Friday, April 12, 2013

House Hearing Focuses On Nuclear Waste Disposal

Apr 11: The House Appropriations Committee, Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development and Related Agencies, held a hearing on Nuclear Programs and Strategies that focused for the most part on siting and developing a high-level nuclear waste disposal site. Witnesses included representative from the U.S. Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board; Member of the Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future; U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) staff; Department of Energy staff; and the Government Accountability Office (GAO). GAO's testimony provides background and was summarized in a report entitled, Commercial Spent Nuclear Fuel: Observations on the Key Attributes and Challenges of Storage and Disposal Options (GAO-13-532T, Apr 11, 2013).
    GAO indicates that spent nuclear fuel, the used fuel removed from commercial nuclear power reactors, is one of the most hazardous substances created by humans. Commercial reactors have generated nearly 70,000 metric tons of spent fuel, which is currently stored at 75 reactor sites in 33 states, and this inventory is expected to more than double by 2055. The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982, as amended, directs DOE to investigate the Yucca Mountain site in Nevada --100 miles northwest of Las Vegas -- to determine if the site is suitable for a permanent repository for this and other nuclear waste. DOE submitted a license application for the Yucca Mountain site to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in 2008, but in 2010 DOE suspended its licensing efforts and instead established a Blue Ribbon Commission to study other options. The commission issued a report in January 2012 recommending a new strategy for managing nuclear waste, and DOE issued a new nuclear waste disposal strategy in 2013.
    GAO testified that in November 2009, it reported on the attributes and challenges of a Yucca Mountain repository. A key attribute identified was that the Department of Energy (DOE) had spent significant resources to carry out design, engineering, and testing activities on the Yucca Mountain site and had completed a license application and submitted it to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which has regulatory authority over the construction, operation, and closure of a repository. If the repository had been built as planned, GAO concluded that it would have provided a permanent solution for the nation's commercial nuclear fuel and other nuclear waste and minimized the uncertainty of future waste safety. Constructing the repository also could have helped address issues including federal liabilities resulting from industry lawsuits against DOE related to continued storage of spent nuclear fuel at reactor sites. However, not having the support of the administration and the state of Nevada proved a key challenge. As GAO reported in April 2011, DOE officials did not cite technical or safety issues with the Yucca Mountain repository project when the project's termination was announced but instead stated that other solutions could achieve broader support.

    Temporarily storing spent fuel in a central location offers several positive attributes, as well as challenges, as GAO reported in November 2009 and August 2012. Positive attributes include allowing DOE to consolidate the nation's nuclear waste after reactors are decommissioned. Consolidation would decrease the complexity of securing and overseeing the waste located at reactor sites around the nation and would allow DOE to begin to address the taxpayer financial liabilities stemming from industry lawsuits. Interim storage could also provide the nation with some flexibility to consider alternative policies or new technologies. However, interim storage faces several challenges. First, DOE's statutory authority to develop interim storage is uncertain. Provisions in the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982, as amended, that allow DOE to arrange for centralized interim storage have either expired or are unusable because they are tied to milestones in repository development that have not been met. Second, siting an interim storage facility could prove difficult. Even if a community might be willing to host a centralized interim storage facility, finding a state that would be willing to host such a facility could be challenging, particularly since some states have voiced concerns that an interim facility could become a de facto permanent disposal site. Third, interim storage may also present transportation challenges since it is likely that the spent fuel would have to be transported twice -- once to the interim storage site and once to a permanent disposal site. Finally, developing centralized interim storage would not ultimately preclude the need for a permanent repository for spent nuclear fuel.

    Siting, licensing, and developing a permanent repository at a location other than Yucca Mountain could provide the opportunity to find a location that might achieve broader acceptance, as GAO reported in November 2009 and August 2012, and could help avoid costly delays experienced by the Yucca Mountain repository program. However, developing an alternative repository would restart the likely costly and time-consuming process of developing a repository. It is also unclear whether the Nuclear Waste Fund--established under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982, as amended, to pay industry's share of the cost for the Yucca Mountain repository--will be sufficient to fund a repository at another site.

