WASHINGTON — The United States should immediately start looking for an alternative to replace the failed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste dump in Nevada, which cost an estimated $15 billion but was never completed, a presidential commission said Thursday.
In its final report, the 15-member commission said the government also must prepare for the eventual large-scale transportation of spent nuclear fuel from storage sites across the country to the new site – or to interim storage facilities yet to be built.
While the panel was created before the nuclear crisis in Japan, commissioners said the massive earthquake and tsunami that damaged Japan's Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear complex last year added a sense of urgency to their work. The tsunami triggered the world's most serious nuclear disaster since Chernobyl in 1986.
In the wake of the crisis, "many Americans became newly aware of the presence of tens of thousands of tons of spent fuel at more than 70 nuclear power plant sites around this country – and of the fact that the United States currently has no physical capacity to do anything with this spent fuel other than to continue to leave it at the sites where it was first generated," the report said.
The Obama administration's 2009 decision to halt work on the Yucca Mountain site was the latest sign that long-troubled U.S. policy on nuclear waste management policy has now reached an impasse, the report said. Allowing that impasse to continue is not an option, the report said.
"The need for a new strategy is urgent, not just to address these damages and costs but because this generation has a fundamental, ethical obligation to avoid burdening future generations with the entire task of finding a safe, permanent solution for managing hazardous nuclear materials they had no part in creating," the report said.
The panel, formally known as the Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future, was created two years by President Barack Obama to find new strategies for managing the nation's growing inventory of nuclear waste. The United States currently has more than 71,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel stored at about 75 operating and shutdown reactor sites around the country. The U.S. produces more than 2,200 tons of spent fuel a year.
The recommendations outlined Thursday follow closely a draft report issued in July. Above all, the panel says any effort to find a site to store nuclear waste must have local support.
Congress designated Yucca Mountain, 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas, as the nation's nuclear repository over the objections of many local residents and officials, and a battle over the site has dragged on for three decades. The Obama administration canceled the Yucca project and cut off funding for it, leading to the creation of the blue-ribbon panel, which is co-chaired by former Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Ind., and Brent Scowcroft, a former national security adviser under two Republican presidents.
Energy Secretary Steven Chu called the report serious and thoughtful and said it represented "a critical step toward finding a sustainable approach to disposing used nuclear fuel and nuclear waste."
Chu did not immediately endorse any of the report's recommendations but said report would serve as a foundation for ongoing efforts.
Hamilton and Scowcroft declined to comment Thursday.
A consent-based approach to siting future nuclear waste storage and disposal facilities is the only workable option, the report said, noting that attempts to force such facilities on unwilling states, tribes and communities have failed spectacularly.
The report also recommends that responsibility for the nation's nuclear waste management program be transferred to a new organization, independent of the Energy Department, with a sole mission of assuring safe storage and disposal of spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste.
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.
The report also recommends immediate efforts to develop at least one geologic disposal facility for long-term handling of nuclear waste. The reports suggest building regional storage sites to warehouse spent nuclear fuel for up to 100 years while officials seek to complete a permanent burial site.
Six groups representing nuclear energy producers and suppliers, state public utility commissions and other groups interested in used nuclear fuel issued a joint statement praising the commission's report. The groups especially supported setting aside money paid into the Nuclear Waste Fund and prompt efforts to develop regional storage facilities for interim use.
"We believe actions can be taken to encourage and achieve consolidated interim storage in a willing host community within the next 10 years, well before a (permanent) repository could be opened," the groups said. The statement was signed by the Nuclear Energy Institute, National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, American Public Power Association and Edison Electric Institute, among others.
The Union of Concerned Scientists said construction of an interim storage facility for nuclear waste poses a stiff political challenge and could distract from the more important goal of finding a permanent repository site.
"Spent fuel can be managed safely at reactor sites for decades as long as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission requires plant owners to minimize safety and security risks," said Edwin Lyman, a senior scientist for the group.
Lyman recommended moving spent fuel from on-site pools to what he said were safer dry storage casks. He also called for enhanced security measures to protect the casks from terrorist attacks.
Blue Ribbon Commission: http://www.brc.gov
Matthew Daly can be followed on Twitter: (at)MatthewDalyWDC