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Senators’ Proposed New Nuclear Waste Legislation Repackages Failed Strategy of the Past

April 25, 2013

Senators’ Proposed New Nuclear Waste Legislation Repackages Failed Strategy of the Past

Statement of Allison Fisher, Outreach Director, Public Citizen’s Energy Program

After 30 years of failed nuclear waste policy, the Nuclear Waste Administration Act of 2013, introduced by four senior U.S. senators today, does little to correct the fundamental flaws in our country’s approach to nuclear waste management.

The primary aim of sound nuclear waste legislation must be the establishment of a safe and secure facility for the permanent disposal of our country’s stockpile of lethal nuclear waste, while minimizing the number of times toxic waste is handled and transported. The Nuclear Waste Administration Act of 2013 does not achieve this goal.

The proposal, released by Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), includes some positive modifications to our government’s strategy for managing and disposing of the nation’s waste stockpile, but ultimately the bill is undercut by the inclusion of an old failed scheme to shuttle the U.S. stockpile of nuclear waste to a temporary consolidated storage facility and move it again once a permanent repository has been constructed.

Consolidated interim storage is an old plan that didn’t work when it was first introduced 30 years ago, or any of the myriad times it’s been proposed, because it does nothing to address broader storage and disposal issues. In fact, it arguably exacerbates the issues associated with spent fuel disposal:

  • The extra transportation would unnecessarily put tons of lethal radioactive waste on our highways, rails and waterways, increasing risks to the public. An accident in transit could be a major disaster.
  • It would condemn a few targeted communities to being radioactive waste dumps for the whole country. Past attempts to place temporary dumps targeted Indian reservations and poor communities of color.
  • It does not address an existing critical vulnerability of nuclear waste storage: Almost all reactor fuel pools are filled to capacity. Fuel that is cool enough to move is stored in outdoor casks. Both types of storage are vulnerable to accidents, attacks and natural disasters, as shown so clearly by the Fukushima disaster.

Rather, the primary purpose of moving the waste to a temporary site is to satisfy the grave legislative blunder ratified by the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982: that the federal government not only would take possession of commercial nuclear waste, but that it would begin accepting waste for disposal in 1998. To that end, the 1982 legislation authorized the Department of Energy to enter into contracts with utilities for federal removal of spent fuel from reactor sites beginning by 1998 in return for a fee on utilities’ sales of electricity generated by nuclear power.

Because the federal government is 15 years late on accepting the waste, it is pushing a strategy that prioritizes the resolution of financial liabilities rather than ensuring safety and security. Instead of focusing on real solutions that are governed by its mandate to protect communities and the environment, the U.S. government repeatedly has attempted to reform waste policy with the single goal of meeting its contractual obligations.

The draft bill makes the same mistake, and even worse: It eliminates a key provision from the previous iteration of the bill – the Nuclear Waste Administration Act of 2012 – which links the construction and siting of a consolidated storage facility to progress on creating a repository. The 2012 act prohibited the operation of storage facilities for spent nuclear fuel until the government submits an application for licensing a repository. The current proposal has no such requirement.

Moving the toxic waste from the reactors to temporary storage would resolve the government’s statutory obligation to take the waste, but it would eliminate the incentive to pursue a permanent solution, making the storage sites the de facto disposal site.