It could be decades before technology advances to the level at which large-scale recycling or reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel could replace the need for a permanent, safe repository, according to a subcommittee of President Obama's Blue Ribbon Commission.
The draft report, issued Friday, comes at a time when the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is gathering information on how to license commercial reprocessing facilities that -- at least in theory -- could be housed within federal facilities such as Savannah River Site.
Economic development groups have touted SRS as a potential site for a reprocessing program, which would bring the benefit of jobs and money. However, reprocessing could also bring more nuclear waste to South Carolina.
Under the 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act, the U.S. Department of Energy became responsible for finding disposal solutions for spent nuclear fuel. In addition to 70,000 tons of spent fuel stored in dozens of sites, the nation's 104 commercial power reactors are generating an additional 2,000 tons each year.
In 2002, Congress approved Yucca Mountain, Nev., as the site of a national nuclear waste repository. Under an Obama administration edict, however, the project was canceled and a Blue Ribbon Commission was appointed to seek alternatives.
The commission's subcommittee concluded there is no reprocessing technology available, or even on the horizon, that would alter the nation's current waste management dilemma.
"Put another way, we do not be- lieve that new technology developments in the next three to four decades will change the underlying need for an integrated strategy that combines safe, interim storage of spent nuclear fuel with expeditious progress toward siting and licensing a permanent disposal facility or facilities," the report said.
The need for a repository is especially critical for defense high-level wastes, the report said. Savannah River Site currently holds a large quantity of defense wastes, much of which has been vitrified in glass and was to be buried at Yucca Mountain.
Rick McLeod, the executive director of the SRS Community Reuse Organization, said it might take decades to perfect reprocessing technology.
"This may be true, but similar comments were made about sending a man to the moon when it was first mentioned," he said. "Regardless, to move reprocessing forward, there is a great deal of research and development that needs to take place."
Savannah River Site, he said, includes important existing facilities, such as H Canyon, that could at least take a research role in developing the new technology.
"The time to start this effort is now or we will always be decades away," McLeod said.
The subcommittee report is welcome news for nuclear watchdogs opposed to reprocessing because of environmental risks, safety concerns and uncertain costs. "The Blue Ribbon Commission clearly sees that commercial reprocessing isn't on the horizon and it will be R&D (research and development) at best," said Tom Clements, the southeastern nuclear campaign coordinator for Friends of the Earth.
He cautioned, however, that the subcommittee draft is by no means a final strategy and could change before final reports are issued later this year and in early 2012.
"I imagine that H Canyon and reprocessing advocates will keep trying but I think that the Blue Ribbon Commission's recommendations won't tilt in their direction," he said. "But what happens with spent fuel and reprocessing ultimately is up to Congress."