Thursday, February 02, 2012

Is It Time To Move Past The "Obsession With Yucca Mountain"?

Feb 1: The House Energy and Commerce (E&C) Subcommittee on Environment and the Economy, chaired by Rep. John Shimkus (R-IL), held a hearing today to discuss the final recommendations of the Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future [BRC, See WIMS 1/27/12]. Members welcomed several of the commission's recommendations, which propose a series of reforms to help solve our nation's growing nuclear waste challenge. Witnesses included: Former Congressman Lee Hamilton and General Brent Scowcroft, co-chairmen of the commission; and representatives from: L. Barrett Consulting; NorthWorks, Inc.; Egan, Fitzpatrick, Malsch & Lawrence; Union for Concerned Scientists; Citizens Against Government Waste; and the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners.

    The co-chairmen of the commission, testified on the commission's findings over the past two years. Hamilton and Scowcroft delivered a 27-page joint statement and warned of the dire situation facing nation's nuclear waste program and stressed the need for urgent action, explaining, "What we have found is that our nation's failure to come to grips with the nuclear waste issue has already proved damaging and costly. It will be even more damaging and more costly the longer it continues." In their statement, the two said:
"America's nuclear waste management program is at an impasse. The Administration's decision to halt work on a repository at Yucca Mountain is but the latest indicator of a policy that has been troubled for decades and has now all but completely broken down. The approach laid out under the 1987 Amendments to the Nuclear Waste Policy Act has simply not worked to produce a timely solution for dealing with the nation's most hazardous radioactive materials. The United States 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.
"What we have found is that our nation's failure to come to grips with the nuclear waste issue has already proved damaging and costly. It will be even more damaging and more costly the longer it continues: damaging to prospects for maintaining a potentially important energy supply option for the future, damaging to state – federal relations and public confidence in the federal government's competence, and damaging to America's standing in the world as a source of nuclear expertise and as a leader on global issues of nuclear safety, non‐proliferation, and security.
"This failure is also costly to utility ratepayers who continue to pay for a nuclear waste management solution that has yet to be delivered, to communities that have become unwilling hosts of long-term waste storage facilities, and to U.S. taxpayers who face billions in liabilities as a result of the failure to meet federal waste management commitments.
"This generation has a fundamental ethical obligation to avoid burdening future generations with finding a safe permanent solution for managing hazardous nuclear materials they had no part in creating. At the same time, we owe it to future generations to avoid foreclosing options wherever possible so that they can make choices—about the use of nuclear energy as a low-carbon energy resource and about the management of the nuclear fuel cycle—based on emerging technologies and developments and their own best interests.
"The national interest demands that our nuclear waste program be fixed. Complacency with a failed nuclear waste management system is not an option. With a 65,000 metric ton inventory of spent nuclear fuel spread across the country and growing at over 2000 metric tons per year, the status quo is not acceptable. The need for a new strategy is urgent."
    The key recommendation of the BRC is: a new, "consent-based approach to siting future nuclear waste management facilities." The recommendations indicates that: "Experience in the United States and in other nations suggests that any attempt to force a top-down, federally mandated solution over the objections of a state or community -- far from being more efficient -- will take longer, cost more, and have lower odds of ultimate success. By contrast, the approach we recommend is explicitly adaptive, staged, and consent-based. Based on a review of successful siting processes in the United States and abroad -- including most notably the siting of a disposal facility for transuranic radioactive waste, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico, and recent positive outcomes in Spain, Finland and Sweden -- we believe this type of approach can provide the flexibility and sustain the public trust and confidence needed to see controversial facilities through to completion."
    In an opening statement, Subcommittee Chairman John Shimkus (R-IL) said he agreed with many of the Commission's recommendations, however, he went beyond the BRC recommendations and said, "I agree that Yucca Mountain - as designated by law - remains fixed on the table as a solution to the nuclear waste debate. In the wake of the Administration's interference with the independent technical evaluation of the repository at Yucca Mountain, the resulting Blue Ribbon Commission found what many of us have long been saying about the failed management of nuclear waste. The Commission's report correctly advises control of the Nuclear Waste Fund be removed from the purse strings of political ideologues and entrusted to "a new organization dedicated solely to implementing the waste management program" set forth under law."
    The BRC did not recommend Yucca Mountain as a solution, and in fact said, ". . .we have not evaluated Yucca Mountain or any other location as a potential site for the storage or disposal of spent nuclear fuel and high-level waste, nor have we taken a position on the Administration's request to withdraw the license application. We simply note that regardless what happens with Yucca Mountain, the U.S. inventory of spent nuclear fuel will soon exceed the amount that can be legally emplaced at this site until a second repository is in operation. So under current law, the United States will need to find a new disposal site even if Yucca Mountain goes forward. . ."
    Rep. Shimkus said, "Yucca Mountain remains the most shovel-ready, thoroughly studied geological repository for spent nuclear fuel. There are possibly no other 230 square miles in the world that have been examined and reexamined more by America's greatest scientific minds than Yucca Mountain. Three decades of study, 15 billion dollars, and, quite frankly, common sense, support the current requirement to secure high-level nuclear waste on federal property, under a mountain, in a desert." Full Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-MI) said, "Over the past three years, we have watched as the Obama Administration brazenly dismantled the Yucca Mountain program, with no legal, technical, or safety basis for doing so. These actions present serious questions about this Administration's respect for taxpayers, for nuclear power consumers who have paid in billions for this project, and for the public at large. We must keep our promise to the public to ensure safe disposal of the nation's nuclear waste, and not keep putting it off."

    The Commission's proposal for a "consent-based approach to siting future nuclear waste management facilities" was met with some opposition from Republican members and witnesses who argued we must follow the law and build Yucca Mountain. Congress decided Yucca Mountain was the best available option for our nation's nuclear waste over 25 years ago. Committee members pointed out that decades of work and billions of taxpayer and ratepayer dollars were poured into the project, only to have it shuttered by the Obama administration. Given the urgency of our nation's nuclear crisis, we do not have the time or the money to start over.

    In response to the Republican position, full Committee Ranking Member Henry Waxman (D-CA) said in an opening statement, "Twenty-five years after the 1987 amendments to the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, it is clear that this top-down, federally mandated approach has not worked. The Department of Energy has terminated its Yucca Mountain activities. Last year – and again this year – Congress has provided no funding for Yucca Mountain. Even the biggest advocates for Yucca Mountain in the Republican House have not acted to provide any funding. . . The Blue Ribbon Commission spent nearly two years conducting this review and its recommendations are timely. The Commission recommendations deserve our serious consideration. They raise a number of important policy questions, such as whether a new organization should be established to address the nuclear waste problem, how the Nuclear Waste Fund should be used, and whether one or more centralized storage facilities should be developed in addition to one or more geologic repositories. Answering these questions requires an open mind and a willingness to move past a narrow obsession with Yucca Mountain.

    The Senate Energy & Natural Resources (ENR) Committee, Chaired by Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), with Ranking Member Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) is conducting a hearing on the report today (February 2). The witnesses simply include the two co-chairmen Hamilton and Scowcroft who are expected to deliver their same joint statement.

    Access the House Republican E&C hearing website for background, opening statements and witness testimony (click here). Access the Democrats E&C hearing website for opening statements and a webcast (click here). Access the Senate ENR hearing website for testimony and webcast (click here).  [#Energy/Nuclear, #Haz/Nuclear]

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