June 25, 2012

Idaho Waste Removal Vital To Nuclear Future

Guest column submitted by U.S. Senator Mike Crapo

The Senate Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Nuclear Safety recently held a hearing to consider the recommendations from the Blue Ribbon Commission (BRC) on America's Nuclear Future.  As policymakers consider the direction of nuclear waste management, meeting commitments made to remove defense waste from Idaho in accordance with the settlement agreement must be central to these efforts.

During the hearing, the Subcommittee heard from Lieutenant General Brent Scowcroft, who served as Co-Chair of the Commission, and Dr. Per Peterson, who served with him on the Commission.  The BRC was formed in January 2010 by the U.S. Secretary of Energy to conduct a review of policies for managing the back end of the nuclear fuel cycle and recommend a new plan, following the administration's decision to halt work on the Yucca Mountain repository.

In carrying out its work, the BRC noted a clear "erosion of trust in the federal government's nuclear waste program," which requires new approaches to the long-familiar challenges of siting, licensing, operating and funding waste management activities.  Consistent with this finding, the BRC recommended the creation of a separate and new organization dedicated solely to implementing a waste management program.  This organization would be separate from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), which currently has responsibility for management of defense and civilian nuclear waste.

While there are no commercial nuclear power plants in Idaho, significant quantities of nuclear waste stemming from defense activities are currently stored in the state.  Idaho is proud of the role it continues to play in support of national defense activities, including the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program.  It is critically important that the federal government not lose sight of its commitment to remove defense waste in accordance with established agreements with Idaho and other states by 2035.  I am concerned that any comprehensive re-organization of nuclear waste management responsibilities heightens the risk that established agreements may be violated.  This is an entirely unacceptable outcome.

The BRC also recommended that the administration launch an immediate review of the implications of managing defense wastes within the DOE versus a new organization, correctly noting that the issue raises key questions of funding, governance and congressional oversight.  I support this review and urge that defense waste removal remain a top priority within the DOE.  I also continue to support Yucca Mountain as the legally-mandated, permanent geologic repository for both defense and civilian high-level waste.  Much of the DOE inventory, including the naval reactor spent nuclear fuel now stored in Idaho, has been managed and placed into a condition suitable for ultimate disposal in just such a deep geologic disposal facility.

The BRC contends that the question of managing defense waste separately from civilian waste need not delay implementation of other BRC recommendations.  However, it is crucial that whatever the actions Congress and the administration may take to move nuclear waste disposal forward, we remain appropriately focused and committed to existing agreements with the states regarding the removal of defense wastes.  Nothing whatsoever should be done to delay the permanent disposal of this waste, relative to the disposition of civilian waste.

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