The past year has brought several events that have changed the course of the nuclear industry in the United States; events like Fukushima have been very traumatic. While others, like the announcing of new reactors being built in South Carolina and Georgia have shown that the nuclear industry is still moving onward and upward.
Another event, although much less heralded in the media, is receiving plenty of attention inside the nuclear industry. The findings reported by President Obama’s Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future stand to bring about the question of spent fuel storage once again. In fact, the Commission stated rather bluntly that, “…the Obama Administration’s decision to halt work on a repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada is the latest indicator of a nuclear waste management policy that has been troubled for decades and has now reached an impasse. Allowing that impasse to continue is not an option.” There’s good reason for this, the long term viability of the nuclear industry depends upon a solution to this critical issue. If we are unable to close out the fuel cycle, then after a while the industry would simply cease to exist. There is also a more immediate financial benefit to solving our waste issue. It’s reported that we could save $350 million on security costs if we were able to consolidate our spent fuel.
The Blue Ribbon Commission, listed key elements of their findings, the first of which stated the need for a consent based approach when siting future waste repositories. This, of course, appears to be one of the trickiest pieces of the puzzle. After all, what community is going to want to store (permanently or on an interim basis) nuclear waste in their own backyard? While communities throughout the country aren’t exactly lining up to take advantage of a waste management facility, it’s not as if we are left without options. There are two that come to mind, the Savannah River Site near Aiken, South Carolina as well as the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) near Carlsbad, New Mexico. A consortium of business, government and community leaders near the Savannah River Site have recently announced the commissioning of a $200,000 study which will explore the feasibility of a temporary, consolidated waste storage facility. The study is expected to be completed in 2013. On the other hand, WIPP not only appears to be well suited as a waste management facility, but the possibility exists that it could become a long term geologic repository. Certainly, there is a long way to go on studying the viability of a geologic repository in New Mexico; but either way, according to former New Mexico Senator Pete Domenici, with the right incentives, “there is a great deal of support” for a spent fuel storage facility at WIPP. In January, Forbes ran a great profile piece on the possibility of WIPP housing our nation’s nuclear waste; you can find it linked below, it’s highly recommended.
The reason for this post is simple. Recently we’ve been talking a lot about the energy policies of President Obama and Gov. Romney, you can hardly go a news cycle without hearing about Keystone XL or fracking; but with the nuclear industry at such a critical juncture the fact that we aren’t talking about this is troubling. There’s money on the table to be saved, and a vital energy source that our country depends on for 20% of its electricity to be preserved. Let’s get talking.