Panel: Local support crucial for nuke waste sites

WASHINGTON - July 29, 2011

In an interim report to be released Friday, the 15-member panel suggests building regional storage sites to warehouse spent nuclear fuel for up to 100 years, while officials seek to build a permanent burial site. A copy of the report's summary was obtained by The Associated Press.

In a move likely to stir questions from Congress, the panel also recommends that money being paid by nuclear operators for long-term storage be used for that purpose, rather than counted against the federal budget deficit. About $750 million a year is paid into the Nuclear Waste Fund, which has a balance of about $25 billion.

Commissioners said they recognize that their recommendations would add to the federal deficit, at least on paper, but noted that the federal government is contractually bound to use the money to manage spent nuclear fuel.

"The bill will come due at some point," the report said. "Meanwhile, failure to correct the funding problem does the federal budget no favors in a context where taxpayers remain liable for mounting damages."

Trying to implement the current, "deeply flawed program" for nuclear waste is likely to be even more expensive, the panel said.

The panel, formally known as the Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future, also suggested creating a new organization, independent of the Energy Department, to locate and build a site to permanently bury nuclear waste.

The Obama administration created the commission last year after canceling a contentious plan to bury nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain, 100 miles outside Las Vegas. The commission is co-chaired by former Democratic Rep. Lee Hamilton of Indiana and former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft. A final report is due in January.

Commissioners said they approached their task with a sense of urgency, not only because of the spectacular failure of the Yucca Mountain site, but also because of the nuclear crisis triggered by an earthquake and tsunami that severely damaged a nuclear plant in Japan.

"Put simply, this nation's failure to come to grips with the nuclear waste issue has already proved damaging and costly, and it will be more damaging and more costly the longer it continues," the report's summary said.

Further delays could damage prospects for maintaining a potentially important source of energy, hamper state-federal relations and public confidence in the federal government, and hurt America's standing in the world, the report said.

"Continued stalemate is also costly - to utility ratepayers, to communities that have become unwilling hosts of long-term nuclear waste storage facilities and to U.S. taxpayers who face mounting liabilities, already running into billions of dollars, as a result of the failure by both the executive and legislative branches to meet federal waste management commitments," it said.

Commission members stressed that construction of interim storage facilities - which would hold nuclear waste for up to 100 years - would not be the ultimate solution to the disposal of nuclear waste, some of which takes thousands of years to decay.

"We believe permanent disposal will very likely also be needed to safely manage at least some portion of the commercial spent fuel inventory," the report said.

The commission emphasized the need for officials to generate local support before choosing either an interim storage site or a permanent burial site. The Yucca Mountain plan is fiercely opposed by Nevada lawmakers, most notably Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat, and has been declared unworkable by the Obama administration.

"Transparency, flexibility, patience, responsiveness and a heavy emphasis on consultation and cooperation will all be necessary" to successfully build a storage site for nuclear waste, the report said.

Such a process, it said, "may seem particularly slow and open-ended. Experience, however, leads us to conclude that there is no shortcut, and that any attempt to short-circuit the process will most likely lead to more delay."

A spokesman for Energy Secretary Steven Chu called the report a "strong step toward finding a workable solution" to long-term storage and disposal of nuclear waste.

"The Obama administration continues to believe that nuclear energy has an important role to play as America moves to a clean energy future," spokesman Damien LaVera said. "As part of our commitment to restarting the American nuclear industry and creating thousands of new jobs and export opportunities, we are committed to finding a sustainable approach to assuring safe, secure long-term disposal of used nuclear fuel and nuclear waste."

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