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US DOE plans to launch consent-based process to site nuclear waste facilities

The US Department of Energy is launching a consent-based process to site spent fuel storage and disposal facilities, as well as a separate repository for defense high-level waste, and expects to be in the second phase of that process by the end of next year, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz said in an interview Friday.

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This will mark a revamping of the country's approach to managing and disposing utility spent fuel. DOE efforts to deal with utility spent fuel have been in limbo since 2010, when the department dismantled the high-level waste repository project at Yucca Mountain, Nevada, in part because of the state's opposition to that proposed disposal facility.

A consent-based process would replace the "top-down" process the federal government used to designate Yucca Mountain as the country's sole candidate for a HLW repository, despite objections from the state of Nevada and the state's congressional delegation.

When asked if a consent-based process would mean support Nye County, Nevada, officials expressed for a repository at Yucca Mountain, located in the county, would be explored, Moniz said the department would need to see "support and openness [to the process] at the various political levels," including the state level, from the start to pursue a consent-based process anywhere.

Although Moniz said he "did not want to rule anything out," he noted that the department's consent-based process would "need communities and states as partners to get across the finish line."

Still, even with interest already expressed by companies and communities, as well as some state-level support, in Texas and New Mexico on siting private-sector storage facilities, Moniz said DOE's 2021 target for having a pilot facility operating to store spent fuel from permanently shut reactors likely would be missed by a few years.

The pilot facility is part of the nuclear waste strategy DOE unveiled in 2013, a year after a federal blue ribbon commission on nuclear waste recommended a consent-based process be used to site one or more spent fuel storage facilities in the US and one or more repositories. The DOE strategy, like the consent-based siting process it has proposed, adopts the blue ribbon commission's recommendations.

Moniz, a former Massachusetts Institute of Technology physics professor, was a member of the blue ribbon commission before becoming energy secretary in May 2013.

The DOE strategy also envisions a larger consolidated facility that would begin storing spent fuel from operating reactors in 2025 and that a repository would begin disposing utility spent fuel in 2048. Those dates also might have to be pushed back, but a lot could depend on when Congress passes legislation authorizing a consent-based siting process.

DOE has the authority to talk with communities and states, but it cannot "get into developing any site" without new authorization, Moniz said. He added there also are "potential gray areas where the department would want to see congressional authorization, such as the use of a private facility," noting that is "an area where the private sector would rather see specific language."

Current law only refers to the use of federal facilities for the interim storage of utility spent fuel.

The department will kick off the new consent-based process Wednesday, when a DOE notice is published in the Federal Register, Moniz said. In the first phase, DOE will seek comments from the public and interested groups on what they believe should be involved in a consent-based siting process, he said. The department will "follow up in the first half of 2016 with a series of public meetings," he said.

In phase 2, the department will document what it heard in phase 1, Moniz said. He said he expects the department will be in phase 2 by the end of 2016, as President Barack Obama's term ends.

"I think there will be varying timescales for interest in different facilities," Moniz said, adding that DOE, in phase 3, would "work closely with communities that have come forward."

This same process holds true for communities and/or states interested in a defense HLW repository.

In March, the Obama administration authorized DOE to develop a repository that would be used only to dispose of HLW for US defense programs. The defense waste is generally older, and hence, cooler, than utility spent fuel slated for disposal. In addition, there is a fixed amount of that material, while the US spent-fuel inventory, now around 74,000 mt, grows at an annual rate of about 2,000 mt.

Moniz has said that a defense waste repository would offer a "valuable learning experience" on how to proceed with a repository for utility spent fuel.

DOE will seek funding to pursue this work for fiscal 2017, which starts October 1, 2016. The department sought $30 million in fiscal 2016 to start work on a consent-based process, which was included in the omnibus spending bill that both chambers of the US Congress passed and Obama signed Friday.

--Elaine Hiruo,
--Edited by Valarie Jackson,