Yucca Mountain is dead (again), the secretary of the US Department of Energy said.
Several communities are intrigued by the possibility of hosting America’s nuclear waste, at least temporarily (but she wouldn’t say where these communities are).
And reprocessing highly radioactive waste – common in France and Japan, but never done here for fear of nuclear material falling into dangerous hands – could shrink its volume and extract uranium for the next generation of nuclear reactors (which must be part of America’s carbon-free future).
The blue Pacific shimmered through rippling waves of hot air, like the view over a car’s roof on a hot summer day, as Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm leaned forward to feel the heat emanating from a waste vault vent at San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station on Thursday , April 21.
She was flanked by US Rep. Mike Levin, D-San Juan Capistrano – who has made the waste off San Onofre’s quake-prone coast a high priority – and by Pedro J. Pizarro, CEO of Edison International, which would dearly love to be relieved of babysitting duty for 3.6 million pounds of the deadly stuff for the next several decades.
A gaggle of journalists watched the trio tour the “concrete monolith” where dry waste is entombed at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station. Granholm dropped little news bombs as she made the case that the Biden Administration is serious about pushing past the national paralysis on nuclear waste disposal, which could be traced back some 50 years.
“This administration is saying, ‘enough,'” said Granholm. “The Department of Energy is committed to getting this right.”
How, exactly? In November, the DOE began a fresh push to find communities willing to host temporary storage sites in what it calls a “consent-based approach.”
“We want to work with communities that want to work with us, and there are communities that want to work with us,” Granholm said.
This kinder, gentler approach worked wonders in Finland, Canada and Sweden; In addition to getting new jobs and economic opportunities, volunteer communities will be compensated for the service they’re providing to the entire nation, which could involve new federal research facilities.
“We’re looking forward to resolving this decades-long deadlock,” Granholm said.
The DOE asked for public input on the consent-based effort – which started under President Barack Obama, was shelved under President Donald Trump, and revived under Biden (illustrating, perhaps, part of the problem) – and has received hundreds of comments in response. , clocking in at more than 1,600 pages.
There’s much worry that poor communities and people of color will carry the load for the rest of the nation.
There’s deep disbelief that any community will volunteer for temporary hosting duties while the nation continues to dither on permanent storage.
And there’s a great deal of distrust in the DOE itself, which spent more than 10 billion on Moribund Yucca Mountain without accepting a single. ounce of the waste it was contractually obligated to start collecting in 1998.
Meanwhile, some $ 43 billion languishes in the Nuclear Waste Fund – paid by electricity consumers for this phantom permanent storage – while taxpayers have forked over another $ 9 billion to repay utilities like Edison for the costs of building dry storage on site.
Officials say taxpayers could be on the hook for another $ 30 billion to $ 50 billion before a solution emerges.
“Communities never signed up to host long-term storage,” Granholm said as the heat rippled behind her. “We have to move.”
Nuclear energy furnishes 20% of the nation’s power and is an important piece of the no-carbon puzzle, she said. To that end, the infrastructure package provides $ 6 billion to help aging plants remain productive, and another $ 2.5 billion to help develop the next generation of reactors.
But we must figure out what to do with the waste, she said.
It’s not exactly a mystery: Highly radioactive waste gets buried in deep salt beds, or in deep bore holes. Scientists have known that for generations. The technology exists.
America’s problem is not a technical one, but a political one.
“We know what we have to do, we know we have to do it, and we even know how to do it,” said the now-decade-old Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future. “Rather the core difficulty remains what it has always been: finding a way to site these inherently controversial facilities… in a manner that allows all stakeholders, but most especially host states, tribes and communities, to conclude that their interests have been adequately protected and their well-being enhanced – not merely sacrificed or overridden by the interests of the country as a whole. “
Making progress on temporary storage will make the push for permanent storage easier, the secretary said.
Levin said we have made progress already. He helped secure some $ 40 million to restart the consent-based process and, with events like this one, is trying to keep it in the public eye.
“Nuclear waste does not belong here,” Levin said. “We must get it off our coast as quickly and safely as possible.”
It won’t happen overnight, he said. But we have to start; doing nothing is not an option.
“Here’s the bottom line: The community I serve wants to see results,” Levin said. “We are finally making real progress after years of inaction.”
Others might quibble, but David Victor, professor at UC San Diego and chair of San Onofre’s volunteer Community Engagement Panel, was hopeful.
Reprocessing, long a third rail in American nuclear politics, will likely get a push from Russia’s growing pariah status; it’s one of the world’s greatest suppliers of uranium, and will presumably be boycotted by Western powers. Reprocessing would reduce the volume of high-level waste that needs permanent disposal, and get more use out of uranium that’s now slated for the trash heap.
Ideally, Congress would decouple the searches for temporary and permanent disposal, so they’re not tethered together. There’d be several different sites for storage, not just one. There’d be changes to the law, allowing Nuclear Waste Fund money to pay for shorter-term storage. There’d be a separate agency to focus solely on disposal, with a stable source of funding, to insulate it from the sturm und drang of politics.
A tall order, to be sure. “But I’m more optimistic about this than I’ve been in a long time,” Victor said.