New Nuclear Waste Proposal Creates Agency, Restarts Yucca Mountain Debate

The plan would establish a new federal agency to oversee the nation's nuclear waste management.

Early morning light shines on the proposed nuclear waste dump site of Yucca Mountain, Feb. 7, 2002.
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A bipartisan group of four senators released their plan to deal with the nation's nuclear waste Thursday, making good on promises by Senate Energy and Natural Resource Chairman Ron Wyden, D-Ore., for progress on the long-delayed issue.

The draft bill released Thursday proposes establishing a new federal agency to oversee the disposal of spent nuclear fuel - relieving the Department of Energy of that role - led by a presidentially-appointed, senate-confirmed administrator.

The plan, which builds on work previously done by the Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future, also authorizes the newly formed agency to set up a temporary waste storage facility while potential permanent sites are identified and vetted through a consent-based process. A 2012 nuclear waste bill proposed by former Senate ENR head Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., required the approval of a final storage site before any interim facilities could be built.

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Currently there is no central repository for used nuclear fuel, which means spent fuel rods are stored on-site at commercial facilities around the country, some in areas vulnerable to earthquakes, floods and other natural disasters. The lack of a central, long-term storage site has virtually paralyzed expansion of the nation's nuclear power capacity and has cost taxpayers billions of dollars, according to a release from the ENR committee.

But opponents of the proposal are critical of the interim storage provision, fearing that temporary sites will become permanent repositories over time without a stronger mandate requiring a long-term repository be identified. Plans to make Nevada's Yucca Mountain facility the nation's permanent nuclear waste repository fell apart after President Barack Obama shuttered consideration of the site amid political backlash. The issue again came up during the April confirmation hearings for Department of Energy head Ernest Moniz, with Sen. Dean Heller, D-Nev., digging his heels in on the prospect of rekindling plans to store nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain.

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"No amount of reassurance from the federal government will reassure us that Nevada should be the nation's nuclear waste dump," Heller said during the hearing.

But that's exactly the issue that could trip the bill up, as some House Republicans are likely to point to a 1982 law identifying Yucca Mountain as the nation's sole nuclear waste repository, making any alternate sites technically illegal. That puts those backing the bill in a tight spot: without a provision identifying Yucca as that sole repository, the bill won't likely make it through the House, but including that provision would draw fire from Sens. Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Heller, both of whom staunchly oppose Yucca Mountain.

Critics also point out that building interim facilities in the meantime could take years, leaving large quantities of waste at nuclear plants for a "long, long time," according to Dave Lochbaum, director of the Nuclear Safety Project at the Union of Concerned Scientists, much of which is stored in cooling pools rather than in dry casks which are safer.

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"Despite their good intentions, the senators ignored the fact that we have a problem right now with how nuclear plant owners store this highly radioactive waste," Lochbaum said.

The draft bill is now open for public comments until May 24, after which a final bill will be introduced for congressional consideration.

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