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Nevada Nuclear Dump Debate: Panel Finds Local Support Is Crucial

Nevada Nuclear Dump

MATTHEW DALY   07/29/11 05:52 PM ET  AP

WASHINGTON — Efforts to replace a disputed nuclear dump in Nevada are doomed unless officials generate local support for alternative sites, a presidential commission said Friday.

In an interim report, the 15-member panel suggests building regional storage sites to warehouse spent nuclear fuel for up to 100 years, while officials seek to build a permanent burial site.

In a move likely to stir opposition in Congress, the panel also recommends that money being paid by nuclear operators for long-term storage be set aside for that purpose, rather than counted against the federal budget deficit. About $750 million a year is paid into the Nuclear Waste Fund, which has a balance of about $25 billion.

Commissioners said they recognize that their recommendations would add to the federal deficit, at least on paper, but noted that the federal government is contractually bound to use the money to manage spent nuclear fuel.

"The bill will come due at some point," the report said. "Meanwhile, failure to correct the funding problem does the federal budget no favors in a context where taxpayers remain liable for mounting damages."

Trying to implement the current "deeply flawed program" for nuclear waste is likely to cost even more, the panel said in its 180-page report, which was released Friday on the commission website.

The panel, formally known as the Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future, also suggested creating a new organization, independent of the Energy Department, to locate and build a site to permanently bury nuclear waste.

The Obama administration created the commission last year after canceling a contentious plan to bury nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain, 100 miles outside Las Vegas. The commission is co-chaired by former Democratic Rep. Lee Hamilton of Indiana and former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft. Hamilton and Scowcroft declined to comment Friday. A final report is due in January.

Some communities who are temporarily storing their waste while the Yucca Mountain project is on hold on Friday petitioned the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington in an effort to restart the effort. They say the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is breaking the law by failing to act on an application for construction of the Nevada site.

President George W. Bush's administration submitted the application in 2008 to send the nation's spent nuclear fuel to Yucca Mountain. The commission is required under the law to issue a final decision within three years of an application, with the possibility of extending the deadline by one year. But the commission has taken no action. South Carolina and Washington state are among those that filed the petition to force the commission to rule on the application.

The blue ribbon commissioners said in the report that they approached their task with a sense of urgency, not only because of the failure of the Yucca Mountain site, but also because of the nuclear crisis triggered by an earthquake and tsunami that severely damaged a nuclear plant in Japan.

"Put simply, this nation's failure to come to grips with the nuclear waste issue has already proved damaging and costly, and it will be more damaging and more costly the longer it continues," the report said.

Further delays could damage prospects for maintaining a potentially important source of energy, hamper state-federal relations and public confidence in the federal government, and hurt America's standing in the world, the panel said.

"Continued stalemate is also costly – to utility ratepayers, to communities that have become unwilling hosts of long-term nuclear waste storage facilities and to U.S. taxpayers who face mounting liabilities, already running into billions of dollars, as a result of the failure by both the executive and legislative branches to meet federal waste management commitments," it said.

Commission members stressed that construction of interim storage facilities – which would hold nuclear waste for up to 100 years – would not be the ultimate solution to the disposal of nuclear waste, some of which takes thousands of years to decay.

"We believe permanent disposal will very likely also be needed to safely manage at least some portion of the commercial spent fuel inventory," the report said.

The commission emphasized the need for officials to generate local support before choosing either an interim storage site or a permanent burial site. The Yucca Mountain plan is fiercely opposed by Nevada lawmakers, most notably U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat, and has been declared unworkable by the Obama administration.

"Transparency, flexibility, patience, responsiveness and a heavy emphasis on consultation and cooperation will all be necessary" to successfully build a storage site for nuclear waste, the report said.

Such a process, it said, "may seem particularly slow and open-ended. Experience, however, leads us to conclude that there is no shortcut, and that any attempt to short-circuit the process will most likely lead to more delay."

A spokesman for Energy Secretary Steven Chu called the report a "strong step toward finding a workable solution" to long-term storage and disposal of nuclear waste.

"The Obama administration continues to believe that nuclear energy has an important role to play as America moves to a clean energy future," spokesman Damien LaVera said.

Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., said the commission's report attempted to "fix a problem we don't have."

Sensenbrenner, who supports Yucca Mountain, said, "We would not have this impasse but for the president's politically motivated decision to close Yucca Mountain."

He accused the Obama administration of ignoring science and said Obama "has jeopardized America's ability to use nuclear energy and safely store waste."

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Associated Press writer Nedra Pickler contributed to this report.

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Online:

Blue Ribbon Commission: http://www.brc.gov/

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Follow Matthew Daly on Twitter at http://twitter.com(backslash)MatthewDalyWDC

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Filed by Joanna Zelman  |