Wyden calls for new federal agency for nuclear waste

By Annette Cary, Tri-City HeraldApril 27, 2013 

A discussion draft of legislation to address the storage and disposal of used nuclear fuel and waste -- including Hanford waste -- has been released by U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., working with three other Democratic and Republican senators.

It would establish a new federal agency for nuclear waste administration and require local and state consent for building temporary storage facilities and long-term repositories for waste disposal.

The plan builds on the work of the Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future, which was established after the Obama administration shut down work toward making Yucca Mountain, Nev., the nation's repository for used commercial nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste from weapons production.

The Department of Energy already has released its strategy for addressing the recommendations of the Blue Ribbon Commission, including a goal of having a site picked for a repository by 2026 and the repository operating by 2048.

"Our country can't wait any longer to find a long-term solution for disposing of nuclear waste," Wyden said in a statement.

"I'm hopeful the feedback we receive will help us finish the job and allow us to move forward with legislation that puts the U.S. back on the path to safely managing and permanently disposing of the most radioactive wastes," he said.

At Hanford, waste destined for a national repository includes used nuclear fuel never processed to remove weapons plutonium, as well as high-level radioactive waste now held in underground tanks that will be turned into stable glass logs at the vitrification plant.

U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., criticized the draft legislation, saying it circumvents Yucca Mountain -- the national repository under law -- and supports what he calls the illegal shutdown of Yucca Mountain.

"Distracting focus from a permanent repository through interim storage gimmicks, taking us back to square one with an unrealistic siting process and punting a permanent repository off until 2048 is wholly unacceptable," Hastings said in a statement.

Talk of a consent-based process for picking the sites for temporary storage and then a permanent repository also rankles the Tri-City Development Council.

Because most of the defense-related nuclear waste destined for Yucca Mountain already is at Hanford, it may continue to be stored at Hanford for decades to come, making it a de facto temporary storage site for the nation.

If the waste stays at Hanford until 2048, that would be 104 years after the waste was created, said Gary Petersen, TRIDEC vice president of Hanford programs.

There has been no vote of Congress to essentially make Hanford a temporary storage site and no input from the community, Petersen said.

Governors and legislators who may agree to allow a repository in their state would be long out of office when the repository begins operations decades from now, Petersen said.

"What's to say there is not another Nevada?" he asked. Nevada fought bitterly against allowing a repository there.

A lawsuit filed by Tri-City business leaders, including Petersen, and by the states of Washington and South Carolina, asks the District of Columbia Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals to require the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to consider and decide whether to approve the DOE license application for Yucca Mountain.

Congress designated Yucca Mountain as the nation's repository for nuclear fuel and high-level weapons waste in 2002, but in 2010, the Obama administration withdrew the license application filed with the NRC.

The case was argued in appeals court in May 2012, but there has been no decision in almost a year.

Bob Ferguson, the new state attorney general, is committed to continuing the case, and the parties involved have continued to file status reports, said Andy Fitz, assistant attorney general.

TRIDEC does like Wyden's idea to establish a new federal agency to manage the nuclear waste program in place of DOE.

The proposed legislation would create a board with representatives of DOE, the Office of Management and Budget and the Army Corps of Engineers to oversee the new agency's administration of the nuclear waste program.

The new agency would be directed to build a pilot fuel storage facility that would take the fuel from commercial nuclear fuel plants that are no longer operating. It also would build one or more additional temporary storage facilities for other used fuel and possibly defense waste.

States and communities would be asked to volunteer sites for temporary storage or the permanent repository. State, local and, in some cases, tribal consent would need to be obtained to study the sites and establish facilities. Congress also would be required to ratify any consent agreement for a site.

Senators are asking for comments on the degree to which siting requirements should apply to storage and repository decisions.

They also want input on linking storage facilities to progress toward a permanent repository. If substantial progress is not being made on a repository, waste shipments to storage facilities would stop, under the draft legislation.

The proposed legislation would allow the federal government to fulfill its commitment to manage nuclear waste and end the costly liability the government bears for failing to dispose of commercial spent fuel. It also is intended to expand opportunities for nuclear power, according to a summary of the legislation.

Collaborating on the proposal were Wyden, chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, ranking member of the committee, plus the leaders of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development: Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn.

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