Friday, May 13, 2005


Spending bill would spur shift in DOE management efforts

Ben Geman
Greenwire reporter

The Energy Department would be required to accept and maintain spent nuclear fuel in an interim, above-ground storage facility under a spending bill that the House Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee approved by voice vote yesterday.

The legislation provides funding for the Army Corps of Engineers, the Bureau of Reclamation, the Energy Department and several independent agencies. The appropriation equals President Bush's request and is expected to be marked up by the full Appropriations panel next week.

The measure is intended to force a significant shift in nuclear waste management by establishing new federal above-ground storage and including funds to develop a spent fuel reprocessing initiative. Current federal policy prohibits reprocessing.

Rep. David Hobson (R-Ohio), the subcommittee chairman, said the interim storage provision is needed to limit DOE liability for breaking its pledge to begin accepting waste for permanent burial by 1998. Just as important is a signal to Wall Street that the government intends to move forward with nuclear power.

The bill would provide $10 million for the effort, and Hobson said DOE would beginning accepting fuel in fiscal year 2006 under the provision. The bill also provides an additional $5 million to DOE's advanced fuel cycle program to develop the spent fuel reprocessing initiative.

Hobson said it was vital that nuclear power be a major part of U.S. energy generation going forward and placed the effort in that context. He does not intend the effort to supplant the ongoing construction of a permanent nuclear waste storage site at Yucca Mountain, Nev.

The bill would fund work on the Yucca Mountain repository at $661 million, $84 million above the fiscal 2005 funding level and $10 million above the request, the subcommittee said. This includes the $10 million funding steered toward the interim storage plan Hobson announced.

Hobson stressed that the interim storage plan should not be read as a lack of confidence in the troubled Yucca effort. "I will fight to the death for Yucca Mountain," he said.

Yucca setbacks fuel move toward temporary storage

The proposal to require DOE temporary storage for spent nuclear fuel drew substantial attention and mixed reactions. The effort comes as a series of legal and funding setbacks has pushed the timeframe for opening Yucca Mountain until sometime after 2012.

DOE faces lawsuits for scores of reactor owners for failing to accept waste by the repository's originally planned 1998 opening date, and its liability exposure is thought to be between $2 billion and $56 billion.

Mitch Singer, a spokesman for the Nuclear Energy Institute, said the industry group welcomes ideas on how to spur the government to fulfill its obligation to take spent fuel. He suggested that above-ground interim storage at the Yucca site would be prudent because it would create efficiencies in transportation and handling, but Hobson said yesterday that Nevada was not eyed as the location for interim storage.

Singer stressed that the interim storage program should not sap focus away from ultimate deep geologic disposal at the Yucca site.

A spokesman for Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), the fiercly pro-nuclear chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said the senator was not familiar with the specifics of the Hobson plan but indicated he could be supportive. "The senator has been an advocate of a centralized interim storage program," said spokesman Matt Letourneau.

Hobson said there has been some discussion with House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas) on the issue. "I think his philosophy may be similar to mine as to what we need to do moving forward," he said.

The way the language is written does not need any authorization, Hobson said. "We want to act in concert with Representative Barton," Hobson added. "We believe we have not violated any of their territory, [and] we do not want to do that."

Hobson said he had identified one specific potential site but declined to name it and stressed the plan did not have to be tied to a specific site at this point. "The important thing right now is the concept," Hobson said. "This country made a contract with all these utility companies to get this stuff out of there and this stuff is not in the safest places right now."

Reactor owners currently store waste on-site, either in spent fuel pools or in dry casks, and the National Academy of Sciences has raised concerns about the safety of fuel pool storage in the event of a terror attack.

Also, Hobson said it was not responsible money management to allow DOE liability to continue and grow.

DOE has yet to weigh in on provision

Asked about the Bush administration's view, Hobson indicated the issue was open for discussion. "They haven't said no," he said. "We have a new secretary, and I think he is interested in using funds appropriately."

"The administration doesn't always lead everything," Hobson added. "This is something where we are taking a little lead to give them some speed. They may catch up down the road on it. I haven't had any opposition."

A DOE spokesman said the department did not yet have a position on the proposal but praised the Yucca funding in the bill. "We are very pleased Chairman Hobson provided full funding for Yucca Mountain and are looking forward to working with the chairman on our shared committment to opening the repository," said spokesman Mike Waldron.

Hobson's choice of interim storage by DOE drew a harsh response from one anti-Yucca Democrat from Nevada, Rep. Shelley Berkley.

"This plan would ... require waste to be shipped not once, but twice, doubling the risk of an accident or terrorist attack unleashing deadly nuclear waste," Berkley said. "The only solution to this issue that all sides agree is safe, is to leave the waste where it was produced and to secure it using dry-cask storage."

Michele Boyd of Public Citizen also attacked the interim storage plan, saying it lets the industry off the hook for its waste. She also questioned whether having DOE begin accepting waste next year is safe. "We are not ready to have that massive amount of transportation start next year," she said, noting the need for training and funding for emergency planners.