WASHINGTON Moving nuclear waste can be done safely, according to a National Academies' National Research Council report released Thursday, but there are some issues to be solved before a nationwide shipping program could begin.
Thursday's report comes just days after the Bush administration unveiled its $250 million "Global Nuclear Energy Partnership" program in Monday's 2007 budget proposal. After months of speculation that the White House was considering a nuclear waste policy change, the ambitious program not only aims to develop technology to reprocess waste safely but pushes for more nuclear power worldwide and to find ways for new reactors to produce energy from reprocessed nuclear fuel.
This is a shift from the government plan since 1987 to only store used nuclear-fuel rods inside Nevada's Yucca Mountain, 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas. President Jimmy Carter banned reprocessing because it created material that could be used in nuclear weapons. President Reagan lifted the ban, but there was no market for reprocessing technology. The new program, referred to as G-NEP, does not back down from the Yucca project, but a different form of waste may ultimately be stored there if the site is approved.
With the administration's continued commitment to nuclear power and desire to open a federal nuclear waste repository in Nevada, the waste transportation situation is one the country will still need to handle.
"The reprocessing option still requires moving this material to the reprocessing plant, so you've got to move the material as we have it as well as after the reprocessing takes place, it has to be moved again so you still have fundamentally the same issues," said Thomas B. Deen, former executive director of the National Research Council's Transportation Research Board who helped write the study.
John W. Poston Sr., a professor in the department of Nuclear Engineering at Texas A&M University and also a member of the board that wrote the report, said the transportation study included spent nuclear fuel as well as high-level nuclear waste, which is what could come out of any reprocessing method.
"Regardless of whether we put material in Yucca Mountain or we reprocess or whatever, the kinds of recommendations we made in our report pertain to any of those options," Poston said.
The progress on the government's Yucca project as well as Private Fuel Storage, a commercial project that wants to ship and store nuclear waste to Skull Valley, Tooele County, prompted the study originally.
A bill approved last year blocks the company's preferred place to build a railroad line to ship the waste and the government still needs to approve a right of way on public land to build a facility that would handle waste by truck.
Several investor utilities opted to freeze their financial support for PFS last year saying they will wait to see what happens with the Yucca project, but company officials have said other companies may choose to participate at a later date.
Energy Department Deputy Secretary Clay Sell said the administration did not go to the utilities with this new program as a reason to change their minds on PFS. He said Rep. David Hobson, R-Ohio, who heads the House Appropriations subcommittee that writes the energy spending bill, started the conversation on reprocessing and there has been a increase in interest in advancing recycling.
He said he did not know of any direct link between the department's new initiative and the utilities' position on PFS, but emphasized the government's support for Yucca.
"Yucca Mountain is the right answer and PFS is not," Sell said.
Meanwhile, the report found no "technical barriers" to moving used fuel or high-level radioactive waste but called for another study that could look at security aspects more closely. Not all of the members of this report's committee had proper security clearances to look at classified information.The report also recommends that the Energy Department make its transportation plans public so local officials can begin to plan accordingly if the shipments were to come as planned.