Posted on March 25, 2015
By Mary Troyan
WASHINGTON -- State and local governments would compete for several new nuclear waste facilities under bipartisan legislation introduced Tuesday by Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and other lawmakers impatient with delays to the Yucca Mountain project.
"If we want to continue to have low-cost, clean power from nuclear reactors, which today produce about 60 percent of our country's emission-free electricity, then we have to have a place to put the used nuclear fuel," Alexander said in a prepared statement about the legislation.
The bill, cosponsored by Sens. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska; Maria Cantwell, D-Wash.; and Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., is expected to rekindle the debate in Washington over Yucca Mountain, the Nevada repository project halted after strong opposition at the state and federal level.
Alexander has been adamant that the Yucca Mountain project needs to move forward, even if alternative waste sites are built.
"The new sites we'd seek to establish ... would not take the place of Yucca Mountain — we have more than enough waste to fill Yucca Mountain to its legal capacity — but rather would complement it," Alexander said recently.
The legislation was introduced the same day that President Barack Obama ordered the Energy Department to begin looking for a new repository for defense-related nuclear waste only. That represents a break from a policy dating to 1985 that allowed defense and commercial waste to be stored in the same facilities.
Federal energy officials say defense-related waste won't increase because the U.S. no longer generates high-level waste from weapons production. And some defense-related waste is less radioactive than waste from commercial nuclear power production, they said.
"This means that a defense repository for these wastes could have a simpler design and could present fewer licensing and transportation challenges," an Energy Department fact sheet says.
Obama and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada have opposed the Yucca Mountain project because of concerns about environmental impact and safety. Tuesday's order is an attempt to pursue alternatives, including a pilot interim storage facility to accept spent fuel from commercial nuclear reactors that have been shut down.
Just like the bipartisan legislation, decisions about where to locate alternative repositories will be based on which communities give consent. Utilities would pay fees into a new capital fund in the U.S. Treasury to pay for the new waste repositories, according to the bill.
"We simply cannot allow spent nuclear fuel to remain indefinitely at sites scattered throughout the country, stored at taxpayer expense, awaiting a clear path forward," Feinstein said.
The legislation, a version of which was also introduced in 2013, would remove the Energy Department as manager of the nation's nuclear waste program and turn over those responsibilities to a new, independent federal agency.