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U.S. nuclear waste: where to now?

U.S. nuclear waste: where to now?

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Like the nuclear waste itself, where to put it seems an everlasting problem. The Blue Ribbon Commission offers its suggestions on how to find storage and disposal sites in a new report.

Radioactive waste has been accumulating at sites across the United States for decades. The 75,000-metric-ton problem isn't going away (well, not for a million years or so). And as of now, it's not going to Nevada's Yucca Mountain either. Tasked with finding long-term solutions to this disposal issue, the Blue Ribbon Commission released a draft report on Friday.

Critical of the government's handing of the issue thus far, the almost 200-page report asks for a new federal organization, separate from the Department of Energy, that would deal with transporting, storing and disposing of nuclear wastes of various kinds and radioactivity levels.

From the report:

For the last 60 years, the DOE and its predecessor agencies have had primary responsibility, subject to annual appropriations and policy direction by Congress, for implementing U.S. nuclear waste policy...

The record of the last several decades indicates that the current approach is not well suited to conducting a steady and focused long-term effort, and to building and sustaining the degree of trust and stability necessary to establish one or more permanent disposal facilities and implement other essential elements of an integrated waste management strategy.

The over $10-billion plan to store nuclear wastes within Yucca Mountain fell through in 2010. (On Friday, utility regulators, the states of Washington and South Carolina, and others sued the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for not yet having ruled on the Obama Administration's withdrawal of Yucca's license application.) The BRC report doesn't offer opinions on whether that site is suitable, but they do say finding at least one site to geologically store wastes permanently is necessary. They offer a bottom-up, "consent-based" approach for locating and establishing such a site to avoid drawn-out NIMBY battles.

In the meantime, consolidating wastes at shorter-term disposal and storage sites will have to do. The BRC says this would result in more flexibility with managing wastes and also allow for the removal and dry cask storage of "stranded" spent fuel at nine reactors that have shut down. About 15,000 metric tons of spent fuel is currently held in dry casks, with another 50,000 metric tons sitting in pools (right). They suggest taking the same approach to garner state and local support for these facilities.

This seems like a hard sell, but The Chicago Tribune reports:

The most likely candidates to volunteer for waste storage are communities already saddled with waste from legacy weapons programs, said Stephanie Cooke, editor of Nuclear Intelligence Weekly, a trade publication. She said those communities have already benefited from the jobs and investment that come with nuclear materials and may be open to accepting more.

One community comfier than most with radioactive materials is Oak Ridge. Founded in the early 1940s, the Tennessee town got its start by building the atomic bomb and remains at the center of nuclear research. Oak Ridge even imports nuclear waste.

A new contract for processing 1,000 tons of Germany's low-level nuclear waste in the town made headlines last week. EnergySolutions processes much of Oak Ridge's local, homemade waste in addition to low-level wastes from Canada, Great Britain and now Germany. While there are worries this latest agreement could lead to more and more large shipments from abroad, National Public Radio reports that the radioactive residues at the end of the process would be ultimately sent back to Germany.

Each year 104 nuclear reactors generate about 20 percent of the nation's electricity and add about 2,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel to the pile. The public comment period on the BRC report will last until the end of October. A final report is expected in January.

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Images: DOE

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Melissa Mahony

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Melissa Mahony has written for Scientific American Mind, Audubon Magazine, Plenty Magazine and LiveScience. Formerly, she was an editor at Wildlife Conservation magazine. She holds degrees from Boston College and New York University's Science, Health, and Environmental Reporting Program. She is based in New York. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure