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US House passes bill to restart Yucca Mountain and look for interim sites for nuclear waste

A view of the HI-TRAC transfer system that transports spent fuel assemblies from wet storage pools at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station to a dry storage facility at the plant. Workers are expected to complete the transfer by mid-2019 or earlier. (Rob Nikolewski/Southern California Edison/TNS)

Democrats joined Republicans on Thursday to pass a bill looking for a place to deposit the growing stockpile of nuclear waste generated by power plants across the country — including the 3.55 million pounds of spent fuel at the San Onfore Nuclear Generating Station, or SONGS, sitting just yards from the Pacific Ocean.

Members of the U.S. House of Representatives voted 340-72 in favor of what is called the Nuclear Waste Policy Amendment Act that calls for restarting the licensing process at the Yucca Mountain repository in Nevada.

Though the Yucca Mountain debate dominated the discussion on the House floor, the bill also authorizes the U.S. Department of Energy to construct a potential interim storage facility to accept waste from nuclear facilities.

“This is good news; it’s a big step forward,” said Rep. Scott Peters, D-Calif. “It’s a necessary step in order to get that material away from the ocean, away from our communities to a place where it can be secure.”

SONGS sits between the Pacific and one of the busiest freeways in the country — Interstate 5. About 8.4 million people live in a 50-mile radius of the plant in an area with a history of seismic activity.

“The federal government must keep its commitment to safely dispose of nuclear waste and this proposal will put us back on track to advance to a long-term permanent site as well as more immediate interim options,” said Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., who also voted in favor of the bill.

The legislation still has hurdles to clear.

No nuclear storage legislation has been introduced in the Senate this session, although Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., plans to put forth a bipartisan bill in the coming weeks that would emphasize finding potential interim sites rather than focusing on Yucca Mountain.

Located about 100 miles from Las Vegas, Yucca Mountain has been opposed by Nevada lawmakers since it was first discussed back in the 1980s. With the urging of then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., the Obama administration cut off funding for Yucca Mountain in 2010.

All of the members of the Nevada delegation in the House voted against the bill Thursday.

“If you generate nuclear waste, you should keep it in your own backyard,” Rep. Ruben Kihuen, D-Nev., said before the vote. “Don’t be sending it to our backyard.”

But should a bill get through both houses of Congress, indications are that President Donald Trump would sign it.

The Trump administration has called for Congress to come up with $120 million in initial funding to revive Yucca Mountain, and Energy Secretary Rick Perry has said the government has a “moral obligation” to find a solution.

About 80,000 metric tons of spent fuel has accumulated at nuclear reactor sites in 39 states.

Sponsored by Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill., the bill passed Thursday would increase Yucca Mountain’s capacity from 70,000 metric tons to 110,000 metric tons — a 37 percent increase.

David Victor, chairman of the SONGS Community Engagement Panel and a professor of international relations at the University of California, San Diego, said the bill’s passage represented “very good news” but said too much attention was paid to the Yucca Mountain portion of the bill.

Victor is a supporter of finding interim storage facilities to get the waste off the beach at San Onofre — as well as other facilities in California and beyond.

“The politics of Yucca, the engineering of Yucca, the licensing — it’s a nightmare,” Victor said. “The earliest possible date that Yucca could start accepting shipments, if everything goes right, is in the early 2030s.”

Interim facilities, on the other hand, could be up and running by the early 2020s, Victor said.

One potential interim site may be found in an isolated portion of New Mexico.

The Eddy-Lea Energy Alliance, named for two counties in southeastern New Mexico, has partnered with New Jersey-based Holtec International to get the federal government’s OK to build a project storing up to 8,680 metric tons of commercial nuclear waste.

“We’re still on track,” said John Heaton, the alliance’s chairman, by telephone. “It’s hard to predict the regulatory process but we would expect, easily, by 2022” to begin operations. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has accepted an application from the developers and scoping meetings are underway, Heaton said.

A potential site has also been discussed in a remote area of West Texas.

Waste Control Specialists owns a facility that already stores low-level radioactive waste and wants to expand. The company ran into financial trouble last year but has teamed with another company, Orano USA, and has asked the NRC to review its licensing application.

But even if a location is found — whether at an interim facility or Yucca Mountain — there is sure to be a rush by facilities across the country to have their waste taken first. And it’s unclear where the spent fuel at SONGS would rank.

The Department of Energy has what is called an “Acceptance Priority Ranking” that essentially gives the nod to the oldest fuel that has been discharged from a particular location. It’s called the “oldest fuel first” principle.

But no precedent has been set and some experts have argued that waste at facilities that no longer produce electricity or at sites in vulnerable areas should go first. SONGS, which has not generated power since 2012 and has spent fuel located little more than 100 feet from the ocean, would qualify on both counts.

“I’m hoping we would prioritize the waste that’s both oldest and in the most sensitive areas,” Peters said in a brief interview right after Thursday’s vote. “We don’t want to just leave that stuff sitting there” at SONGS.

William Alley of San Diego, who has written a book with his wife, Rosemarie, about handling nuclear waste, said it’s hard to tell if the Shimkus bill amounts to a significant step. And he is skeptical about the likelihood that Yucca Mountain can be resuscitated.

“Remember, Nevada’s a swing state,” Alley said. “Nevada doesn’t want the waste and I don’t know of any politician in Nevada that is in favor of this … It tends to lead to a sense of false hope that San Onofre’s waste is going to find a home in a 10, 20-year time frame and that just doesn’t seem that likely.”

The Alleys want to see the waste at SONGS moved to another location in California or at least moved to a mesa at a higher spot at Camp Pendleton, on the east side of Interstate 5.

“That would certainly be a safer situation,” said Rosemarie Alley. “It’s not ideal by any means but what’s going on now, burying (the waste) on the beach, is just insane.”

SONGS is located on an 85-acre chunk of Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, owned by the U.S. Navy.

After a SONGS Community Engagement Panel meeting last November, the regional liaison officer for the Marine Corps was asked by the San Diego Union-Tribune about moving the facility’s spent fuel to a mesa.

Tom Caughlan said the Navy essentially defers to the NRC’s assessment that the current storage location — which is behind a 27-foot seawall — is safe.

“I’d rather not deal with a hypothetical,” Caughlan said. “I’m certainly not a decision-maker there. This is a safety, science, engineering-driven process, over which the NRC holds the government’s authority.”


© 2018 The San Diego Union-Tribune

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.