Volunteer Towns Sought for Nuclear Waste Sites, Panel Says

U.S. communities should be encouraged to vie for a federal nuclear-waste site as a way to end a decades-long dilemma over disposing of spent radioactive fuel, a commission established by President Barack Obama said.

A “consent-based” approach will help cut costs and end delays caused when the federal government picks a site over the objections of local residents, the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future said today in a draft report to Energy Secretary Steven Chu.

“This means encouraging communities to volunteer to be considered to host a new nuclear-waste management facility,” the commission said in an executive summary of its draft report.

The 15-member commission set up by Obama in 2010 is weighing options for disposing of waste from U.S. nuclear power plants. Chu named the panelists after Obama canceled plans to build a permanent repository at Nevada’s Yucca Mountain, about 100 miles (161 kilometers) north of Las Vegas. The Yucca site was opposed by politicians from the state, led by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat.

The panel recommended that a new federal corporation run the disposal program, taking over the task from the Energy Department. It also called for designating permanent and interim storage sites, supporting research and overhauling the Nuclear Waste Fund, which has $24.6 billion from fees paid by utilities.

The record of the Energy Department and the government “has not inspired confidence or trust in our nation’s nuclear-waste management program,” the report found.

‘Workable Solution’

The commission’s report is a “strong step toward finding a workable solution” to storing and disposing of spent fuel, Damien LaVera, an Energy Department spokesman, said in a statement today. The Obama administration is committed to “restarting the American nuclear industry,” he said.

The panel, led by former Indiana Representative Lee Hamilton, a Democrat, and Brent Scowcroft, a national security adviser to Republican presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush, includes representatives of industry, universities and government. Chu named John Rowe, chairman and chief executive officer of Exelon Corp. of Chicago, former Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Richard Meserve and physics professor Ernest Moniz of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Japan’s nuclear disaster this year focused new attention on the issue. Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima Dai-Ichi plant suffered meltdowns and radiation leaks after a March 11 earthquake and tsunami, prompting concerns about the safety of spent fuel in cooling pools. In the U.S., about 65,000 metric tons of radioactive fuel rods are stored at 76 sites in 35 states.

‘Damaging, Costly’

“This nation’s failure to come to grips with the nuclear waste issue has already proved damaging and costly and it will be more damaging and more costly the longer it continues,” the commission said in the report.

The U.S. should quickly act to build at least one consolidated interim storage facility as well as a permanent geologic-disposal site, the commission recommended.

“We will need a new disposal site even if we open up Yucca Mountain,” Philip Sharp, a member of the commission and a former Democratic representative from Indiana, said in an interview yesterday.

The proposals on sites, a new organization and financing are “sensible, desirable and, given time, achievable,” Alex Flint, senior vice president for government affairs at the Nuclear Energy Institute, said in a statement today.

Support for Yucca

The Washington-based industry group also supports reviving the Yucca Mountain review process.

Two Republican lawmakers said the panel’s report validated their criticism of the Obama administration’s moves to end the Yucca Mountain project. “There is no more glaring indictment” than the recommendation to give authority over nuclear waste to “an independent body overseen by scientists instead of political yes-men,” House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton of Michigan and Representative John Shimkus of Illinois said in a statement today.

The states of Washington and South Carolina, along with Aiken County in South Carolina, filed a lawsuit today in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, seeking to compel the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to make a decision on the Energy Department’s license application for the Yucca repository. The administration wants to withdraw the application.

The states and county are currently storing spent nuclear fuel and radioactive waste pending the opening of a repository.

New Mexico ‘Success’

Earlier this month, the appeals court dismissed a lawsuit from the same plaintiffs, ruling it didn’t have jurisdiction until the commission makes a final decision.

The Blue Ribbon Commission cited as a “success” the U.S. Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad, New Mexico, which has accepted and disposed of some defense-related nuclear waste for more than a decade. The defense-waste plant shows that “nuclear wastes can be transported safely over long distances and placed securely in a deep, mined repository,” the report said.

With the right incentives, “there will be a great deal of support” for a waste site near the New Mexico facility, former Senator Pete Domenici, a Republican from the state and panel member, said in an April 19 interview. A nuclear waste disposal industry has already sprouted near the plant in the Chihuahuan desert, he said.

The new organization should be led by a presidentially appointed board that is confirmed by the Senate and establish, license, build and operate storage facilities, the panel recommended.

The commission’s final report is due in January.

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