Congress needs to end stalemate on nuclear waste strategy

Milwaukee Journal SentinelJuly 9, 2014 

The following editorial appeared in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel on Tuesday, July 8:

Nuclear waste storage casks at the Kewaunee nuclear power plant on the Lake Michigan shoreline serve as a potent reminder of a national failure: the inability to come up with a coherent strategy with sufficient funding on what to do about nuclear waste.

After years of debate and billions of dollars spent to develop a site at Nevada's Yucca Mountain, the Obama administration ended that project in 2010 and started over. Which in Washington-ese often means "nothing gets done."

There are smart recommendations on what to do. Options include recycling spent fuel so that it can be used again by power plants, thus reducing the volume and toxicity of waste, and building regional facilities, as a blue-ribbon commission recommended, to store the waste. Those avenues need to be pursued, but while the Senate is willing, the House - surprise, surprise - wants to revisit the Yucca option and so Congress remains in stalemate on developing any depositories.

The Department of Energy issued a report on nuclear waste in January 2013 that noted that at the time "more than 68,000 metric tons heavy metal (MTHM) of used nuclear fuel are stored at 72 commercial power plants around the country with approximately 2,000 MTHM added to that amount every year."

The administration's report said that "with the appropriate authorizations from Congress, the administration currently plans to implement a program over the next 10 years" that would begin operation of a pilot storage facility by 2021 and a larger interim facility by 2025 and work on more permanent regional facilities by 2048.

Having closed the Yucca option, the recommendations of the blue ribbon commission and the administration make sense. But without congressional action, nothing gets done and those casks - which provide safe storage for now - continue to pile up at nuclear plants.

To its credit, the owner of Kewaunee, which stopped producing electricity more than a year ago because power from natural gas plants was cheaper, is trying to move faster to make it a safer place. Under pressure from local officials, Dominion Resources Inc. has moved to speed up plans to empty a pool where radioactive used nuclear rods are now stored and put the rods in more secure long-term storage.

Dominion's plan calls for moving the spent fuel from the pool by the end of 2016. The rods will be encased in 24 concrete casks, each standing 18 feet tall, that will be moved from the reactor building to a concrete pad outside, said Dominion spokesman Mark Kanz.

That process should be expedited, as should the decommissioning of the plant, something else local officials are pushing. While the closing of the plant could hurt Wisconsin's ability to meet federal climate change standards, since the plant is being closed and Dominion is moving faster on the spent fuel, it makes sense to speed up the entire decommissioning process from the original plan of 60 years.

Now, if only Congress could move a little faster on a national strategy for nuclear waste.

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