The following article was published yesterday by Nuclear Energy Overview, NEI's member-only publication.
Jan. 26, 2012—Enumerating shortcomings of the nation’s used fuel management program, a federal government panel this week recommended eight steps to improve it.
Among them, the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future said in a report issued today, is that levies on nuclear energy that American consumers have been paying for years should be fully available to a new organization created to manage the federal government’s used nuclear fuel program.
The commission also recommended development of at least one consolidated storage facility for used nuclear fuel.
Congressional hearings on a new used fuel management organization should begin “as soon as possible,” the commission said.
The panel also addressed the fund created to manage the program.
Under the 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act, the government has been assessing utilities—which have in turn assessed their rate payers—a fee to finance the government’s used fuel program. The fund, with a balance of $27 billion, has become inaccessible to the program.
Used fuel management “must compete for federal funding each year and is therefore subject to exactly the budget constraints and uncertainties that the fund was created to avoid. This situation must be remedied to allow the [used fuel] program to continue,” the commission said. It recommended administrative actions that can separate fund receipts from the overall federal budget.
In a statement, six organizations—the Nuclear Energy Institute, the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, the Nuclear Waste Strategy Coalition, the American Public Power Association, the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association and the Edison Electric Institute—said they welcome the report. The groups collectively represent nuclear energy producers and suppliers, state public utility commissions, and other public and private organizations interested in used nuclear fuel management.
“After two years of fact-finding and intense study, the commission has officially endorsed a number of strategic used fuel-management initiatives that our members and other experts have long supported and that will reform and re-energize the country’s high-level radioactive waste program,” the statement says.
The commission’s recommendations, which are generally consistent with the industry’s integrated used fuel management policies, are:
- creating an organization outside the Energy Department with a corporate-style board of directors to manage the country’s used fuel program
- making the used fuel levies on consumers fully available to the new organization
- developing one or more consolidated storage facilities
- making decisions on locations of nuclear fuel management facilities based on the consent of the state and local governments
- developing one or more underground disposal facilities
- preparing for the large-scale transport of spent nuclear fuel and high-level waste to consolidated storage and disposal facilities when they are available
- supporting continued U.S. innovation in nuclear energy technology and work force development
- leading international efforts to enhance safety, waste management, nonproliferation and security issues.
The Department of Energy spent several decades studying and seeking permits to build an underground repository for reactor fuel at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. In 2008, the department submitted a license application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to build the repository, but the Obama administration cancelled the project before NRC review of the license application was completed. The Obama administration created the 15-member commission to study nuclear fuel management in January 2010.
The commission noted that some of its recommendations will require congressional action but said that “prompt action can and should be taken in several areas, without waiting for legislative action, to get the waste management program back on track.” For example, the report says, the Energy Department can take early steps to develop a consolidated storage facility to hold decades-old reactor fuel, particularly fuel from reactors that have been closed.
In their statement, the six organizations agreed, adding that they “stand ready to work with the DOE, the administration and Congress to implement the [commission’s] recommendations to advance the nation’s economic, energy, environmental and national security imperatives by creating a sustainable integrated used nuclear fuel management program.”
The commission report also supports long-term recycling and advanced fuel-cycle technologies, which could reduce the amount of used fuel needing disposal while recovering valuable unused materials for re-use in new fuel. The panel noted, however, that there are “no currently available or reasonably foreseeable reactor and fuel cycle technology developments [that] have the potential to fundamentally alter the waste management challenge this nation confronts over at least the next several decades, if not longer.”
“Nuclear energy is a key component of America’s energy mix. The [commission] recognizes this with its recommendation for stable, long-term support for advanced reactor and fuel cycle technology development that can help address the energy challenges facing future generations,” the statement from the six organizations says.