President Joe Biden comes to office at a time when there is a window of opportunity for the United States to make real progress on the management and disposition of nuclear waste. The two key challenges that must be overcome are the siting of a long-term repository for spent fuel from commercial nuclear reactors, and the management of the 90,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel currently sitting at 70 reactor sites across the country. Because these challenges are mainly political, not technical, prioritizing the issue and designating a senior official to negotiate on the administration’s behalf has the potential to take advantage of this opportunity and break the decades-long stalemate on nuclear waste.
Yucca Mountain, once envisioned as a permanent waste storage site, has now been abandoned by both political parties making way for discussions regarding alternative solutions. With Yucca Mountain off the table, a senior negotiator can work with Congress to initiate a new repository site selection process that builds on an emerging international consensus that the siting process should be “consent-based” and transparent.
A more immediate and challenging assignment for the senior negotiator would arise if the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) grants licenses to proposed interim storage sites in Texas and New Mexico—as seems likely in 2021. Opponents of those sites and elected officials in both states will likely call for federal action on the many issues associated with consolidated interim storage that are outside the authority of the NRC, such as the priority for reactors shipping spent fuel to the consolidated sites, transportation, security and potential compensation to the host states and localities.
Addressing the nuclear waste issues will enable future and existing nuclear power plants to help meet the President’s carbon reduction and climate goals. Appointing a senior-level negotiator would be a way for President Biden to demonstrate the importance of the issues and facilitate their resolution.
The full article in The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists can be found at https://thebulletin.org/2021/01/why-biden-should-designate-a-nuclear-waste-negotiator/