Experts and legislators sat before Congress Wednesday to talk about reviving a multi-billion-dollar nuclear waste burial project and the nation’s expanding nuclear waste problems; including waste currently stored at Savannah River Site.
The hearing on nuclear waste policy amendments in 2017 was held by the Subcommittee on Environment, part of the Committee on Energy and Commerce. The hearing consisted of two panels, one of legislators and the other of scientists and other subject matter experts, and homed in specifically on the potential reopening of arguably the nation’s most contentious nuclear facility, Yucca Mountain.
The facility was abandoned during the Obama Administration, largely due to litigation and legislative issues that held progress to an expensive crawl. It was designed to inter defense nuclear waste, such as the glass waste storage containers produced at SRS, and was rated geologically sound enough by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for up to 1 million years.
Subcommittee Chairman John Shimkus, R-Ill., said there is over 72,000 metric tons of nuclear waste between defense activities and power generation, and that number is expected to reach 139,000 metric tons by 2067. With no national repository, that waste could wait the 50-year gap where it already sits; making places like SRS and nuclear power plants de facto storage units.
Congressman Joe Wilson, R-S.C., whose district includes SRS, was the only non-Nevada legislator on the first panel. All of the Nevadans spoke out against restarting and opening Yucca Mountain.
“Rather than attempting to force this issue on the taxpayers of Nevada, a state that currently has no nuke power plants of its own, taxpayer dollars would be better spent identifying a viable alternative for the long term storage for areas that are willing to host it,” said Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev.
Heller said Nevada never has and never would consent to the project, noting a restarted Yucca Mountain project would face years of litigation, ultimately resulting in another stall.
Wilson said he is taking a more pragmatic approach. Wilson introduced legislation early this year called the Sensible Nuclear Waste Disposition Act. The bill seeks to force the Department of Energy to finish the licensing process with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
The license application was submitted in 2008 and was found viable by the NRC in 2014. According to the NRC, the only remaining step is for the Energy Department to show up for a final hearing.
“I hope we recognize a national perspective when it comes to managing and storing nuclear waste. Today, there are currently 121 communities across 39 states that are grappling with the limitations of storing nuclear waste while our country lacks a permanent geological repository… Each of the 121 communities has been forced to store nuclear waste while they wait for the federal government to honor its promise by providing permanent storage at Yucca Mountain,” Wilson said.
In 2016, the Energy Department decided to move to a “consent-based” approach. The goal is to work with communities to create a permanent nuclear waste repository with the support of the people and governments who say they are willing to host the site. Critics say the million-year outlook for storage needs makes the consent earned by the new approach useless.
Wilson said it is safer and more fiscally responsible to move ahead with a unified and consolidated storage facility for the dangerous materials than to leave it spread across those 121 communities around the nation.
While Congress continues to wrestle with the problem, the Trump Administration has shown support for a Yucca revival. President Trump’s budget proposal asked for $120 million to jumpstart the approval process.
Ed Lyman, representative from the Union of Concerned Scientists, said the organization appreciates the effort to move forward to solve the nuclear waste storage problems, but called the Yucca revival limited in scope.
“One cannot underestimate technical problems associated with building a repository to effectively isolate nuclear waste for hundreds of thousands of years. The foundation of such an effort is good science,” Lyman said. “And one of the best ways Congress can improve the prospects for any repository is to fully support the scientific work needed to establish its technical basis.”
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