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FYI Number 82: June 1, 2005

House Approves Planning for Interim Nuclear Waste Storage and Reprocessing

The transport and interim storage of commercial spent nuclear fuel at centralized sites and its eventual reprocessing was given a significant boost on May 24 during House consideration of the FY 2006 Energy and Water Development Appropriations Bill. Representatives rejected an amendment to reduce funding for the planning of these activities by a vote of almost 3-to-1.

The House Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee included extensive language regarding the disposition of spent nuclear fuel in House Report 109-086 that accompanied H.R. 2419. It is evident from the report and from floor debate that appropriators are dissatisfied with the status quo, and are using this funding bill to change the current policy of on-site spent fuel storage at nuclear plants while awaiting eventual disposal at a permanent repository. The report speaks of the current system as creating "a costly and unnecessary security risk." It predicts that initial operations at the Yucca Mountain repository might be delayed until the later half of the next decade, estimating that it costs the federal government $1 billion for every year of delay. The report states that the waste produced by 2010 would fully utilize Yucca Mountain's authorized capacity, necessitating a second repository.

Appropriators outlined two steps that DOE should take in nonbinding report language. First, "the Committee believes the Department should move aggressively to take title to commercial spent fuel and consolidate such fuel in a smaller number of more secure, above-ground interim storage facilities located at existing DOE facilities." "[P]ossible alternative DOE sites include Hanford, Idaho, and Savannah River, all of which presently store government-owned spent fuel and high level waste and both of which already have extensive security measures in place." If these sites are found to be impracticable, DOE should investigate "other federally-owned sites, closed military bases, and non-federal fuel storage facilities." An implementation plan must be prepared by DOE within 120 days of the bill's enactment.

The report contains extensive language on nuclear fuel reprocessing. "[T]he Committee directs the Department to prepare an integrated spent fuel recycling plan for implementation in fiscal year 2007, including selection of an advanced reprocessing technology and a competitive process to select one or more sites to develop integrated spent fuel recycling facilities (i.e., reprocessing, preparation of mixed oxide fuel, vitrification of high level waste products, and temporary process storage," the report declares. The report cites the PUREX reprocessing technology used in some European countries, and says, "There is no evidence that these reprocessing operations pose a significant proliferation risk." New nuclear reactors will also reduce dependence on imported fossil fuels, the appropriators said.

When the House considered the appropriations bill, Representatives Ed Markey (D-MA), Rush Holt (D-NJ) and Jay Inslee (D-WA) offered an amendment to transfer $15.5 million that is to be used for reprocessing and interim storage programs to energy efficiency programs. Markey told his colleagues that "this is a huge moment," and argued that reprocessing increases the opportunities for nuclear proliferation, is unsafe, is too expensive, and that the money would be better spent for other programs. Holt argued "Such a step must not be taken lightly, with no hearings, no authorizing legislation, no public input, no analysis of the implications for nuclear proliferation, not even an analysis of the cost to taxpayers." Appropriations subcommittee chairman David Hobson (R-OH) disagreed, saying "This country would be foolish to ignore the potential benefits of new technologies."

The House voted against the amendment: 110 yes to 312 no (see ) The bill now moves to the Senate Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee, chaired by Pete Domenici (R-NM). Domenici has actively promoted nuclear energy, and it would not be surprising if he accepts Hobson's strategy on the storage and reprocessing of spent fuel.

Richard M. Jones
Media and Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics

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