U.S. must start from scratch with a new nuclear waste strategy: Experts

After describing the Sisyphean history of the U.S. nuclear waste management and disposal program, the report makes recommendations all focused around a final goal: long-term disposal of highly radioactive waste in a mined, geologic repository.

“Most importantly, the United States has taken its eyes off the prize, that is, disposal of highly radioactive nuclear waste in a deep-mined geologic repository,” said Allison Macfarlane, a member of the steering committee and a professor of public policy and international affairs at George Washington University. “Spent nuclear fuel stored above ground – either in pools or dry casks – is not a solution. These facilities will eventually degrade. And, if not monitored and cared for, they will contaminate our environment.”

Not a new idea abroad
The new, independent, utility-owned organization would control spent fuel from the time it is removed from reactors until its final disposal in a geologic repository. This is not a new idea. Finland, Sweden, Switzerland and Canada all have adopted a similar approach – and their nuclear waste management programs are moving forward. Finland expects to receive its first spent fuel at its geologic repository on the island of Olkiluoto in the mid-2020s.

“Initially, I was skeptical about placing utilities with nuclear power plants in control of the spent fuel from commercial reactors,” said Ewing. “But as we discussed the advantages of this cradle-to-grave approach, I was persuaded, particularly because this is the approach taken by other successful programs.”

Essential to the success of a new organization would be access to the Nuclear Waste Fund. Reassigning responsibility to a new organization – whether controlled by the federal government or nuclear utilities – would require an act of Congress. The report recommends that the Nuclear Waste Fund, more than $40 billion, be transferred to the new organization over several decades. If the new organization successfully develops a geologic repository, this repository could also be used for highly radioactive defense waste.

“The status quo is a big liability for the future of nuclear power, an established source of carbon-free electricity,” said Sally Benson, co-director of Stanford’s Precourt Institute for Energy and a member of the report’s steering committee. “These recommendations will, I hope, break the gridlock in Washington and prompt concrete action to solve this problem.”

Among the recommendations

— Public engagement is critical. The new organization would be required to work with all interested parties: local, state and tribal governments, as well as public interest groups, industry, academia and regulators to ensure that all relevant views become part of the overall strategy for dealing with waste. Further, local communities, states and tribes should have a well-defined opportunity to say “no” to a geologic repository.

Local communities, Native American tribes and states should receive funding to conduct their own reviews of the strategy and safety of a site.

The new organization should focus on removal of spent fuel from plants that have been shut down first, instead of the oldest fuel. The ability to fully decommission shutdown plants would save hundreds of millions of dollars.

A new approach, “the safety case,” should be used by regulators. The safety case should be developed during the early stages of repository site investigations and updated regularly as additional information is incorporated and as comments from stakeholders are received. The safety case is in essence a compelling argument for the safety of the selected site.

An essential step in building trust and ensuring that the safety case is adequate is through formal peer review. The report recommends an independent, internationally based peer review of the safety case. Sweden, Switzerland, and France have conducted such an independent review through the Nuclear Energy Agency’s international expert group.