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A Week of Significant Nuclear Waste Developments

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Wednesday, April 1, 2015

They say when it rains it pours, and spring has finally sprung for nuclear waste policy action. Last week, the Department of Energy (DOE) and the U.S. Senate both unveiled proposals to move forward on what Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC) President Jason Grumet called the “icon of gridlock”: nuclear waste.

The week began with the release of a “Report on Separate Disposal of Defense High Level Radioactive Waste” in which DOE considered the question as to whether a separate repository for defense-related high level waste (HLW) is required. The answer: it appears to be. When considering cost efficiency, health and safety, regulation, transportation, public acceptability, and national security, the report finds that “a strong basis exists to find that a Defense HLW Repository is required.”

Taking this report a step further, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz announced at BPC that the president has authorized DOE to move forward with planning for a separate repository for high-level radioactive waste resulting from atomic energy defense activities. At BPC’s event, Secretary Moniz highlighted the FY 2016 budget items relating to nuclear waste and assured those present that the administration would take “affirmative and consent-based steps to select a pilot and full-scale interim storage site.” He explained that the benefits of moving forward with a separate site for defense related waste will lead to a shorter time scale for commercial nuclear waste to follow.

The administration, however, was not the only entity to create momentum on nuclear waste this week. Senators Lamar Alexander (R-TN), Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), and Maria Cantwell (D-WA) reinvigorated congressional debate on the matter by introducing bipartisan legislation on the storage and disposal of nuclear waste currently scattered across the country. “…We need to end the stalemate over what to do with our country’s nuclear waste by finding a way to create both temporary and permanent storage sites that would complement other solutions,” stated Senator Alexander. The establishment of a Nuclear Waste Administration along with measures to address the challenges of accessing the Nuclear Waste Fund are important discussions and we are pleased to see Congress move forward.

On Friday, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) announced that he will not seek reelection in 2016. The announcement could change the dynamics of the discussion about nuclear waste and the future of Yucca Mountain. But despite Reid’s announcement, no one should assume that the path to Yucca Mountain is now clear; there are still many hurdles—both big and small— that lie ahead and it would not be prudent to presume any outcome.

Last week was a very busy and momentous one for nuclear waste management. It will be interesting to see how the executive and legislative efforts progress over the next few months. We at BPC will be watching closely and will be looking for every opportunity to create action to address nuclear waste.

KEYWORDS: DEPARTMENT OF ENERGY, JASON GRUMET, HARRY REID, ERNEST MONIZ, LAMAR ALEXANDER, LISA MURKOWSKI, YUCCA MOUNTAIN, DIANNE FEINSTEIN, NUCLEAR WASTE, MARIA CANTWELL