Washington — The US Department of Energy no longer plans to dispose of defense high-level radioactive waste, or HLW, and commercial spent fuel in the same repository and plans to initiate a consent-based siting process "before the end of the calendar year" that would be used to site defense and commercial nuclear waste facilities, Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz said Tuesday.
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Moniz, who was scheduled to announce the administration's plan during an address at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington later in the day, said in an interview that the department would not need new legislative authority for either action.
Congress, however, would have to authorize DOE to construct repositories for DOE-managed HLW and spent nuclear fuel and for utility spent fuel, as well as for a spent fuel interim storage facility, he said. A consent-based process, which would be used to site all nuclear waste facilities, including a defense waste repository, has yet to be developed, Moniz said.
He said in his address at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington think tank, that work on interim storage and disposal will be done in parallel. He also said that President Barack Obama on Tuesday authorized the department to begin developing a separate defense waste repository.
The administration does not plan to send proposed legislation to Congress, Moniz said in the interview, noting that a bipartisan nuclear waste bill being developed in the Senate is aimed at implementing recommendations a federal blue-ribbon commission on nuclear waste issued in 2012. Commission recommendations included using a consent-based process to site one or more interim storage facilities for utility spent fuel and one or more repositories.
That bill, meanwhile, was introduced in the US Senate Tuesday by four key members of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development. They are Senators Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska Republican who chairs the energy committee; Maria Cantwell of Washington, the senior Democrat on that panel; Lamar Alexander, a Tennessee Republican who chairs the appropriations subcommittee with jurisdiction over DOE spending; and Dianne Feinstein of California, the top Democrat on that subcommittee.
"This legislation is an important step toward advancing the use of nuclear power in America," Murkowski said in a statement.
Moniz expressed a similar sentiment during his comments at the policy center. The issue of the disposal of spent fuel has to be addressed "to ensure the viability of nuclear energy in the long term," he said.
Under existing federal law, Yucca Mountain in Nevada is the country's designated site for a deep-geologic repository that would be used to dispose of commercial and defense waste. Under the law, DOE can develop a separate repository for defense waste if needed.
The law also bars DOE from constructing a spent fuel storage facility until the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission has issued a license authorizing the department to construct a repository. DOE dismantled the Yucca Mountain project in 2010, two years after it submitted a repository license application to NRC. It attributed that action in part to the state's unyielding opposition to the proposed disposal facility.
But just how far DOE may proceed under existing law might be an issue in the US House of Representatives, where Republicans support a Yucca Mountain repository and want to see that project revived.
"We still think they need to go first with Yucca Mountain," Marvin Fertel, the president and CEO of the Nuclear Energy Institute, said after the Bipartisan Policy Center event, noting a Yucca Mountain repository is still in the law.
DOE will kick off a consent-based process with "calls for discussion" and "regional meetings," Moniz said. He indicated that details of a consent-based process could be worked out during those meetings. DOE envisions a consent-based process will "need a clear line of support from [affected] communities and a line of support at the state level and federal level," Moniz said. All three, he said, "should be working together to accomplish the goal ... to move both commercial fuel and defense waste."
Disposition of defense HLW in a separate repository reverses a decision President Ronald Reagan made in 1985 to dispose of that waste and utility spent fuel in the same repository. When asked if DOE could later use a defense HLW repository to dispose of utility spent fuel, Moniz said that a defense waste repository would be smaller than what is needed to dispose of commercial spent fuel.
A report DOE issued in October on disposal options for DOE-managed HLW and spent fuel represents about 15% of the total volume of a repository that would also dispose of commercial waste.
"Unlike the commercial SNF [spent nuclear fuel], which will continue to increase in volume throughout the operational life of the existing nuclear power plants, the inventory of DOE-managed HLW and SNF is essentially fixed and known," that report added. "With the exception of relatively small volumes of SNF from naval and research reactors that will continue to operate, all DOE-managed HLW and SNF is derived from past activities."
This new strategy on nuclear waste will not have a direct impact on DOE's target of operating a repository for commercial spent fuel by 2048, Moniz said. But siting a defense waste repository first could present a "learning situation" for siting a disposal facility for commercial spent fuel, he said.
Nuclear industry officials, however, have expressed concern about a sequential approach to developing waste repositories that would prioritize disposal of defense HLW over commercial spent fuel.
DOE's targets to begin operating a pilot facility in 2021 to store spent fuel from shuttered reactors and to begin operating a larger consolidated storage facility for spent fuel from operating nuclear units in 2025 could be moved up under this plan if new legislative authority is enacted, Moniz said.
He pointed to Waste Control Specialists, a Texas company that has expressed interest in using land it owns in West Texas for a pilot storage facility. WCS already has informed NRC it intends to submit a license application to the agency next year. WCS has said it would site, license and operate the facility but that it was hoping DOE would be its customer and use the facility to store spent fuel from permanently shut reactors.