WASHINGTON -- Energy Secretary Steven Chu said Wednesday that he expects to move quickly to develop an alternative to nuclear waste storage at Yucca Mountain, with plans to convene a special commission that would report back to him by year's end.
Chu said a blue ribbon panel should be in place "in less than a month" as he is "beginning to have discussions with people and recommendations as to who should be on it."
At a hearing of the Senate Budget Committee, Chu said the commission will examine advances in nuclear waste management that have occurred over the years that the Department of Energy has focused on the Yucca Mountain site in Nevada.
Their commission's goal will be to recommend to President Barack Obama a new strategy for managing thousands of tons of highly radioactive spent fuel now stored at commercial power plants.
It also will be charged with recommending how to handle forms of nuclear waste generated by the government's weapons programs over the years and spent fuel from naval reactors.
The commission "ideally would come to me with a report this year and then we will take it from there," Chu said after the hearing.
In talking to reporters, Chu defended the Obama administration's decision to continue moving forward with the DOE's construction license application for Yucca Mountain even as the president has declared the site unsuitable.
Chu said it is "prudent" for the Energy Department to continue responding to an ongoing Nuclear Regulatory Commission's license review, particularly on the 1 million year radiation safety standards that have caused much debate among scientists and regulators.
"It would be very important to understand just from that point alone what it is the regulatory agency will demand of the Department of Energy," he said.
Chu would not say whether he would support storing nuclear waste underground at a site other than Yucca Mountain, saying he did not want to get in front of the blue ribbon commission.
He also did not say whether the commission would be asked to examine the current Yucca Mountain program, or whether the site could play a role in waste reprocessing or other options.
The energy secretary moved to respond to the most ardent Yucca Mountain critics who say they fear the Energy Department's repository effort cannot be declared truly ended until the license application is withdrawn.
"Going back to what the president has said, and I support, Yucca Mountain is not on the table," Chu said.
As Obama had declared he plans to cut funding dramatically for the Yucca Mountain repository, Chu in appearances before Congress this month has been pressured to discuss what the administration has in mind as a fallback.
Chu has indicated the study commission would play a big role in coming up with a Plan B, but he could not say Wednesday how big the panel would be or who might serve on it.
Several Republicans on the budget committee urged Chu to act quickly or risk discouraging the growth of nuclear power as a part of the nation's energy portfolio.
"Although I am very discouraged with the decision we have seen (on Yucca Mountain), we need to be very aggressive in finding a path forward," said Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho.
Likewise, Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., said the lack of a waste disposal plan could hamper licensing of new nuclear power plants.
"I don't want to debate Yucca because I accept the fact that Yucca may not be viable," Gregg said.
Contact Stephens Media Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at firstname.lastname@example.org or 202-783-1760.