Congress Introduces Bill to Break Logjam Over Commercial Nuclear Waste Disposal

Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) and Rep. Mike Levin (D-Calif.) on Sept. 28 introduced the Nuclear Waste Task Force Act, a bill which would establish a task force to determine how to handle temporary and permanent storage of America’s spent nuclear fuel from nuclear power plant reactors.

The group would include representatives from federal, state, tribal and local government agencies, nongovernmental organizations, unions and the private sector. It would be charged with considering changes to the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 which exempts spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste from current environmental laws.

Removing environmental exemptions would help jumpstart consent-based siting for nuclear waste, the senators said, giving a wider range of stakeholders the opportunity to weigh in on where the federal government establishes nuclear waste storage facilities.

One year after the enactment of this bill, the task force would submit an unclassified report to Congress and the President, with an opportunity for public comment during the report’s preparation.

Evolution of impasse

Markey and Levin introduced the Nuclear Waste Task Force Act less than a week after the Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a report calling on Congress to break the impasse over a permanent disposal solution.

While laws that date back to the early 1980s call for permanent disposal of nuclear waste in deep geologic repositories, controversy over the Yucca Mountain in Nevada brought to the fore concerns about community involvement in the selection process.

The Obama administration ultimately ended the Yucca Mountain project in 2010, but questions over establishing interim and long-term storage sites for the waste remain.

Impact of doing nothing

If not managed properly, commercial spent nuclear fuel is extremely dangerous, the GAO said. About 208 million pounds of this spent fuel is stored on-site at 75 operating or shutdown nuclear power plants in 33 states, mostly near large bodies of water and dense population centers. This amount grows by about 4 million pounds each year.

Letting this nuclear waste languish at power plant sites causes environmental, health and national security risks; prevents more nuclear power from being used to combat climate change; stops these sites from being redeveloped for other uses; and increases taxpayer costs because DOE must compensate the nuclear utilities for the storage costs they have had to incur.

“We must advance a consent-based path to long-term disposal and exploring this pathway to consent is a critical step in that process,” Levin said. “I know that doing so can move the ball forward on that step and help solve our storage challenges once and for all.”

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