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Panel backs new storage site for Yucca Mountain nuclear waste

By Matthew Daly

Associated Press

Published: Friday, May 13 2011 10:59 p.m. MDT

WASHINGTON — A presidential commission looking for safe ways to dispose of the nation's nuclear waste said Friday it is considering a plan to build one or more storage sites to replace a long-planned nuclear waste dump in Nevada.

The 15-member commission, created by President Barack Obama, did not identify any proposed site for nuclear storage. Nor did commission members agree on whether there should be one or several sites for a nuclear dump, where waste would be stored for up to 100 years.

The panel, formally known as the Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future, also suggested creation of a new organization, independent of the Energy Department, to locate and build a site to permanently bury nuclear waste.

The Obama administration created the panel last year after canceling a longstanding plan to bury nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain, a remote site 100 miles outside Las Vegas.

The group released a series of recommendations by three subcommittees at a meeting on Friday.

Lee Hamilton, a former Democratic congressman from Indiana who co-chairs the panel, said the recommendations may or may not be adopted by the full commission. A draft report on nuclear waste disposal is due in late July, with a final report expected by January.

Commission members stressed that the storage facilities would not be the ultimate solution to the disposal of nuclear waste, some of which takes thousands of years to decay.

An interim site "will only work if it's combined with a process for getting an ultimate disposal site," said commissioner John Rowe, chief executive of Exelon Corp., the nation's largest nuclear supplier.

Commission members also said it was crucial that officials generate local support before choosing an interim storage site or a permanent burial site. The Yucca Mountain plan is fiercely opposed by Nevada lawmakers, most notably Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat.

Commissioner Phil Sharp, another former Democratic House member from Indiana, said it might make sense to build a series of regional storage sites to increase chances of generating local support and to ease transportation of nuclear waste from nuclear sites across the country.

Congress chose Yucca Mountain a quarter-century ago after a long and divisive political battle, which Sharp and other commissioners said should be avoided this time.

Disputes over what to do about an estimated 71,000 tons of used fuel from the 104 U.S. nuclear reactors have lingered for years. Nuclear waste is currently stored on-site in pools or in dry casks. Regulators say both methods are safe.

Concerns about spent fuel gained greater urgency after a March 11 earthquake and tsunami triggered a nuclear crisis in Japan. The disaster damaged reactors at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant and led to the loss of cooling water in at least one pool of spent radioactive fuel, raising the risk of a catastrophic radioactive release.

Stephanie Mueller, a spokeswoman for Energy Secretary Steven Chu, said Chu and Obama believe nuclear energy must be part of a diversified energy mix for the country.

Chu "remains committed to ensuring that the federal government fulfills its long-term disposal obligations for spent fuel and nuclear waste," Mueller said.

Commissioners said spent fuel stored at decommissioned reactors should be first in line to use an interim storage site once it becomes available. Construction is unlikely for several years even under the most optimistic time frame, they said.

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