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Spent-Fuel Fedcorp

The Blue Ribbon Commission’s best answer for the nuclear waste dilemma.

Fortnightly Magazine - May 2011

Fuel Management Corporation Establishment Act of 2008 ), and most recently last year (S.3322), with a companion bill sponsored by Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), who now chairs the House Energy & Commerce Committee.

Although the Fukushima crisis might have delayed or even ended the nuclear renaissance, it also has intensified the urgency of fuel-cycle issues. “Spent fuel is one issue that has been on the table in this country for a long time,” Voinovich told Fortnightly. “It has ping-ponged back and forth, and it’s now time to deal with it forthrightly.”

Why Fedcorp?

Federal agency management of such a large and complex project through the Department of Energy has failed to produce a spent-fuel storage solution, although the last 20 years have seen many attempts. Numerous factors have conspired to prevent a successful outcome.

First, annual appropriations by Congress fail to insure a consistent level of funding, as priorities within Congress change over time. Plus, executive-branch priorities also change over time; the spent-fuel project has rarely been considered a major federal priority in the last 20 years. It has never been a primary focus of DOE, whose mission is large and complex with multiple priorities.

Moreover, the skill sets at government agencies are different from those in business. As such, DOE’s people arguably lack the expertise, experience and background needed to manage and complete large construction projects.

Also, the siting process adopted by Congress in 1987 proved to be flawed when Congress chose the Yucca Mountain site without adequate technical knowledge of the specifications for such a site or of the geological characteristics of the site. Additionally, by dictating the site without sufficient involvement of either the local or state communities affected, the government generated instant opposition to the project—and that opposition has been unremitting. The ultimate consequence of this choice was the cancellation of the Yucca Mountain project. But more broadly, a top-down federal siting process that discounts local control or input has added to general public resistance to such facilities, and makes it unlikely that other locations will welcome what’s perceived as a national hazardous-waste dump.

Further, designing and constructing the facility turned out to be more technically complex than anticipated, perhaps because there was an assumption it would be easy compared with designing, building and operating a nuclear power plant. But whatever the reason, unexpected technical challenges increased development costs, and pushed Yucca Mountain’s schedule beyond a horizon that could receive consistent support by a federal government that tends to change hands approximately every four years.

Finally, DOE’s failure to begin accepting spent nuclear fuel as required by the NWPA has added to public distrust of nuclear power, since the public sees no credible solution for long-term disposal of spent fuel in a geologically safe environment.

A spent-fuel fedcorp could bring a fresh approach to decision making, and it would benefit from a more stable, long-term funding framework. Additionally, the idea of a fedcorp, at least in principle, enjoys strong support from the industry and its lawmakers. The Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), representing the utilities that own nuclear