Obama’s Nuclear-Waste Panel May Weigh Decades of Storage
President Barack Obama’s panel on nuclear waste may recommend that spent fuel be removed from power plants and put into storage for decades until it can be sent to a permanent site, two commission members said.
The Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future may suggest that an interim storage plan be developed along with one or more permanent sites that could hold more than 100,000 metric tons of radioactive waste for millenniums, according to the members, who requested anonymity because the possible recommendations haven’t been made public.
Obama ordered the Energy Department to create the 15-member commission last year after he rejected plans for a permanent repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. Demands for a solution that would start moving spent fuel from cooling ponds at power plants have grown since radioactivity was released from such ponds at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima Dai-Ichi plant in Japan after the March earthquake and tsunami.
“We are sitting here with tens of thousands of pounds of high-grade nuclear waste that we have to do something about,” Chuck Hagel, a commission member and former Republican senator from Nebraska, said in an interview. “We will get there. A central repository is one of the most legitimate options out there.”
Hagel, who is co-chairman of the commission’s subcommittee on disposal of nuclear waste, declined to comment on what the panel may recommend.
May 13 Meeting
The commission’s three subcommittees will present reports at a May 13 meeting in Washington. The findings will be discussed and considered for inclusion in the recommendations to the Obama administration, said John Kotek, commission spokesman. He declined to comment on the subcommittee’s reports.
The panel is headed by former Representative Lee Hamilton, an Indiana Democrat, and Brent Scowcroft, a former adviser to Republican presidents Richard Nixon and George H.W. Bush. It faces a deadline to produce final recommendations by Jan. 29.
About 65,000 tons of nuclear waste has been generated in the U.S. during the past 40 years, according to the Washington- based Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry group. Of that, 78 percent remains in cooling pools at power plants, according to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
The Energy Department has been liable for the costs of accepting and disposing of spent nuclear fuel since 1998, when a central repository was supposed to open, according to legislation.
$956 Million Paid
Utilities have sued to recover some of their storage costs, and the government has paid out $956 million in settlements and judgments to date, said U.S. Deputy Attorney General Michael Hertz, who testified before the Blue Ribbon Commission in February.
The proposal for interim storage may be an attempt to “get the government out from underneath the lawsuits and paying the nuclear industry hand-over-fist” for on-site storage, said Jim Riccio, a nuclear-power analyst in Washington with Greenpeace, an environmental group opposed to nuclear power.
Opponents of interim storage, such as the Washington-based Physicians for Social Responsibility, argue that such an approach is costly and dangerous because it would increase the number of shipments of radioactive waste. Instead, they say spent fuel should remain on site at nuclear plants, in safer conditions than current storage systems, until moved to a permanent home.
“While on-site storage isn’t a permanent solution, it’s the best medium-term option for addressing the serious and urgent security and safety threats posed by current irradiated fuel storage,” more than 170 national and local U.S. groups wrote in a Feb. 2 letter urging the commission not to endorse interim storage.
Obama’s rejection of the plan for a repository at Yucca Mountain may delay the opening of such a site by at least 20 years, the Government Accountability Office said in a report, citing unnamed government officials.
The study from Congress’s investigative arm was released yesterday by House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton, a Michigan Republican.
Upton is among lawmakers critical of Obama’s decision to scrap the Yucca Mountain Project, which was opposed by Nevada officials led by Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
“It’s alarming for this administration to discard 30 years of research and billions of taxpayer dollars spent, not for technical or safety reasons, but rather to satisfy temporary political calculations,” Upton said in a statement yesterday.
The Energy Department strongly disagreed with the GAO’s findings, including the “assumption that the Yucca Mountain repository would have opened in 2020,” the auditors said.
“The department has acted responsibly in carrying out the Yucca Mountain Project shutdown and will continue to do so in pursuing new options with the guidance of the Blue Ribbon Commission,” Katinka Podmaniczky, a department spokeswoman, said in an e-mail.
“The Yucca project produced years of continued acrimony, dispute, and uncertainty,” Energy Secretary Steven Chu said in a Feb. 11 letter to the Blue Ribbon Commission.
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