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Nuclear Policy Half-Life

Interim steps toward solving America’s spent-fuel dilemma.

Fortnightly Magazine - November 2013
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Nuclear operators advocate a long-term solution, but they’re being rewarded by court-imposed fines for the government’s failure to take spent fuel.

Mississippi Gov. Bryant indicated he’s interested only in multi-purpose facilities that include reprocessing fuel as a major job creator.

Issues regarding the Yucca site arguably will remain unresolved, because they involve uncertainties about performance for 10,000 years and more.

The Department of Energy’s (DOE) failure to site a permanent geological repository for nuclear wastes in the United States has cost taxpayers billions in sunk costs at Yucca Mountain, and is incurring annual fines in the hzundreds of millions, as well as tens of millions in utility investments in on-site dry cask storage.

When President Barack Obama in 2009 announced the cancellation of the Yucca Mountain project to store spent nuclear fuel, he also announced the creation of the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future (BRC) with a 2-year mandate to study the issue of spent fuel and to make recommendations. Yucca Mountain had been designated by Congress as the site for such storage in 1987, and over $10 billion had already been spent on studies and engineering, under the direction of DOE.

As reported in these pages in May 2011 (“ Spent Fuel Fedcorp ”), the major recommendation of the BRC was to create a new federal corporation to take over the management of the development of a repository, with independent funding from the nuclear waste fees and an independent board with responsibility for management of the corporation. A corporation of this kind, freer of the vicissitudes of political winds, was the model proposed to replace the failed attempts of DOE. The BRC’s final report was issued in January 2012. 

DOE Secretary Steven Chu then announced the creation of a six-month study to review the findings of the two-year study by the BRC with a report to Congress. Although anticipated in July, no action was taken on the issue before the presidential elections in November 2012. The report was issued in January 2013, two months after the election. 

Since the release of the final BRC report, there have been several significant developments. In Congress there is a new bill to create a new federal agency to manage development of a repository for spent nuclear fuel. Several major executive appointments have been made that could influence how this issue is handled by the Obama Administration. Pending court decisions could also influence events. Action is happening on several fronts – albeit every bit as slowly and cautiously as might be expected when radioactive waste is involved.

Congressional Action

On Aug. 1, 2012, shortly before his retirement from the Senate, Sen.Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) introduced the Nuclear Waste Administration Act of 2012, which incorporated

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