Nuclear waste repository 'inescapable', according to draft Blue Ribbon Commission report

6 June 2011

Two subcommittees of the USA's Blue Ribbon Commission on the future of nuclear power set up by president Barack Obama have published draft reports to the commission. The disposal subcommittee has determined that the need for a disposal solution 'inescapable'—and a mined repository the most promising option— despite internal differences about whether disposed fuel should be recoverable. The transportation and disposal subcommittee has recommended building consolidated interim waste storage facilities.

The disposal subcommittee report said:

"Throughout, our inquiry and our deliberations have been informed by an underlying conviction that this generation has an ethical responsibility to begin implementing a durable, integrated management strategy and solutions that will enable disposal of spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive wastes. If we do not—if more years and decades elapse and we do nothing—we will have made a decision of another kind: a decision to accept the continued accumulation of spent fuel at many dozens of sites around the nation. After recent events in Japan, that prospect can no longer be viewed in the same light. It is still too early to draw definitive conclusions from Fukushima, but if there is one thing that crisis clearly underscores it is that delay and inaction, as much as action, produces its own set of risks and consequences."

Both subcommittees have welcomed comments on their reports to be received by 1 July. A draft of the full commission's main report will be due out before 29 July 2011, and a final report from the commission is due to be handed to the US secretary of energy six months later (29 January 2012).

An interim waste store preserves options, provides construction experience, would allow shut-down sites to close completely, can be sited in low-risk zones, and help resolve the financial liability impasse between the nuclear industry and government, the transport and disposal subcommittee report said. However, it warned that interim storage must be connected to a longer-term geological repository plan; it is not intended to be a substitute for a long-term solution.

The disposal subcommittee advised establishing a new governmental organisation—and not the Department of Energy—to develop and implement transport, storage and disposal of nuclear waste.

Both subcommittees said that the existing Nuclear Waste Fund programme is not working properly and needs to be reformed. In addition, the disposal subcommittee found the approach of the 1987 Nuclear Waste Policy Act amendments—inflexible, prescriptive, and seemingly political—to be at odds with good recent practice in Finland and Sweden's repository processes, which fostered a culture favouring consent, adaptability, and scientific methods.

Existing methods of storage on nuclear sites are not unsafe, provided they are managed properly, the transport and storage subcommittee said. However, it added that research on some aspects of fuel storage need to be continued, particularly fuel degradation, which is based on lower-burnup fuels, and shorter storage terms than are common today.

However, neither committee was uniformly negative; the disposal subcommittee praised the existing relationship between the DOE and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board. The transport and storage subcommittee praised the current system for fuel transport.

The disposal committee recognised the complexity involved in repository siting. It avoided making specific recommendations for what the role of the local government (state or tribe) might be: "A facility for the isolation of spent nuclear fuel and high-level waste will only be constructed as a result of very complex negotiations between the federal government and state, tribal, and local governments. Therefore, the Subcommittee believes it would be unwise to attempt to suggest a specific strategy for engaging with state, tribal, and local government authorities at the outset."

 



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