By Melanie Condon
After decades of contentious debate on how best to dispose of spent nuclear waste, the administration and members of the 114th Congress picked the same day to release their proposals related to the issue.
On March 24, Senators Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), and Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) introduced legislation directing the federal government to establish both temporary and permanent storage sites for nuclear weapon and energy production waste.
Although the bill does not specifically mention Yucca Mountain in Nevada, the current federally designated site for a depository, it does emphasize a consent-based approach requiring a community's approval of a site before any disposal moves forward.
Such a system is based on principles laid out in 2012 by the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future. The bill would also create a new independent agency to oversee federal efforts in building nuclear waste sites as well as establish a working capital fund.
Fees collected from utilities would be deposited into the Nuclear Waste Fund and then made available to the administration without further appropriation. Those fees already collected will remain in the fund but will be subject to appropriation.
On the same day, the White House unveiled its own strategy for disposing of defense and commercial nuclear waste.
The strategy, authorized in a presidential memo, reverses the government’s past policy of combining nuclear waste produced from defense activities with spent nuclear reactor fuel into the same repository.
The Department of Energy (DOE) has now been charged with identifying and preparing a Defense-only waste site. DOE Secretary Ernest Moniz said the agency will still move forward with a consent-based process to find separate sites for interim facilities to hold spent fuel from shuttered nuclear reactors “before the end of the year.”
However, it is important to note that DOE will still need congressional approval for the actual execution of the waste facilities. Moniz said that, if given legislative authority, DOE’s target timeline of operating a spent fuel pilot facility in 2021 and beginning to operate a larger consolidated storage facility by 2025 could be expedited.
In February, Waste Control Specialists (WCS), a company out of Texas, informed the Nuclear Regulatory Commission it will submit a license application next year to site, license and operate a nuclear fuel depository on its land. WCS hopes to serve DOE as a site where the agency will store spent fuel from closed-reactors. DOE has expressed interest in this idea and is working with Congress to determine what authority is needed for DOE to be able to use the proposed private site.
NCSL has long been a supporter of state legislatures being involved in a consent-based process for storing spent nuclear waste in the states. NCSL has sent multiple letters and testified on this topic to Congress over the past few years.
NCSL also brings together legislators in the Nuclear Legislative Workgroup (NLWG) to provide members with the opportunity to learn about the cleanup of federal nuclear weapons production and research facilities, the transportation and storage of radioactive wastes and nuclear energy issues that affect our nation and states.
The concurrent movement by both the White House and Congress signals a renewed focus from the federal government on dealing with our country’s nuclear waste.
Melanie Condon is policy specialist for the Natural Resources and Infrastructure Committee in the Washington, D.C. office.