    University of Michigan professor Rodney Ewing, Chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board addressed issues relating to: 1. What do international and U.S. experiences tell us about consent-based siting? 2. What can we learn from Yucca Mountain, technically and otherwise? 3. What is the current thinking and consensus around preferable options for nuclear waste disposal and the siting of a geologic repository? He summarized his testimony saying, "I would observe that not using a consent-based approach for repository siting can slow the process or lead to delay or failure, but using a consent-based process does not guarantee that a repository will be successfully sited. Programs in other countries are using a variety of consent-based approaches, with mixed results. Deep-mined geologic disposal remains the approach that is being pursued by most of the countries with nuclear waste programs, worldwide, and a deep geologic repository will be needed regardless of the fuel cycle option selected. The only operating deep-mined geologic repository in the world for disposal of radioactive waste is the WIPP [Waste Isolation Pilot Plant] facility in New Mexico, and important lessons can be taken from the development of that facility. Finally, ongoing, independent technical oversight of the activities undertaken by the implementer of a consent-based repository-siting program is crucial, regardless of whether the implementing entity is a government agency, a non-governmental organization, or a federal corporation."

    DOE testified that, "The Administration looks forward to working with this Subcommittee and other members of Congress on crafting a path forward for used nuclear fuel and high-level waste management and disposal. This progress is critical to assure that the benefits of nuclear power are available to current and future generations." DOE said the President's FY 2014 budget request includes a multi-part proposal to move ahead with developing the nation's used nuclear fuel and high-level waste management system outlined in the Administration's Strategy [See WIMS 1/14/13]. First, it lays out a comprehensive funding reform proposal. As described in the Strategy, the Administration's proposal includes three elements for funding reform: ongoing discretionary appropriations, reclassification of existing annual fees from mandatory to discretionary or a direct mandatory appropriation, and access to the balance of the nuclear waste fund. Included in the amounts that would be made available under this proposal, are defense funds to pay for the management and disposal of government-owned wastes within the overall system. In total, the Administration proposes $5.6 billion in spending to implement the strategy over the next 10 years.
    The representative from the Blue Ribbon Commission (BRC) said, "Development of consolidated storage capability was one of many of the Commission's recommendations incorporated into the Administration's January 2013 Strategy for the Management and Disposal of Used Nuclear Fuel and High-Level Radioactive Waste. The Subcommittee asked that I provide my personal views on the Administration's strategy. On balance, I was pleased to see that the Administration's strategy embraces the spirit of the Blue Ribbon Commission's recommendations, from supporting a consent-based siting process and establishing a new waste management organization to conducting R&D on advanced fuel cycles. As noted earlier, the Administration's projected timeframe for establishing consolidated storage capability is generally consistent with the Commission's findings, though the Administration projects that development of a repository will take a decade-plus longer than the Commission believed is achievable."
    She said, "According to a legal analysis performed for the BRC, which I would like to submit for the record, further legislative action would not be required prior to the designation of a storage site (and potentially not until the construction phase). . . We must couple this siting effort with a renewed initiative to communicate broadly about the benefits and risks associated with the long-term management of spent fuel and high-level waste. In particular, I believe we must communicate effectively about the steps that are taken to ensure safety in the transport of radioactive wastes. During my service on the Commission I learned of the outstanding track record accumulated over decades of safe spent fuel shipments in the U.S. I firmly believe that an effective outreach program is essential to building public confidence that spent fuel and high-level radioactive wastes can be safely shipped, stored and disposed in the U.S."
    Access links to all of the testimony (click here, See 4.11.13). Access the January 2013 Strategy for the Management and Disposal of Used Nuclear Fuel and High-Level Radioactive Waste (click here). [#Haz/Nuclear, #Energy/Nuclear]
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