U.S. Panel Suggests Moving Used Nuclear Fuel to Interim Sites

Eli is a contributing correspondent for Science magazine.

Draft recommendations from a White House commission on spent nuclear fuel released Friday include a call for one or more new aboveground interim storage sites in the United States. But the advice, which is subject to revision in a preliminary commission report due out in July, has already drawn fire from Republicans in the House of Representatives, foreshadowing a coming fight over nuclear waste.

The Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future was formed by President Barack Obama last year to offer advice on how to deal with U.S. nuclear waste in the wake of the White House's 2009 decision to cancel plans for a permanent repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. "There do not appear to be unmanageable safety or security risks associated with current methods of storage at existing sites," one draft recommendation by the panel states. But "rigorous efforts" are required to maintain this state of affairs, said the commissioners in slides presented Friday.

Yucca Mountain was intended to be a place where the radioactive fuel could cool for several decades and then be entombed permanently. The draft recommendations instead suggest a process involving separate sites for the two steps, as is done in Europe.

Fuel currently stored in aboveground concrete casks at nine decommissioned U.S. plants would be first in line for transfer to the new interim sites, the commissioners advised. Then fuel piling up at working reactors would be transferred. One commissioner, Ernest Moniz, a physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, noted that the interim sites should be configured in such a way as to allow fuel to cool but be available in the coming decades as nuclear science advances. "We may decide later that it's an energy source and we want to do something with it," Moniz said. To manage one or more long-term disposal sites, commissioners called for setting up an entity independent of federal agencies; Yucca Mountain has been managed by the Department of Energy.

The draft advice also urges increased federal investment to reduce waste with advanced methods. "Advances in nuclear reactor and fuel cycle technologies may hold promise" for improving safety or lowering cost, according to the draft recommendations. Those technologies might include advanced reactors that would partially or fully recycle spent fuel for additional energy, known as reprocessing. So "stable, long-term research and development" should be provided by the government to look into advanced reactors, the commissioners said. But "no currently available or reasonably foreseeable reactor and fuel cycle technologies … have the potential to fundamentally alter the waste management challenge this nation confronts over at least the next several decades."

The safety of existing plants is not an explicit part of the commission's purview, and none of the draft recommendations released on Friday mention the ongoing crisis at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi plant. But commissioners spent hours at their meeting questioning officials from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission about the situation in Japan, specifically, the status of nuclear fuel stored in pools at the plant. An explosion on 15 March may have been caused by densely packed nuclear fuel that heated up and oxidized, forming hydrogen that exploded. (A 2006 report from the National Academies' National Research Council said that the most densely packed fuel in U.S. plant pools should be reracked in additional pools to lower the risk of fire in case the pools drained. But the regulatory commission did not adopt those recommendations.)

Commissioners were split on the wisdom of recommending anything relating to the safety of spent nuclear fuel pools, especially given unclear data about the Fukushima pool incident. "Why not get ahead of the curve and move fuel to low-density [arrangement]?" said nuclear expert and commissioner Allison Macfarlane of George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. "This is not a hard problem. … It's fairly straightforward." But another commissioner, nuclear engineer Per Peterson of the University of California, Berkeley, said that new data from the Fukushima pool raises doubts about the reasons for the explosion. The issue of reracking fuel in less dense pools was omitted from the draft recommendations.

Interim storage sites have already drawn criticism from those who believe it would be safer to leave the fuel to cool at existing plants. " 'Interim' sites would become indefinite long-term parking for high-level wastes," a coalition of 170 environmental and civil-rights groups said in a letter distributed yesterday. On Capitol Hill, the fact that Yucca Mountain was not mentioned in the recommendations-which included no preferred location for proposed long-term storage-infuriated Representative Fred Upton (R-MI), chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and his colleague, Representative John Shimkus (R-IL). "The Obama administration's blue ribbon panel is nothing short of a smokescreen. We already have a long-term, visionary plan for permanent storage in Yucca Mountain," they said in a press release.

The Obama Administration's plans for waste are expected to be an issue in fights over the 2012 budget, now pending in Congress. The draft recommendations released yesterday were the product of commission subcommittees; the July draft of the commission report will include advice from the full commission, which will issue its final report in January 2012.

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