Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Experts Weigh In On How The U.S. Should Handle Its Commercial Nuclear "Waste"

The National Journal's energy blog is asking "How Should America Handle Its Commercial Nuclear Waste?" So far, four experts have weighed in: Chuck Gray from the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, David Kreutzer from the Heritage Foundation, Thomas Gibson from the American Iron and Steel Institute, and NEI's new CEO Marv Fertel. Here's what Marv had to say:

Since Congress passed the Nuclear Waste Policy Act in 1982, our nation has been pursuing a path for the ultimate disposal of used nuclear fuel using a once-through fuel cycle.

Given the clear need for expansion of nuclear energy programs in the United States and worldwide, the nuclear industry proposed two years ago that our nation should revisit the decision to use a once-through fuel cycle. Instead, we should pursue a closed fuel cycle that includes recycling. This integrated approach includes at-reactor storage, private sector or government-owned centralized storage, research and development on recycling technology and continued development and licensing of a federal repository.

It is clear that President Obama may not support opening the Yucca Mountain repository even if it receives a license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Given federal government’s legal obligation to fulfill its responsibility under the law, the industry believes the NRC’s review of the Yucca Mountain license application should continue.

In parallel, the administration should convene an independent panel of the best scientific, environmental, engineering and public policy leaders to fully investigate the critical issues and make a recommendation to President Obama and Congress on how best to proceed with managing used nuclear fuel.

NEI’s approach to developing an integrated nuclear fuel management program includes the following concepts:

First, we recognize that since used nuclear fuel can be safely and securely stored for an extended period of time, interim storage represents a strategic element of an integrated program. Therefore, we can continue on-site storage of used reactor fuel while candidates are identified for volunteer private or government-licensed sites for consolidation of used nuclear fuel.

Consolidating used fuel at private or government centralized storage facilities is necessary for the federal government to begin meeting its legal commitment. Initially, centralized facilities should provide storage for reactor fuel from power plants that have been shut down. DOE also needs to address its obligation for the removal and disposal of high-level radioactive waste from government sites.

Second, the federal government should collaborate with the private sector and other countries on a research and development, demonstration and deployment program to recycle reactor fuel in a way that is safe, environmentally acceptable, enhances the worldwide nonproliferation regime and makes sense economically. France, the United Kingdom and Japan recycle used nuclear fuel and the United States should be constructively engaged in this technology development. Through recycling, we can reclaim and reuse a significant amount of energy that remains in uranium fuel and reduce the volume and toxicity of radioactive byproducts that ultimately will be placed in a repository.

Third, even with recycling, a geologic repository will be needed for the ultimate disposal of the waste byproducts. However, the characteristics of the waste form requiring disposal will influence the design of the repository. Although licensing of the Yucca Mountain repository should continue, the results of an independent commission’s strategic assessment of the overall approach to used fuel and defense waste management should provide direction on the characteristics of the repository program.

If the administration unilaterally decides to abandon the Yucca Mountain project without enacting new legislation to modify existing law, it should expect new lawsuits seeking further damage payments as well as likely requests for refunding at least $22 billion already collected from consumers that has not been spent on the program from the Nuclear Waste Fund. State regulators last week warned that if administration or congressional actions curtail the Yucca project, they will take legal or legislative action to protect the balance of the fund and escrow future consumer payments.

Further, given the uncertain path forward for the Yucca Mountain project and these difficult economic times, Energy Secretary Steven Chu should reduce the fee paid by consumers to cover only licensing costs incurred by DOE, NRC and Nevada local units of government that provide oversight on the program.

Secretary Chu pledged to use the best possible scientific analysis to determine a path forward on nuclear waste disposal. With interim storage, we have sufficient time to examine the country’s used fuel policy. Regardless of whether this is done by a blue ribbon commission or by Congress, this step must be taken now.

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