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How to store nuclear waste? Panel slams US and urges new approach.

A presidential blue ribbon commission says the US government 'has not inspired confidence' and recommends that a new agency take over the search for storage sites for nuclear waste.

By Staff writer / July 29, 2011

This 399 foot-long trailer assembly is set to haul the retired steam generator component from The San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station in San Onofre, Calif. on July 26, 2011. The192-wheel trailer will make four trips this year to haul old steam generator parts from the California nuclear power plant to Utah for disposal.

Jebb Harris/Orange County Register/AP

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Saying the US government “has not inspired confidence or trust” in nuclear waste management, a presidential commission recommended Friday the creation of a new federal corporation to spearhead a “consent-based” approach to finding sites to store highly radioactive spent fuel and military waste.

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The highly anticipated report by President Obama’s Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future also calls for new interim storage facilities to hold used nuclear fuel until permanent underground repositories can be developed – and legislation to grant the new federal entity access to federal nuclear waste funds.

“The Blue Ribbon Commission concludes that the United States needs a new, integrated strategy for managing the back end of the nuclear fuel cycle, including, in particular, a new approach to siting nuclear waste storage and disposal facilities,” the commission wrote.

Creating a new federal entity to take up the quest for a site is key since the Department of Energy’s credibility has been damaged in the decades-long failed process of trying to open a permanent repository at Yucca Mountain, Nev. Efforts to site the repository at Yucca Mountain ran into persistent political roadblocks and technical faults. Finally, President Obama and the Department of Energy pulled the plug on Yucca in early 2010.

“The overall record of DOE and of the federal government as a whole ... has not inspired confidence or trust in our nation’s nuclear waste management program,” the commission writes in the executive summary of the commission's draft. “For this and other reasons, the Commission concludes that new institutional leadership is needed.”

The US currently has more than 75,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel stacked up at 122 temporary sites in 39 states across the US, according to DOE reports. The nation's 104 commercial nuclear reactors produce about 2,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel annually. Thousands more tons of high-level military waste also need a final home.

Mr. Obama handed the commission the problem of what to do with spent nuclear fuel that will be dangerously radioactive for millennia and a big problem if it gets into the environment. Currently, spent-fuel pools and dry above-ground casks at reactor sites are being used for temporary storage. But a secure geologic site for permanent story remains key if nuclear power is to expand and the amount of spent fuel increases.

Overall, the commission recommends a strategy with seven elements, including:

• A new approach to siting and developing nuclear waste management and disposal facilities in the United States that is “adaptive, staged, consent-based, transparent, and standards- and science-based.”

• A new, “single-purpose organization” to develop a focused, integrated program for transportation, storage, and disposal of nuclear waste nationwide.

• Assured access by the nuclear waste management program to billions of dollars accumulating in the federal Nuclear Waste Fund and to revenues generated by annual nuclear waste fee payments.

• Prompt efforts to swiftly develop one or more permanent deep geological facilities for the safe disposal of spent fuel and high-level nuclear waste.

• Prompt efforts to develop one or more consolidated interim storage facilities as part of an integrated, comprehensive plan for managing the back end of the nuclear fuel cycle.

• Stable, long-term support for research, development, and demonstration (RD&D) on advanced reactor and fuel cycle technologies.

• International leadership to address global nonproliferation concerns and improve the safety and security of nuclear facilities and materials worldwide.

Nuclear industry representatives welcomed the report.

“A number of recommendations in the report strike the nuclear energy industry as sensible, desirable and, given time, achievable,” said senior vice president for governmental affairs, Alex Flint, in a statement. The industry, he said, concurs with the Blue Ribbon Commission’s idea that consolidated interim storage would provide “valuable flexibility” in the nuclear waste management system.

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