The Department of Energy’s Office of Nuclear Energy released an updated version of its consent-based siting process on April 25. The DOE will use the process to engage with willing communities to site one or more consolidated interim storage facilities for commercial spent nuclear fuel, reducing the number of locations where spent fuel is stored and easing the burden on U.S. taxpayers.
The updated document revises and improves upon the draft consent-based siting process the DOE issued in 2017. According to the DOE, it reflects public input provided in response to the department’s request for public comment on the draft consent-based siting process, a 2021 request for information, several expert reports, and lessons learned from decades of siting experience with nuclear waste management and other types of facilities in the United States and abroad.
“Prioritizing constructive, community-based input around consent-based solutions has shaped our roadmap for advancing our nation’s spent nuclear fuel management,” said Kathryn Huff, DOE assistant secretary for nuclear energy. “This process deepens our commitment to transparency and equity and moves us closer to our clean energy future.”
Notable changes: While the new process described in the document retains many of the features and characteristics of the 2017 draft process, including a commitment to a collaborative, consent-based, flexible, and adaptive approach to siting, the current document incorporates some changes that respond to additional public input and new congressional direction since 2017. The key differences are listed here.
1. The current focus is on siting one or more federal facilities for consolidated interim storage.
The DOE’s 2017 draft consent-based siting process encompassed multiple types of nuclear waste management facilities (including facilities for interim storage and deep geologic disposal). Given congressional direction and appropriations, the DOE is now focused on siting only federal consolidated interim storage facilities. However, the department will continue to support research and development on options for permanent disposal, as well.
2. A greater emphasis on equity and environmental justice.
The DOE said that comments submitted in response to the 2017 draft process and the 2021 request for information underscore the need to build trust between communities and department. Communities will have the right to voluntarily withdraw from the siting process at its own discretion.
3. An increased role for potential host communities in developing additional site-specific criteria.
Unlike the 2017 draft process, the updated document does not include initial siting considerations or screening criteria. The DOE said it is developing separate guidance on these topics, which will be published in the early phases of its siting process.
4. The increased use of funding opportunities to support community participation.
To support community involvement and collaboration, the DOE will continue to provide funding opportunities (subject to annual congressional appropriations) during each phase of the siting process, up to the implementation phase. Some of the additional funding opportunities will be designed in collaboration with communities; relevant tribal, state, and local governments; and applicable stakeholders, and will thus evolve over time.
The phases: The DOE’s updated report outlines six phases of consent-based siting, beginning with Phase 1, planning (completed in mid-2022) and building capacity through outreach and engagement (currently being implemented.)
Phase 2, site screening and additional criteria development, will focus on early screening of communities interested in considering being a host site and allow them to develop any additional screening/assessment criteria.
Phase 3, preliminary site assessment, includes technical surveys and analyses along with a parallel exploration of host community considerations.
Phase 4, detailed site assessment, focuses on a comprehensive technical and environmental review of the location or locations being considered.
Phase 5, site selection and negotiation, will provide federal funding to support a community’s development of proposed terms and conditions for hosting a facility.
During Phase 6, implementation, the DOE and the community will work to finalize the design, safety analysis, license application, and environmental impact statement in accordance with the Nuclear Waste Policy Act.
The DOE said the steps outlined in the report may not occur exactly in the sequence described and may need to be modified in collaboration with the affected communities. Some steps also could proceed in parallel with others.
Next steps: The DOE maintains that a consent-based siting process, by its nature, must be flexible, iterative, adaptive, and responsive to community concerns. As such, the department said it will continue refining the process as it learns more.
The DOE plans to continue to provide opportunities for public engagement through funding opportunities and other activities. Information on these activities will be available on the DOE’s consent-based siting webpage.