When Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) announced legislation in November 2009 aimed at doubling America’s nuclear power capacity within 20 years, he compared the clean-energy challenge to fighting a...
Blue Ribbon Mission
Can a broadly based committee resolve the nuclear waste dilemma?
Conference of State Legislators spokesperson Sally Young from Maryland and Sen. Domenici both point out there are multiple cities and states interested in housing such facilities, even as they acknowledged that support sometimes dwindles when a concrete proposal is made. (See “ Nuclear YIMBY ”).
Turning theoretical support into lasting commitments will require a siting process that’s more attuned to public sentiments than previous processes were, including the possibility of giving cities and towns a veto over such a facility. Defining such a process might prove to be one of the BRC’s most important tasks, if policymakers hope to garner public confidence in any future siting efforts.
Buying Time with Interim Storage
Although the BRC doesn’t need to specify interim and permanent storage solutions in its recommendations, it does need to redefine the path forward. Several experts, including Kevin Crowley of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and Matthew Bunn of Harvard’s Managing the Atom project, have advised the BRC to focus on interim storage of spent fuel from shut-down power plants for the next hundred years, and then to set in motion a new process for permanent storage. Most experts concur that permanent storage in a geologic formation is needed. There’s also agreement that the United States has decades to develop the technical understanding needed to complete the permanent storage facility. With an interim storage facility in place, the public interest would be fully protected in the short term.
The urgent need for a consolidated interim storage facility was highlighted for the BRC by the testimony of Frank Marcinowski, deputy assistant secretary for regulatory compliance in DOE’s Office of Environmental Management. He described the broad and scattered storage for spent nuclear fuel and high-level wastes throughout the United States. Adding to the urgency, Mark Holt of the Congressional Research Service warned that reactor pools have reached their capacity, increasing the immediate need for dry cask storage.
This situation is adversely affecting local communities, because valuable real estate is unusable due to current storage practices. As reactors shut down, abandoned sites such as the 700-acre Palisades site on Lake Michigan are prevented from being converted to new uses by the continued presence of spent-fuel repositories. Michigan Public Service Commissioner Greg White, representing NARUC, pointed out that 10 reactors have been permanently shut down at nine sites. A consolidated facility for transfer and storage of waste from shut-down nuclear plants is a high priority.
There seemed to be a consensus among both witnesses and members of the commission that a step-wise approach to siting would build public confidence and trust. The steps would include establishing a consolidated interim storage facility for shut-down reactors, and establishing a consultative approach to potential permanent disposal in a geologic formation. The consultative approach would move forward with more clarity after regulatory standards have evolved, and, possibly, after new reactor types have reduced the quantity of long-term wastes.
As Bunn put it, “We should not put permanent repositories on an indefinite back-burner, but should establish a credible repository program, in part because this is likely to be