Depending on who you talk to, a new federal report on nuclear waste disposal either offers a start at dealing with a growing problem or merely kicks the can down the road on the controversial issue of Yucca Mountain.
The Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future wasn't specifically asked to decide the viability of a permanent nuclear waste repository in remote Yucca Mountain, Nev. But its avoidance of the issue in a 90-plus-page report submitted to the secretary of energy Friday has left some critics calling the whole effort a cop-out.
More than $12 billion was sunk into the Yucca Mountain project before the Obama administration requested that the licensing application be withdrawn, saying the project wasn't workable and didn't have enough support. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., had long fought it, arguing that it would put the health and safety of Nevadans at risk.
But Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., R-Wis., ranking Republican on the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, said the Yucca Mountain project is still the best solution.
"The Blue Ribbon Commission has offered various proposals to fix a problem we don't have," he said. "The draft report states that the 'American nuclear waste management program is at an impasse.' We would not have this impasse but for the president's politically motivated decision to close Yucca Mountain."
Instead, the report recommends that the government free up a $25 billion fund designated for Yucca Mountain and use that money to manage its nuclear waste now.
Congress should create a new government-appointed organization dedicated to managing the nation's nuclear waste, the report states, and then create underground, permanent disposal sites similar to Yucca Mountain as well as aboveground, temporary storage facilities.
Currently, nuclear waste from the country's 104 operating reactors is stored at each reactor site. The new plan would consolidate that waste for storage at just a few sites around the country.
But so far, finding sites where the local government and community are willing to accept nuclear waste facilities has been "exceptionally difficult," the report said, blaming a top-down approach in which the federal government sidesteps community concerns.
To get around this problem, the report recommends a new approach in which communities would be offered economic benefits and even compete for hosting storage or disposal facilities.
Ed Batts, a corporate partner at DLA Piper with clients in the nuclear industry, said that notion is overly optimistic -- akin to the Department of Defense allowing local communities to dictate the locations or transportation of weapons.
Plus, he said, not many places in the U.S. have the proper geology or low populations optimal for storing radioactive material underground.
"We need a common-sense approach that satisfies the vast majority of Americans," he said, "even if a small minority object."
Clifford Singer, a professor and expert on nuclear issues at the University of Illinois, said state leaders, not local communities, are the ones resisting nuclear waste storage.
"Absolutely essential to getting states to cooperate fully is to make it crystal clear from the outset that no state will be forced to take in spent nuclear fuel against its will," he said.
The most likely candidates to volunteer for waste storage are communities already saddled with waste from legacy weapons programs, said Stephanie Cooke, editor of Nuclear Intelligence Weekly, a trade publication. She said those communities have already benefited from the jobs and investment that come with nuclear materials and may be open to accepting more.
"It's a very toxic industry, but it's their industry. It's like a new Coca-Cola plant coming to town," she said.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Nuclear Energy Institute, a key industry group, still want to see Yucca Mountain considered.
"Yucca Mountain is certainly not the only answer, but it is the one that has been embraced by multiple Congresses and administrations," said Christopher Guith, vice president for policy at the U.S. Chamber's Energy Institute.
Formed by the secretary of energy at the request of President Barack Obama, the commission and its subcommittees met more than two dozen times between March 2010 and July 2011 to hear testimony and visit nuclear waste management facilities. The commission will take comments on the draft through Oct. 31. A final report is due to the secretary of energy in January.
(c) 2011, Chicago Tribune.
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