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Looking Past Yucca Mountain

Nuclear waste: Blue-ribbon panel calls for interim storage of spent fuel

by Glenn Hess
August 8, 2011 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 89, Issue 32

Credit: DOE
Yucca Mountain is no longer the target site for nuclear waste.
Credit: DOE
Yucca Mountain is no longer the target site for nuclear waste.

The U.S. should build a network of interim storage facilities to hold the nation’s growing amount of nuclear waste, as well as one or more permanent geologic repositories, a presidential commission says in a draft report issued on July 29.

The White House established the 15-member Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future last year to recommend options for disposing of waste from the 104 nuclear power plants in the U.S. An estimated 65,000 metric tons of spent fuel are now held at reactor sites in 33 states.

In 2009, President Barack Obama canceled plans to build a permanent repository at Nevada’s Yucca Mountain. The site was strongly opposed by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and other politicians from the state.

“The Obama Administration’s decision to halt work on a repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada is but the latest indicator of a policy that has been troubled for decades and has now all but completely broken down,” the report concludes.

The report says it is pointless to try to “force a top-down, federally mandated solution” to nuclear waste storage, and it calls for a “consent-based” approach. “This means encouraging communities to volunteer to be considered to host a new nuclear-waste management facility,” the report says.

The report recommends that a government-chartered corporation be established to run the disposal program, taking over the task from the Energy Department. The new entity would negotiate with communities and then construct and operate the sites. “The overall record of DOE and of the federal government as a whole ... has not inspired confidence or trust in our nation’s nuclear waste management program,” the report says.

The nuclear power industry supports the commission’s recommendations. But Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), vice chairman of the House Science, Space & Technology Committee, asserts that there is no scientific evidence to support the White House’s move to kill the Yucca Mountain project.

“The draft report states that the ‘American nuclear waste management program is at an impasse.’ We would not have this impasse,” Sensenbrenner says, “but for the President’s politically motivated decision to close Yucca Mountain.”



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