Nuclear energy is “absolutely critical” to addressing climate change, but the United States can no longer ignore the conundrum at the back end of the fuel cycle — how to dispose of highly radioactive waste, federal officials acknowledged Tuesday, Nov. 30.
Kathryn Huff, principal deputy assistant secretary for nuclear energy with the U.S. Department of Energy, announced the restart of an Obama-era push for “consent-based siting.” The idea is to create centralized, community-embraced but temporary storage sites for millions of pounds of spent fuel that’s piled up at reactors nationwide, even while the prickly issue of permanent storage is parsed.
“Management of the fuel is the responsibility of the DOE,” Huff said. “We cannot continue to defer this challenge for future generations to figure out. … Communities did not agree to host this waste in the very long term.”
That’s exactly what critics demanding the removal of 3.6 million pounds of “stranded waste” at the shuttered San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station have been saying for years.
The DOE isn’t looking for volunteer communities to host the waste just yet, but instead wants folks to weigh in on how to fairly and equitably identify sites for interim storage; share thoughts on the consent-based siting process itself and how to remove barriers to meaningful participation; and on the role of interim storage in the nation’s overall nuclear waste management plan.
Comments can be sent to email@example.com. Responses must be received by 2 p.m. Pacific Time on March 4.
Also, a Q&A with Huff is slated for 11 a.m. Pacific Time on Dec. 7. Register at https://bit.ly/3E9JHbR.
“Hearing from and then working with communities interested in hosting one of these facilities is the best way to finally solve the nation’s spent nuclear fuel management issues,” Secretary of Energy Jennifer M. Granholm said in a prepared statement. “We know there are real benefits from jobs to new infrastructure that will result in interest in areas across the country. The public’s input is central to identifying those locations to make this process as inclusive and effective as possible.”
This federal push is separate and distinct from two private, commercial temporary storage facilities proposed in Texas and New Mexico. The DOE hopes to announce funding opportunities in connection with its push next year, but Huff said it will take many years to get things up and running.
“Commercial spent nuclear fuel is extremely dangerous if not managed properly,” the Government Accountability Office said in a recent examination of the nation’s decades-long paralysis over the issue. “About 86,000 metric tons of this fuel is stored on-site at 75 operating or shutdown nuclear power plants in 33 states, an amount that grows by about 2,000 metric tons each year.”
The radioisotopes produced in a reactor can remain hazardous from a few days to many thousands of years, the GAO said.
“The longer it takes the federal government to resolve the current impasse and develop a solution for the permanent disposal of commercial spent nuclear fuel, the greater the potential risk to the environment and public health, or of security incidents associated with temporary on-site storage,” the report said. “(T)he safety of long-term dry cask storage is unknown, and the risks, such as environmental and health risks, of on-site storage increase the longer the fuel is stored there.”
Attempted sabotage and theft of radioactive material also are potential security risks, the report said. Paralysis is also expensive: The DOE was supposed to start accepting commercial waste in 1998, and its failure to do so will cost taxpayers some $40 million, the GAO said.
Collaboration with local communities has allowed other nations to make real progress on permanent disposal, and Huff said the same can happen here.
“This is a widely anticipated move that is part of a fresh effort by the federal government to make progress on dealing with spent fuel,” said David Victor, a professor at UC San Diego and chair of San Onofre’s volunteer Community Engagement Panel, by email. “One of the key questions that has nagged the process is what ‘consent’ really means. This … is an effort to elicit views on that question. It also reflects that DOE more generally is getting organized to launch the ‘interim storage’ process.”
This request for information asks a lot of questions and will elicit a whole lot of reaction, but three things really matter, he said: It will reveal which other communities are as concerned as people are in Southern California, and they may become political allies. While Huff put the effort in the context of zero carbon emissions, a serious strategy for spent fuel is long overdue. And, finally, the U.S. is simply lagging behind.
“Other societies — notably Finland and Canada — are finding ways forward,” Victor said. “The problems are political and they hinge on getting consent from the communities where spent fuel is stored.”
Southern California Edison, which oversees San Onofre’s dismantlement and is eager to get the waste off the bluff, is encouraged.
“This is an important issue for SCE and the communities surrounding San Onofre, and we look forward to working with DOE to develop safe and workable solutions,” spokesman John Dobken said by email.
“We see the issue of consent as a critical part of restarting the federal spent fuel management program. Internationally, consent has emerged as one of the most important elements of siting spent fuel facilities. As we work toward long-term solutions, SCE will continue to safely store the spent nuclear fuel located on site until it can be relocated.”
U.S. Rep. Mike Levin, D-San Juan Capistrano, has been pushing on the nuclear waste issue for years, convening a task force, co-chairing a bipartisan Spent Nuclear Fuel Solutions Caucus and championing the $20 million set aside for interim storage in legislation that was signed into law last year.
“I applaud the Department of Energy for today’s long-awaited announcement that takes another step towards removing the spent fuel stored on the beach at San Onofre,” Levin said in a prepared statement. “My colleagues and I worked hard to secure the funding that made it possible to restart DOE’s consent-based siting program for spent fuel. The federal government has a responsibility to address the nation’s spent nuclear fuel challenge, but history has shown us that without the consent of the communities that will be involved with the solutions, we are unlikely to succeed.”
Huff said simply that the renewed effort “will help drive us toward the clean energy future we all need.” For more information, see energy.gov/consentbasedsiting.
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Author: Teri Sforza