DOE sets new nuclear waste target date

WASHINGTON - The Department of Energy on Friday set a new 2048 target to open a burial site for nuclear waste - a deadline 50 years later than originally planned.

Once upon a time, the government envisioned opening a repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada by 1998. Later it was revised to 2020.

But delays and then the termination of the Nevada program by President Barack Obama in 2009 prompted another rethinking.

A 14-page Energy Department strategy released Friday tracks a nuclear waste commission that issued recommendations a year ago. The document is the Obama administration's first formal action in response to the panel.

Under the new timeline, an interim, above-ground storage site would be built by 2021 to accept more than 3,600 metric tons of nuclear waste now at 14 reactor sites that have been shut down.

A larger, temporary facility that could hold up to 20,000 metric tons of waste would be built by 2025.

The Obama administration set a goal to locate an underground, permanent disposal site by 2026, design and license it by 2042 and have it built and accepting waste for burial by 2048.

Currently more than 68,000 metric tons of waste are stored at commercial reactor sites, with about 2,000 metric tons added to the waste stockpile each year.

The DOE did not specify locations for the projects, saying it would pursue a "consent-based" strategy to recruit volunteer states and communities.

An alliance of industry and state-based groups including the Nuclear Energy Institute renewed a call for the Obama administration to revive studies of Yucca Mountain.

On Capitol Hill, Republican leaders of the House Energy and Commerce Committee said the report's silence on Yucca Mountain leaves "a gaping hole in this plan.

"We cannot have a serious conversation about solving American's nuclear waste problems without Yucca Mountain," Reps. Fred Upton, R-Mich., and John Shimkus, R-Ill., said in a statement.

But Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., said the administration's strategy "is yet another critical step away from the failed Yucca Mountain project."

"The strategy makes clear that no state, tribe or community should be forced to store nuclear waste without its expressed consent," he said.

Bob Halstead, director of the Nevada Agency for Nuclear Projects, said 2048 is a conservative target for an underground repository. "With luck and hard work, it is probably possible to trim 10 years off that," he said.

On the other hand, Halstead said, the DOE recognized there are several thorny issues that must be addressed to set the nuclear waste program on a new path.

Among them, he said, is to get legislation through Congress to change the way the program is paid for, and to create a new quasi-government entity to oversee the effort.

The Energy Department "assumes that a lot of upfront work is going to have to be done," Halstead said.

Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at or 202-783-1760. Follow him on Twitter @STetreaultDC.