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Lack of Trust – and a Proposed Dump in Texas – Threaten the U.S. Department of Energy’s Attempt to Restart the Federal High-Level Radioactive Waste Management Program

August 1, 2016

Lack of Trust – and a Proposed Dump in Texas – Threaten the U.S. Department of Energy’s Attempt to Restart the Federal High-Level Radioactive Waste Management Program

WASHINGTON, D.C. – As it decides what constitutes community consent to a nuclear waste dump, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) should acknowledge its past mistakes, be responsive to public input and disavow attempts by the private sector to site a nuclear waste storage facility in Texas, Public Citizen has told the agency.

Public Citizen submitted its comments (PDF) on Sunday in response to the agency’s invitation for public input on how it should go about establishing sites for high-level nuclear waste facilities.

Over the past six months, the department has been holding public hearings across the country to solicit public input on and move forward consent-based siting, a new approach to siting nuclear waste storage and disposal facilities.

The concept of consent-based siting, part of recommendations made in 2012 by the Obama administration’s Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future, reportedly has enjoyed success in other countries pursuing nuclear waste disposal. It has been touted as a potential antidote to the four decades of failed nuclear waste policy in the U.S. and has been embraced by the DOE.

But the success of this process and its aim to reset the federal radioactive waste program is already jeopardized. While the DOE is deciding what constitutes consent, an application for a new, high-level radioactive waste dump in Andrews County, Texas, is moving through the process at the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Waste Control Specialists, which now operates a low-level radioactive waste dump there, wants to expand. Its plan would involve more than 10,000 shipments of radioactive waste generated across much of the United States over 20 or more years.

“This proposal for ‘interim storage’ in Texas is putting the cart before the horse and is clearly at cross purposes with the DOE’s effort to develop a new approach that is safe, adaptive, staged and aimed at achieving state and community consent for storing our country’s lethal nuclear waste,” said Tom “Smitty” Smith, director of Public Citizen’s Texas office. “While the Blue Ribbon Commission and Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz tout Texas and New Mexico as communities that might want this waste, the DOE has failed to even hold hearings in the targeted West Texas community to ascertain what the citizens think would constitute consent. This blatant omission further erodes public trust in the DOE and could derail its new approach before it even begins. To correct course, the agency should publicly oppose WCS’ proposal as premature.”

Added Allison Fisher, outreach director for Public Citizen’s Energy Program, “The DOE has an opportunity to overhaul an agency culture that has systematically disregarded the public and failed to meet its commitments. But it is already wasting it. Acknowledging its past and present shortcomings – including failing the people of Andrews County – and taking steps to correct its mistakes are the first step to saving consent-based siting from becoming another blot on the DOE’s record.”

Other recommendations by Public Citizen include:

  • Stop promoting nuclear power. The DOE has, in part, framed the need for a nuclear waste repository as essential to continuing to use nuclear power. By conflating its role as a waste manager with that of a nuclear advocate, the DOE is inviting wariness and skepticism into the process.
  • Reconsider consolidated storage. The DOE’s pursuit of consolidating nuclear waste at one or more facilities is ill-conceived and is motivated by politics and profits rather than safety. It would needlessly require the waste to be moved twice, would draw resources and attention away from siting a permanent repository and could condemn those temporary sites to indefinite waste management facilities. Once waste is “stored” and title is transferred to the federal government, the site will likely become the nation’s permanent repository because the utilities will no longer be lobbying to get the waste off their sites. Plus, a costly and controversial waste repository will be at the bottom of Congress’ funding priority list.
  • Acknowledge past and present mistakes. From mismanaged federal facilities and unmanaged contractors, to disregard for public input, to whistleblower retaliation, the DOE is far from a model agency. To begin to restore trust, the DOE should admit to its shortcomings and announce a break with the past by taking corrective measures.
  • Implement transportation recommendations. A 2006 National Academy of Science report found that the DOE must take steps to adequately plan for a national spent fuel transportation campaign and engage with stakeholders. But nearly a decade later, many of the report’s recommendations have yet to be implemented. Worse, the routes for transporting the waste won’t be finalized until the next decade, making it difficult for all the potentially affected communities to give informed consent.
  • Refrain from setting deadlines that are unachievable.