April 28, 2023

San Diego Union-Tribune: My congressional district includes San Onofre. Here’s my plan for moving nuclear waste.

Since I took office in 2019, one of my top priorities has been moving the spent nuclear fuel from the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station as quickly and safely as possible. Keeping spent fuel at the San Onofre station long term is unacceptable, with its location about 100 feet from the Pacific Ocean, near active fault lines, surrounded by highly populated areas and within the Camp Pendleton military base.

The situation at the San Onofre nuclear plant is the symptom of a far larger problem. In 1987, over Nevadans’ objections, Congress designated the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository as the only site to dispose of America’s commercial spent nuclear fuel. In 2009, the federal government shut down the site, as Nevadans never consented to it, and has lacked a cohesive strategy ever since. In other words, I inherited a mess. The Obama, Trump and Biden administrations all declared Yucca Mountain dead without a backup plan.

My office got to work immediately, laying groundwork that has translated into real progress. We launched a San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station Task Force to formulate policy recommendations that I have since been working to execute. We established the Spent Nuclear Fuel Solutions Caucus, a bipartisan group of members of Congress committed to breaking through the noise and solving these challenges.

Most significantly, we helped secure $93 million for the U.S. Department of Energy to restart a federal, consent-based consolidated interim storage program. The new process is designed to work with local governments that want to host a site in a way that is inclusive, community-driven, phased and adaptive.

Under Secretary Jennifer Granholm’s leadership, the Department of Energy has committed to rebuilding trust around spent nuclear fuel issues. Past missteps are being candidly acknowledged.

This week, in partnership with the Department of Energy, I am pleased to announce the contours of this program.

Finalizing one or more interim storage sites will require three stages. The first is planning and capacity building, which is well underway. The Department of Energy will soon award funding to communities throughout the country to advance mutual learning and foster open discussions about potentially storing spent fuel. This process is expected to take two to three years.

The second stage will be site screening and assessment, where communities that remain interested can engage with the Department of Energy and appropriate stakeholders to comprehensively assess their sites to reach a final decision. This is expected to take another four to seven years.

The third stage is negotiation and implementation, where the Department of Energy will negotiate agreements with willing and informed host communities, with site licensing, construction and operation to follow. The anticipated duration until initial operation is four to five years after the end of stage two.

Add the time frames of these stages together, and the Department of Energy is committing to have one or more destinations for spent fuel between 2032 and 2038. As your habitually impatient representative, I’ll be pushing for all of this to happen as soon as possible.

As the Department of Energy continues its work, Congress will have plenty more to do. First, we need to work on a bipartisan basis to secure additional funding for the plan through each of its phases. As The San Diego Union-Tribune reported last April when I hosted Granholm’s tour of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, direct federal compensation to host communities is a possibility.

Second, we must continue planning for the safe transportation of the spent fuel in close cooperation with local, state, tribal and regional partners along potential corridors.

Third, we must codify that spent fuel from sites with the highest environmental risk, population density and national security concerns be moved before any others. My bill with Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Bonsall, the Spent Fuel Prioritization Act of 2022, would do just that.

Finally, interim storage sites are not intended to replace a permanent repository. The federal government must acknowledge we are moving past Yucca Mountain and license a different repository with local buy-in. This does not need to be finished by 2032, but the process must begin, assuring potential interim hosts they won’t be stuck with spent fuel permanently.

This will require amending existing law and could require the creation of a new Nuclear Waste Administration to handle the nation’s spent nuclear fuel. None of this will be easy.

But there is some good news. For the first time in over a decade, the federal government has a plan to address the nation’s spent nuclear fuel. It won’t happen overnight, but there is finally a light at the end of the tunnel.

By:  Rep. Mike Levin
Source: San Diego Union-Tribune