Congress needs to focus on how nuclear waste is stored now
Dave Lochbaum and Robert Cowin, Union of Concerned Scientists - 05/01/13 02:00 PM ET
U.S. nuclear power plants have been generating electricity for more than 50 years, but the nuclear industry and the federal government have yet to figure out what to do with nuclear waste, which remains dangerously radioactive for thousands of years. On April 25, a bipartisan group of senators — Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) — released draft legislation addressing this intractable problem.
Their proposed bill, which mirrors the recommendations of the president’s Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future, would lay the groundwork for an interim storage facility that would hold nuclear waste until the government builds a permanent repository. No argument with that.
But their draft, unfortunately, suffers from a glaring omission: It fails to improve waste management practices at nuclear power plants across the country. Even under the rosiest scenario, it will take years to site and build an interim storage facility. In the meantime, ever-growing quantities of nuclear waste will remain at nuclear plants for a long time.
Why is that a problem? Plant owners—who never expected to have to deal with large amounts of radioactive waste on site—are not storing it as safely as they should or could. The blue ribbon commission failed to address this critical issue in its final report, and if the senators stick strictly to the commission’s recommendations, their legislation will do little or nothing to lessen this threat to public safety.
More than 30 years ago, nuclear plant owners and the Department of Energy (DOE) struck a deal. The owners agreed to pay into what’s called the Nuclear Waste Fund to help finance DOE construction of a permanent geological repository for nuclear waste by