A change announced Tuesday in the United States’ nuclear waste disposal policy could speed up Hanford cleanup, said Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash.
President Obama authorized the Department of Energy to start developing a national repository for the nation’s high-level radioactive defense waste. About half of that waste is at Hanford.
The previous plan had been to dispose of high-level radioactive defense waste and used commercial nuclear fuel at the same repository, which was expected to be at Yucca Mountain, Nev.
Yucca Mountain remains closed, and the Obama administration favors selecting a new repository site for defense waste based on the consent of a volunteering host community and state.
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No alternate repository for used commercial nuclear fuel — which is sitting at reactor sites across the country — is expected to be ready before 2048.
Cantwell and three other senators introduced comprehensive waste legislation Tuesday that would allow the energy secretary to dispose of defense and commercial waste separately. It also would address new management for the nation’s nuclear waste program, how disposal sites would be chosen, and temporary storage until one or more repositories are available.
Disposing of defense and commercial waste separately could allow the process for defense waste to move forward despite gridlock on solutions for all of the nation’s commercial nuclear reactors, according to information from Cantwell’s office.
“Figuring out how to make meaningful progress on defense waste is an important piece of our nation’s nuclear strategy and an obligation to our citizens,” Cantwell said.
Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., disagrees, saying separate disposal of defense and commercial waste would not resolve the core issue.
“I remain focused on continuing Yucca Mountain — which has already been identified as safe and remains the repository under the law — whether one or both types of nuclear materials are ultimately stored there,” Newhouse said.
“Wasting decades of work and billions of taxpayer dollars by disregarding the legal repository site that has already been selected defies common sense and does nothing to speed up removal of Hanford waste from our state,” he said.
Yucca Mountain could meet the nation’s defense needs for nuclear waste disposal, said Gary Petersen, vice president of Hanford programs for the Tri-City Development Council. The repository at Yucca was not planned to be be large enough for all of the nation’s defense waste and commercial nuclear fuel, but is large enough for defense waste, he said.
TRIDEC has previously told the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future that splitting the types of waste for disposal deserves to be considered, said Carl Adrian, TRIDEC president. The commission was appointed by Obama to take a broad look at options other than Yucca Mountain for the nation’s weapons and commercial nuclear waste.
The commission concluded that the nation should take another look at its policy of disposing of different types of waste together, among other recommendations.
The bipartisan legislation introduced Tuesday by Cantwell and others is consistent with the Blue Ribbon Commission’s recommendations.
Separating defense and commercial waste disposal gives the nation options to explore, Adrian said. But TRIDEC also is concerned that addressing the waste separately could end a coalition between commercial nuclear power plants and organizations interested in seeing defense waste addressed.
Much of the high-level defense waste is planned to be disposed of in canisters of vitrified, or glassified, waste from three states — Washington, South Carolina and Idaho. In contrast, the majority of states have stored used commercial nuclear fuel waiting for disposal at a national repository.
Hanford could have as many as 11,079 high-level waste canisters, according to DOE. In addition to canisters of glassified high-level radioactive waste to be produced at the Hanford vitrification plant, Hanford also has canisters of glass with strontium and cesium made for a German program in the 1980s and nearly 2,000 capsules of cesium and strontium stored underwater.
The nation’s inventory of commercial used nuclear fuel continues to grow as nuclear power plants continue to operate. But the smaller amount of defense high-level radioactive waste is relatively fixed, since nuclear weapons production is no longer generating high-level radioactive waste, according to DOE.
Some defense waste also is less radioactive, cooler and easier to handle than commercial spent fuel. This means that a defense repository for these wastes could have a simpler design and could present fewer licensing and transportation challenges, according to DOE.
Used commercial nuclear fuel could need to be retrieved after disposal for reprocessing for additional use, but high-level defense waste could be permanently buried.
DOE also continues to look at options other than a deep geological repository for different types of defense high-level radioactive waste.
It plans to investigate the lower-cost option of disposing of Hanford’s cesium and strontium capsules in a deep borehole made with currently available commercial drilling technology. The capsules contain about one-third of the total radioactivity at Hanford but have less than 0.03 percent of the projected volume of Hanford’s vitrified high-level waste.
In parallel with possible DOE work to establish a repository for defense waste, the Obama administration is proposing that work start on a pilot storage facility for commercial used nuclear fuel until a permanent repository for it is available. Earlier projections have put the opening of a permanent repository no earlier than 2048.
Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz announced Tuesday that DOE will start with one or more interim storage facilities for used commercial fuel at sites volunteered with state and community consent.
The proposed Nuclear Waste Administration Act of 2015 would establish an independent agency to manage the nation’s nuclear waste program to replace the Department of Energy. The legislation was introduced by Sens. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska; Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., in addition to Cantwell.
Fees would continue to be collected by utilities using nuclear power, but they would go into a new working capital fund that would be available to the administration without further action by Congress.
Local and state consent, as proposed by the Blue Ribbon Commission, would be required for establishing the locations for storage facilities and repositories.