In a bid to restart discussion of what to do with the nation's nuclear waste, four U.S. senators today unveiled a draft plan to create a federal agency that would oversee short- and long-term storage of the highly radioactive materials produced primarily by commercial power reactors. The effort follows the Obama administration's decision to abandon a planned centralized waste repository under Yucca Mountain, Nevada, which led to recommendations from a blue ribbon panel assembled by the White House on what to do next.
"Our country can't wait any longer to find a long-term solution for disposing of nuclear waste," said Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR), the chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, in a statement. "I'm hopeful the feedback we receive will help us finish the job and allow us to move forward with legislation that puts the U.S. back on the path to safely managing and permanently disposing of the most radioactive wastes."
The other members of the waste quartet are senators Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Lamar Alexander (R-TN), who lead the Senate appropriations subpanel that oversees waste issues, and Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), the senior Republican on the energy committee.
The draft bill includes many of the suggestions made by the Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future. It calls for the creation of a new nuclear waste administration, for example, that would coordinate a "consent-based process" for building new nuclear waste storage facilities. (That process is, in part, a response to complaints that Congress placed the Yucca Mountain facility in Nevada without the state's consent.) Two of the senators also offered alternative ideas on several issues.
The proposals are already drawing mixed reactions. Alex Flint, the Nuclear Energy Institute's senior vice president for governmental affairs, called the effort "a good first step" in a statement. "The legislation's core elements track closely with the nuclear energy industry's principles of how a comprehensive, successful waste management program should be structured."
But Dave Lochbaum, the director of the Nuclear Safety Project at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), said in a statement that the draft doesn't do enough to address the safety of waste already stored at reactors around the nation. "Despite their good intentions, the senators ignored the fact that we have a problem right now with how nuclear plant owners store this highly radioactive waste," Lochbaum said. "Even under the rosiest scenario, it will take years to site and build an interim storage facility. That means large quantities of nuclear waste will remain at nuclear plants for a long, long time—and three quarters of it is currently crammed in cooling pools rather than stored in dry casks, which are safer."
The senators say that they released the draft in order to provoke discussion and have asked for comments by 24 May.