Nuclear industry calls for fallback plan for Yucca Mountain

WASHINGTON -- The government affairs arm of the nuclear industry on Monday called for President Barack Obama to convene a blue ribbon nuclear waste commission, a move that could be a first step toward forming alternatives to burying radioactive power plant fuel at Yucca Mountain.

With the future uncertain for the Nevada project, the Nuclear Energy Institute is endorsing a fresh look at nuclear fuel management, an NEI official told an audience of state utility regulators. Under the proposal, the Department of Energy would be allowed to continue pursuing a license to build the Yucca repository while the study was being conducted over a 12- to 24-month period.

"We believe it is necessary for the administration, the states, industry and other key stakeholders to develop a forward-looking used fuel management strategy, one that supports the continued future use of nuclear energy in this country," Paul Genoa, NEI policy development director, said at a meeting of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners.

In short, Genoa said afterward, such a commission could start developing a fallback that could take shape if the Yucca Mountain Project is set aside by the Obama administration.

"Others are raising the issue that they want to end this current program, so then what is Plan B?" Genoa said. "I would expect any politician responsible for this would have to put forward a Plan B before they take away Plan A, and how do you do that without some consultative process?

"I don't know how we turn back from a 26- or 27-year policy that is in law without doing some analysis and some stakeholder effort to chart a new path forward," he said.

The idea of forming a blue ribbon commission has been floating quietly around Washington for several months as Obama during the presidential campaign and Steven Chu, his energy secretary, have said it is necessary to revisit the management and disposal of used nuclear fuel currently stored at power plant sites.

The Nuclear Energy Institute is reported to have advanced the idea in paperwork submitted to Obama's transition team. Draft legislation to create a bipartisan panel has been written in Congress but has not emerged so far, industry consultants said.

Genoa's remarks in a brief presentation to the utility commissioners were the first public airing of the idea. He said afterward that a commission could be established by Obama or by Congress and could include governors, regulators, industry executives, environmentalists and others.

Genoa maintained the nuclear industry was not walking away from Yucca Mountain, which he said remains a cornerstone of its long-range waste strategy. But, he said, "the truth is there has been enough change to think about new things," such as advances in waste reprocessing and recycling technologies.

NEI would want the current Nevada burial strategy to be evaluated alongside other possible options, Genoa said, and for the Yucca project to remain active in the meantime. It may be that the Nevada site might someday end up as a disposal site for recycled material rather than used fuel assemblies as currently planned, he said.

"We have all this incredible talent that has been studying this (site) forever, and they now have it in a licensing context where we can test not only the science but the licensing process itself," Genoa said. "And we are not alone. Repository programs around the world want to see how it works. It would be important in my opinion that it continue if this study goes forward."

Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at or 202-783-1760.


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