Congress is moving to adopt its own rules for used nuclear fuel storage. Ironically, it may be just the thing that rescues the U.S. nuclear waste program from the inertia that has plagued it since the 1980s.
THE SENATE Appropriations Committee has approved a bipartisan-backed bill that would privatize the siting, development and operation of multiple facilities for the interim storage of used fuel from nuclear power plants around the United States.
This measure is potentially a giant step forward, because the U.S. Department of Energy’s lack of progress in solving the waste problem remains a major drag on the growth of nuclear power. The price Americans pay for lack of progress on nuclear waste disposal is painfully evident in the Yucca Mountain fiasco, with more than $10 billion spent on nuclear waste management since the 1970s but scarcely anything to show for it.
In fact, the amount of used fuel being stored at nuclear plants in engineered water pools and concrete-and-steel dry casks now exceeds 75,000 metric tons, including 4,420 tons in South Carolina and 2,870 tons in Georgia. That is a legacy both states need to escape.
Co-sponsoring the privatization bill are two members of Congress who command considerable respect on energy issues – Sens. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. Both are senior members of the Senate Appropriations Committee.
INSTEAD OF PURSUING the Yucca Mountain project, the primary focus now is on finding suitable locations for interim storage of used fuel. Salt caverns that underlie the desert in parts of west Texas and eastern New Mexico are drawing the most interest. Companies realize that storing the nation’s used fuel at such sites would be extremely profitable. And the localities at those sites would profit from the revenue and jobs that nuclear facilities would bring.
AREVA, a French nuclear company, and NAC International have signed an agreement with Waste Control Specialists in Texas to support the design, construction and operation of a storage facility in west Texas. And across the state line, Holtec International, a used fuel management company, has signed a letter of intent with a business group to establish a storage facility in eastern New Mexico, not far from an existing repository for defense nuclear waste called the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP).
The idea of establishing interim facilities for used fuel dates to the 1980s, but nothing has ever come of the DOE’s search efforts. Under the landmark Nuclear Waste Policy Act, the DOE was required to take possession of used fuel from nuclear plants no later than 1998. But the agency has yet to take a single used-fuel rod. A blue-ribbon commission on nuclear waste recommended a consent-based approach to siting future nuclear waste facilities, including interim consolidated storage.
NOW, THE MEASURE approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee would give private companies a stake in finding an answer to the nuclear waste problem. Congress should take action on the matter without delay.
(The writer is a retired program manager from Savannah River National Laboratory.)