America's effort to manage a growing inventory of nuclear waste is a costly failure, according to a federal panel created to find alternatives.
"The U.S. has traveled nearly 25 years down the current path only to come to a point where continuing to rely on the same approach seems destined to bring further controversy, litigation, and protracted delay," the Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future concluded in a 192-page draft report issued Friday.
The panel was formed in the wake of the Obama administration's decision to cancel the Yucca Mountain project in Nevada, which was to become the nation's primary and permanent storage site for spent commercial nuclear reactor fuel and defense wastes from Savannah River Site and similar facilities.
After two dozen meetings over a 16-month period, however, the commission concluded that the U.S. still must move forward with a geologic repository, even if new technologies for reprocessing spent fuel are explored or developed. Consolidated interim storage sites also will be needed.
Such steps, the report said, are "the only responsible way" to address the issue, partly because even the best "recycling" or reprocessing option still creates its own waste stream that will require a final disposition.
Because the U.S. Department of Energy "has not inspired confidence or trust" in the nation's nuclear waste programs, the commission suggested creating a federal corporation to "provide stability, focus and credibility" that can put the program back on track.
The organization would be given authority to choose sites; license, build, and operate both interim storage and final disposal facilities; and oversee transportation of nuclear waste to and from those areas.
Although suggestions were made to the commission that the corporation also oversee research and development for new reprocessing technologies, the commission disagreed, adding that there is nothing on the horizon for the next 30 to 40 years that could substantially alter the need for a repository.
Savannah River Site, and in particular its H-Canyon separations facility, has been discussed as a possible venue for reprocessing research. DOE announced this year a plan to scale down its existing operations and to place the area in "standby mode," pending any decisions on a new mission.
The commission also stated that it was not asked to render opinions on the suitability of Yucca Mountain or the controversial effort to abandon that project. It also stated, however, that "current law establishes Yucca Mountain in Nevada as the site for the first U.S. repository for spent fuel and high-level waste."
Currently, 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. With new plants coming online, the volume would "substantially exceed 200,000 tons" by midcentury.
The urgency to resolve the issue has been accelerated by the Fukushima disaster in Japan, which opened the eyes of the world to the vulnerabilities of spent nuclear fuel, the report added.