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DOE Chief Supports Yucca Alternatives, New Agency for Nuclear Waste

By Alex Brown

National Journal

WASHINGTON -- Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz on Tuesday praised a Senate plan to deal with nuclear waste -- an alternative to the long-disputed Yucca Mountain site -- calling it a "promising framework for addressing key issues."

Moniz addressed the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee to testify on the Nuclear Waste Administration Act, which would establish a new federal agency to manage nuclear waste, which is now overseen by Moniz's DOE. The bill would also create a pilot spent-fuel storage facility, as well as temporary storage facilities for non-priority spent fuel.

The wrangling over the use of Nevada's Yucca Mountain as a storage site has "no end in sight," Moniz testified. He continued:

Rather than continuing to spend billions of dollars more on a project that faces such strong opposition, the administration believes ... a consent-based solution for the long-term management of our used fuel and nuclear waste ... has the potential to gain the necessary public acceptance.

The bill is based on the recommendations of the Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future, a panel on which Moniz served. While Moniz couldn't give the administration's official endorsement for the bill, he expressed support for the idea of a new agency to handle nuclear waste:

The administration will work with Congress to ensure that the authorization of any new body established for this purpose provides adequate authority and leadership as well as appropriate oversight and controls.

Committee Chairman Ron Wyden, D-Ore., pressed Moniz further on that approach, acknowledging the secretary's awkwardness in admitting that his own agency is not best suited to handle nuclear waste oversight long-term. "We do need a new organization," Moniz responded. "The keys are the authorities that go to this agency."

Not everyone was on board with the search for Yucca Mountain alternatives. "We have a law that designates where the permanent storage is," said Sen. James Risch, R-Idaho. "We have a law that identifies Yucca Mountain ... but nobody seems to care." Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., expressed a similar view. Risch pressed Moniz on alternatives for storing nuclear waste if no communities express interest in building facilities. "We expect that we will have a number of communities coming forward with interest," Moniz said.

Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., an opponent of Yucca Mountain as a storage site, said he hoped the bill would keep nuclear waste out of his state. Committee ranking member Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, asked Moniz if a 10-year goal for a new storage facility was realistic. That timeline is "aggressive, but quite feasible," Moniz said, but added that "it will take a dedicated organization to manage that." He also noted that if nuclear growth continues, more than one waste repository would become necessary.

Another concern, expressed by Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., is that communities with short-term storage facilities could end up being permanent storage sites if no alternative locations are found. Moniz emphasized the bill's "consent-based approach" and called for exploration of more geologic long-term storage alternatives. Those alternatives, he said, responding to a question from Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., could include hard rock, clay, granites, and salts—all of which have been used in Europe to store nuclear waste.

Moniz will testify Wednesday before the House Energy and Commerce Committee, again addressing nuclear waste. Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., that committee's chairman, has been a supporter of storing waste at Yucca Mountain and recently called for a final decision on that site.

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