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Energy Department Announces Radioactive Waste Strategy

Nuclear: Plan calls for interim storage site by 2021, geologic repository by 2048

by Jeff Johnson
January 17, 2013 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 91, Issue 3

Credit: DOE
The Obama Administration canceled construction of the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository in 2010 after years of development.
Inside Yucca Mountain.
Credit: DOE
The Obama Administration canceled construction of the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository in 2010 after years of development.

The U.S. has taken another step on a seemingly endless path to address the fate of some 68,000 metric tons of high-level radioactive waste currently stored all over the country at more than 100 operating nuclear power plants and other facilities.

On Jan. 11, the Department of Energy announced a nuclear waste strategy that for the first time includes selecting and constructing at least one temporary, centralized storage facility for spent nuclear fuel and other radioactive waste. The plan also includes selection and construction of at least one permanent geological repository.

The strategy, however, puts off the interim facility for a decade, and the repository would not be expected to be in operation until 2048—more than 100 years after the dawn of the nuclear age and 50 years after a congressionally mandated deadline by which the Yucca Mountain repository in Nevada was supposed to be in operation.

The strategy is DOE’s plan to implement a year-old report by the 15-member Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future. The commission was created by Energy Secretary Steven Chu in 2010 to assess radioactive waste options in light of President Barack Obama’s decision to cancel construction of the Yucca Mountain repository.

DOE’s plan largely mirrors the commission’s recommendations. DOE and the commission both recommend a major reform of the repository site selection process that Congress established in the 1980s. The modifications include a phased development approach, more incentives to encourage communities to volunteer to be a home to a radioactive waste site, and creation of a nongovernmental organization to direct the overall radioactive waste-handling process.

Such changes will require new legislation. Several members of the Senate have offered proposals, but in the House of Representatives, most Republicans, including Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), chairman of the Energy & Commerce Committee, have criticized DOE and the commission for failing to restart Yucca Mountain. That choice, however, was specifically ruled out in Obama’s charge to the commission.

“If politics are allowed to derail a project set forth in 1983, there is no reason to believe this new effort will be any more successful,” Upton says. “We have the responsibility under the law to pursue Yucca Mountain as the nation’s long-term nuclear waste solution.”



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