America’s stalled nuclear waste management program stands little chance of moving forward without a complete overhaul, a federal panel concluded after a two-year assessment commissioned by the U.S. Energy Department.
“Put simply, this nation’s failure to come to grips with the nuclear waste issue has already proved damaging and costly,” the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future concluded in a 180-page final report issued Thursday.
The panel, whose investigation included visits to Savannah River Site and Augusta, was formed in the wake of the Obama administration’s decision to cancel the Yucca Mountain project in Nevada. The Yucca Mountain site was to become the nation’s primary permanent storage site for spent commercial nuclear reactor fuel and defense wastes from SRS and similar facilities.
Among the suggestions for solving today’s problems, commissioners proposed the creation of a new government organization dedicated solely to nuclear waste issues and also proposed giving that agency access to billions of dollars collected by utilities for that purpose.
Although the commission was directed not to recommend or evaluate specific sites, or take a position on the suitability of the government’s Yucca Mountain site, its members reiterated that a deep geologic repository remains essential to nuclear waste disposal and suggested interim storage sites could safely and temporarily be used to store the materials.
“The conclusion that disposal is needed and that deep geologic disposal is the scientifically preferred approach has been reached by every expert panel that has looked at the issue and by every other country that is pursuing a nuclear waste management program.”
The panel also concluded that a system in which the federal government forces nuclear waste on communities where it is not wanted is a no-win situation, and urged a more cooperative siting process.
“In practical terms, this means encouraging communities to volunteer to be considered to host a new nuclear waste management facility while also allowing for the waste management organization to approach communities that it believes can meet the siting requirements,” the report said.
Another recommendation unveiled Thursday suggests an overhaul in guidelines for transporting nuclear waste and spent fuel.
Although transportation programs are satisfactory, the surge in the volume of waste that could eventually be moved from commercial reactors to “interim storage” sites could warrant new safety programs.
“Given that transportation represents a crucial link in the overall storage and disposal system, it will be important to allow substantial lead-time to assess and resolve transportation issues well in advance of when materials would be expected to actually begin shipping to a new facility,” the report said.
The commission also reiterated doubts on reprocessing of nuclear waste, which would still create a final waste stream requiring disposal and also poses proliferation risks.
Spent fuel is stored at the nation’s 104 nuclear power plants, including Plant Vogtle, just south of Augusta. The nationwide inventory of 75,000 tons could expand to 150,000 tons by 2050, even if no more reactors are built.