Senate Hearing on Bipartisan Nuclear Waste Legislation

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Publication date: 
20 September 2013

An important hearing on managing the nation’s domestic and defense nuclear waste was held by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee earlier this summer.  While there is much work to be done to resolve the decades-long impasse over the disposition of tens of thousands of tons of nuclear waste, the hearing demonstrated a new willingness to craft a workable bipartisan solution.

A bill’s sponsors are a key indicator of its strength, and in this regard, S. 1240, the Nuclear Waste Administration Act is notable.  The bill is sponsored by Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR) and committee Ranking Member Lisa Murkowski (R-AK).  It is also sponsored by Senate Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and committee Ranking Member Lamar Alexander (R-TN).  All four senators collaborated on this legislation. 

Congress has long been divided by the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository.  S. 1240 looks beyond this controversy with a two-track strategy of consolidated interim storage and a larger permanent repository for future radioactive waste than the anticipated capacity of Yucca Mountain.  Importantly, the bill entails a local and state consent-based process for the siting of the storage and repository facilities.  A new federal independent agency would manage this waste.

The bill’s major provisions would implement many of the recommendations of the President’s Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future.  The commission was established by President Obama following his administration’s decision in 2010 to terminate further work on the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository.  The 180-page report was completed in early 2012. The Energy and Natural Resources Committee held a series of favorable hearings on the bill last year, and Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), the now retired chairman of the committee, introduced a bill drawing on many of the commission’s recommendations.  Indicative of the difficulty of this issue was Bingaman’s failure to secure additional cosponsors for his bill that linked establishment of an interim storage facility to ratification of a consent agreement for a permanent repository. 

A section-by-section summary of the new bill written by the committee describes the relationship between the interim pilot storage facility and the permanent repository as follows:

“For 10 years after the enactment of the Act, the [Nuclear Waste Administration] Administrator may site storage facilities and ship fuel as long as funds have been obligated toward the siting and/or construction of a repository.  After 10 years, the Administrator may not site an additional storage facility unless one or more sites have been selected for evaluation.”

Under this bill, spent nuclear fuel could be sent to a pilot interim storage facility before agreement was reached on a repository site(s).  Highest priority would be given to spent fuel now being stored at twelve closed nuclear plants.  A committee document states there is no waste volume restriction at the storage site(s).  Siting of the interim site could begin immediately.  Further information on the bill is available here.

In their opening remarks, Chairman Wyden and Ranking Member Murkowski commented that even if their legislation is passed that it will be many years before all 70,000 metric tons of spent fuel at nuclear plants is moved.  Murkowski cited a Department of Energy estimate that it would take 12 to 15 years to transfer spent fuel from closed nuclear plants.

While the Administration has not taken a position on the legislation, I believe it is a promising framework for addressing key issues,” said Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz as the hearing’s first witness.  He spoke of there being ‘no end in sight” for the dispute over Yucca Mountain, warning that “the stalemate could continue indefinitely.”  Moniz explained that a January 2013 DOE strategic plan is a path forward for discussions between the Administration and Congress, and stated, “I appear before this committee today to reinforce that the Administration is ready and willing to engage with both chambers of Congress to move forward.”

Regarding the key issue of linkage between interim and permanent storage facilities, Moniz testified:

“The rationale for deploying interim storage in no way minimizes the need for a permanent disposal capability, and the Administration is committed to advancing development of both interim storage and geologic disposal facilities in parallel, even though they may become operational at different times. The development of geologic disposal capacity is currently the most cost-effective way of permanently disposing of used nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste while minimizing the burden on future generations."

Referring to the Blue Ribbon Commission (BRC), Moniz continued:

“The Administration agrees with the BRC that linkage between storage and disposal is critical to maintaining confidence in the overall system. Therefore, efforts to implement storage capabilities within the next 10 years will be accompanied by actions to engage in a consent-based siting process and initiate preliminary site investigations for a geologic repository.”

Moniz later explained that “No matter how many facilities or what specific form they take, a consent-based approach to siting is critical to success. The Administration supports working with Congress to develop a consent-based process that is transparent, adaptive, and technically sound.”

In his answers to questions from Wyden and Murkowski, Moniz appeared satisfied with the bill’s linkage between interim storage and permanent repositories, and commented that while the ten year schedule is aggressive it is “quite feasible.”  He also felt it was appropriate to examine whether the sites should hold defense nuclear waste.  Moniz spoke of the importance of communities having confidence that work on geological repositories is moving forward.  When questioned about the willingness of communities to accept nuclear waste, Moniz replied that there will “absolutely” be such communities, although when pressed for names, said “I cannot go there.” 

The committee heard from a second panel of witnesses providing the perspective of state legislatures, Native Americans, utility commissioners, local governments, the nuclear industry, and environmentalists.  There was a considerable range of opinion about the merits of the bill.  The sentiments expressed by these witnesses demonstrate that while there is more to be done to achieve consensus on a nuclear waste bill, there is now a legislative framework that senior Republican and Democratic senators and the Administration agree upon that represents, as Moniz said, a way to move forward.