensing process should go forward, even though it is not consent-based. Other members have reached the same conclusion as the Obama administration: that the Yucca Mountain site and licensing process are unworkable and that a new strategy is needed.
“The history of the U.S. nuclear waste management program is a long and troubled one,” BPC notes. Congress first attempted to define a path for the long-term disposition of nuclear waste more than a generation ago, with the passage of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982.
In 2012, the Blue Ribbon Commission formed at the direction of President Obama to undertake a wholesale re-examination of the nuclear waste issue, delivered a comprehensive set of recommendations for redirecting and reinvigorating the federal government’s waste management program, but these recommendations have yet to translate into significant legislative action.
Since Blue Ribbon report, several waste bills have been proposed
In the four years since the Blue Ribbon Commission issued its report, no decisive step has been taken, either toward resolving the impasse over Yucca Mountain or to chart a new path forward that does not include restarting the abandoned Yucca Mountain process.
First, several bills designed to implement some of the Blue Ribbon Commission’s recommendations have been introduced in Congress. One of the most recent, S. 854, the Nuclear Waste Administration Act of 2015, was introduced in March 2015.
It would create a dedicated new waste management organization within the executive branch to take over DOE’s nuclear waste responsibilities, establish a process for approving interim consolidated storage facilities, provide for a consent-based approach to siting future waste facilities, and resume the collection of Nuclear Waste Fund fees from nuclear utilities.
Three other bills introduced in the 114th Congress deal with narrower issues related to nuclear waste: H.R. 3643, the Interim Consolidated Storage Act of 2015, would provide legislative assurance that private companies can enter into contracts with DOE to store spent nuclear fuel and allows costs from these contracts to be paid from the Nuclear Waste Fund. H.R. 3483 (Senate companion bill S. 2026), the Stop Nuclear Waste by Our Lakes Act of 2015, calls for a joint international review of a proposed nuclear waste facility under construction near Lake Huron in Canada.
Finally, H.R. 1364 (Senate companion bill S. 691), Nuclear Waste Informed Consent Act, requires that a written, binding agreement be struck between the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), the governor of the repository host state, the local unit of government, nearby local units of government, and affected Indian tribes before authorization of a geological repository can proceed.
To date, no action has been taken on these bills.
The DOE has taken some actions on its own to work toward consent-based siting for nuclear waste sites, BPC noted in the report.