One small step for nuclear waste?

May 12, 2021, 5:55AMANS Nuclear CafeSteven Nesbit
The underground Exploratory Studies Facility at Yucca Mountain in Nevada built by the Department of Energy to determine whether the location was suitable as a deep geological nuclear waste repository. Courtesy of the Department of Energy.

It is no secret that the U.S. government’s program to manage and dispose of used nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste is in a deep ditch. Private companies continue to safely store used fuel at U.S. nuclear reactor sites, some of which ceased power operations decades ago. Other countries, such as Finland, Sweden, France, Canada, Switzerland, Russia, and China, are moving forward on permanent disposal, while for the past 11 years, the U.S. government has done nothing constructive to discharge its HLW disposal responsibilities. Rather than taking action, successive Congresses and administrations have sat on their collective hands.

Policy issues are not easy to resolve, but that is no excuse for complete inaction. The federal government has a clear legal and moral obligation to manage and dispose of HLW. In 2019, the American Nuclear Society made a set of recommendations for actions that the federal government could take now to restart a program to address HLW (see “A Proposal for Progress on Nuclear Waste Management”). The concept was to start work on eight activities that do not prejudice any eventual policy outcomes but are needed to enable progress. Rather than waiting for Superman to come along and solve its problems, the federal government should start doing what it can do now. The foremost of the ANS recommendations was that the federal government reestablish an office to carry out its HLW responsibilities. The Department of Energy disbanded its HLW management office in 2010—a clear signal that it had no intention of doing any substantive work.

On May 3, 2021, eight HLW stakeholder organizations, including ANS, signed on to a letter to the secretary of energy with one simple, straightforward, achievable recommendation: “We request that you establish an office within DOE that reports directly to you and is dedicated to developing and managing an integrated nuclear waste storage, transportation, and disposal program.” This action could be accomplished with a simple stroke of the pen, and it would, in the words of the eight organizations, “demonstrate an intent and commitment to take meaningful action.”

A famous Chinese proverb says, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” We will see if the U.S. government is ready to take that first step.

Steven Nesbit is vice president/president-elect of the American Nuclear Society.

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