U.S. Department of Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said Thursday the federal government will send dollars to cities and towns willing to step forward and accept the nuclear waste that has stacked up over the years at commercial power plants across the country.
“We know that those communities will have to be compensated for their willingness, as a service to the nation, to be able to house one of these” storage sites, Granholm told reporters after taking a tour of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, the now-shuttered power plant that hugs the Pacific Ocean and stores some 3.55 million pounds of radioactive spent fuel.
This story is for subscribers
We offer subscribers exclusive access to our best journalism.
Thank you for your support.
When asked how much money would go to communities willing to host a site, Granholm said, “That’s to be decided.”
Rep. Mike Levin, D-San Juan Capistrano, accompanied Granholm on a one-hour tour of theplant, known as SONGS for short, and said the country faces a “serious and growing spent nuclear fuel crisis.”
“The communities I serve want to see results when it comes to removing the waste from our region,” said Levin, whose district includes SONGS, “and while we have much more work to do before this waste is gone for good, we are finally making real progress.”
Granholm’s remarks come five months after the Department of Energy announced formal steps in what is sure to be a long process to find potential “consolidated interim storage” locations to take waste from commercial plants until the federal government finds a permanent underground repository.
Granholm said her department has “gotten a lot of expressions of interest from communities” but did specifically name them.
“I am confident that we are going to get a community or several communities that are interested,” Granholm said.
Under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982, the federal government has a legal responsibility to dispose of the roughly 89,0000 metric tons of waste that has accumulated at nuclear power plants in 35 states.
A giant underground repository was near completion at Yucca Mountain in southern Nevada but in 2010, the Obama administration halted the project, following years of opposition from Silver State lawmakers, including former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
With Yucca off the table for all intents and purposes, focus has shifted to finding interim facilities. To avoid a repeat of Yucca, the federal government is now taking a “consent-based” approach to communities that may be attracted to hosting a storage facility by the prospect of more local jobs and economic growth.
David Victor, chairman of the SONGS Community Engagement Panel, said Granholm’s announcement that federal money will be tied to a potential interim storage site is crucial.
“It’s been implicit that there was going to be funding attached but it’s never been articulated as part of a strategy,” Victor said. Feedback received by the Department of Energy in recent months, Victor said, made it clear “that this has to come with direct support to communities.”
But the road will likely be a long and bumpy one.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission in September approved a license for a proposed interim storage facility run by a private sector partnership in the West Texas town of Andrews. The joint company could take as much as 40,000 metric tons of spent fuel for up to 40 years. But the project has run into opposition from authorities in the Lone Star State, including Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, who tweeted, “Texas will not become America’s nuclear dumping ground.”
Another site — this one in southeastern New Mexico — is awaiting licensing approval from the NRC. A partnership between a local group and nuclear company Holtec International proposes to store as many as 10,000 canisters and boost the area’s economy. But New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has come out against the project, saying, “the risks for New Mexicans, our natural resources and our economy are too high.”
One of the concerns for communities considering building an interim storage facility is whether they will get stuck with the waste for decades, should the federal government not find a permanent site.
“We’re taking it one step at a time,” Granholm said. “The interim storage is the first step. We have got to work with Congress on the permanent storage. If this is done right and we will do it right, it makes the conversation about permanent easier.”
At SONGS, 73 canisters loaded with spent fuel assemblies dating back to when the nuclear plant supplied electricity to Southern California have been lowered into vertical cavities at a storage facility on the north end of the facility. Another 50 canisters of waste rest horizontally nearby.
Levin has helped secure two tranches of $20 million each via legislation on Capitol Hill to move consent-based siting along. He recently reintroduced legislation with Rep. Darrell Issa, R-San Marcos, that would give priority to remove spent fuel from decommissioned plants like SONGS that are located in areas with large populations and seismic hazards.
Levin acknowledged the process will take years before waste can be removed from sites like SONGS.
“It’s not going to happen overnight but we’ve got to start,” Levin said. “Doing nothing is not an option. Waiting for others to act is not an option.”
There are some signs of hope in other countries.
Finland is scheduled to open its own permanent disposal site next year. Sweden is expected to construct one before the decade is out, France has plans to have a geologic repository in the 2030s and Canada has narrowed its search down to two potential host communities.
“We are looking at best practices from elsewhere because this issue of local communities having justifiable concerns is not new,” Granholm said. She also said the Department of Energy is open to looking at recycling commercial waste, as countries like France do.