DOE says new nuclear waste repository possible in 2048; Hanford remains at risk of being temporary site

By Annette Cary, Tri-City HeraldJanuary 12, 2013 

The nation would begin operating a deep geologic repository for high-level radioactive waste, including Hanford waste, and used nuclear fuel by 2048 under a new strategy.

The Department of Energy on Friday released a report outlining its strategy for addressing the recommendations of the Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future.

The administration endorsed the key principles that underpin the Blue Ribbon Commission's recommendations, which were developed over two years by a panel of scientists, nuclear energy experts, industry leaders and former elected officials.

The DOE strategy represents an initial basis for discussions among the administration, Congress and the public on a path forward for disposal of nuclear waste, said the DOE strategy report.

The strategy is needed after the Obama administration shut down work toward making Yucca Mountain, Nev., the nation's repository for used commercial nuclear fuel and high-level waste fuel. Hanford officials had planned to send to Yucca Mountain 2,347 tons of used nuclear fuel plus a projected 9,700 canisters of high-level radioactive waste once the waste has been glassified at its $12.2 billion vitrification plant under construction.

The DOE strategy report recommends building a pilot storage facility with limited capacity that would temporarily store used nuclear fuel, initially from reactors that already have been shut down.

Then a full-scale temporary storage facility would be built, potentially located with the pilot facility or geologic repository, to provide progress in meeting the federal commitment to accept used commercial nuclear fuel. DOE's goal would be to have it operating by 2025.

The government could consider the feasibility of also accepting weapons waste, such as Hanford waste or used fuel, at the pilot scale and larger temporary storage facilities, the strategy report said. That could demonstrate the capabilities and flexibility of operations, it said.

But international consensus is that geological repositories represent the best known method for permanently disposing of used nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste without putting a burden of continued care on future generations, the report said.

The nation should have a site picked for the repository by 2026, the repository designed and licensed by 2042 and the repository operating starting by 2048, the report said.

That would mean that vitrified, or glassified, logs of Hanford's high-level radioactive waste might need to be stored for 29 years at Hanford. The vitrification plant is legally required to start operating in 2019.

Hanford remains at risk of becoming an interim storage site for its waste for the next three decades, said Gary Petersen, Tri-City Development Council vice president for Hanford programs.

Safety is not an issue, he said. But the strategy raises the question of whether Hanford has become a long-term temporary storage site without action by Congress or a discussion or vote of the public, he said.

The Blue Ribbon Commission called for sites for temporary and permanent storage to be picked based on community consent, and the DOE strategy report agreed that local governments must be recognized as partners and public trust and confidence is needed.

DOE is developing plans for a consent-based process for the pilot and larger storage facilities and the geologic repository.

The strategy report also calls for a new waste management and disposal organization to take over the task of disposing of used fuel and nuclear waste to build public trust and confidence.

The Blue Ribbon Commission also looked at reusing nuclear fuel, but the DOE strategy report said the once-through fuel cycle is expected to continue to be used for the next few decades in light of issues that include cost, nonproliferation, national security, environmental concerns and technology limitations. However, DOE will continue to research advanced fuel cycles.

The administration will need Congress to pass legislation to carry out much of its proposed strategy.

In 2002, Congress passed the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, designating Yucca Mountain as the nation's repository for deep geological disposal of used commercial nuclear fuel and DOE weapons waste.

A lawsuit filed in the District of Columbia Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals by the state of Washington and others would force the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to consider the license application for Yucca Mountain to meet the requirements set by Congress in 2002. An estimated $15 billion has been spent on Yucca Mountain.

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