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U.S. announces two-pronged plan for managing ‘defense-only,’ commercial nuclear waste

by Katelyn Tye ~ May 2015 ~ Stateline Midwest »
For decades, the federal government’s plan for nuclear waste — both from production of nuclear weapons and from commercial nuclear reactors — has been to store all of it at a single, permanent geologic repository. But in March, the Obama administration announced a significant shift in that policy strategy.
The U.S. Department of Energy now plans “to move forward with the planning for a consent-based, defense-only repository for some of the DOE-managed high-level wastes,” Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz said.
This decision, he said, reflects in part the difference between the two types of waste. The nation’s inventory of high-level defense waste is finite, and some of that waste is cooler and easier to handle than commercial waste. This could mean greater flexibility in site selection, a simpler site design, and a shorter timeline to begin disposal at a “defense-only” repository.
For the Midwest, the impact of pursuing a defense-only repository will depend on where it is located and the routes chosen for shipping the waste there. Meanwhile, the DOE is still actively pursuing one or more interim facilities to store commercial spent fuel from the nation’s shut-down nuclear reactors. The Midwest currently has four of these: one in Michigan (Big Rock Point), two in Wisconsin (Kewaunee and La Crosse) and one in Illinois (Zion). All four now store their waste onsite.
Depending on the location of an interim storage facility, other Midwestern states could serve as “corridors” for the waste as it travels from these four reactors to a repository. The Council of State Governments’ Midwestern Radioactive Materials Transportation Committee plans to hold a special event in the fall to educate legislators and other state officials about the federal radioactive waste management program, with an emphasis on shipments and their impact on this region.
In addition to the four shut-down sites, the Midwest is home to 19 operating nuclear power plants. Spent fuel is being stored at these sites as well until a permanent repository for the nation’s commercial waste is operational.
Until 2010, it appeared that site would be at Yucca Mountain in Nye County, Nevada. The federal government originally identified the site as a potential repository in 1987, then spent two decades studying it and eventually filed a construction license application.
However, in 2010 President Obama put a halt to the licensing process, and federal funding for the Yucca Mountain project was stripped in the next budget. In 2013, in response to recommendations from the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future, the DOE released a strategy document, which emphasized using a consent-based approach to identify sites for both a pilot and a full-scale interim storage facility in addition to a geologic repository.


Katelyn Tye provides staff support for CSG’s Midwestern Radioactive Materials Transportation Committee, which includes representatives from the executive and legislative branches of government in 12 Midwestern states. The committee’s co-chairs are Laura Dresen of the Indiana Department of Homeland Security and Kelly Horn of the Illinois Emergency Management Agency.