Senator offers alternative for Yucca project

WASHINGTON -- A new nuclear waste strategy that would partner the government with industry to develop privately owned storage sites and recycling factories was announced on Friday.

Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., unveiled a bill as an alternative to storing 77,000 tons of used nuclear fuel in a long-delayed Yucca Mountain repository.

The bill would not end the Yucca project, but could alter its purpose.

Domenici, considered the Senate's authority on nuclear power, has said the Nevada site could eventually be put to use storing military nuclear waste and other radioactive products that cannot be recycled.

But Domenici has made it clear his goal is for most spent fuel generated by nuclear power plants to be shipped to interim storage pads and eventually run through a reprocessing regime to pull more energy out of them.

"A sustainable nuclear fuel cycle is the key to nuclear energy reaching its full potential," Domenici said in a statement. "I'm pleased to introduce this legislation which takes the first step toward resolving the question of nuclear waste."

Because the bill envisions some role for Yucca Mountain, Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., said he will oppose it and continue to look for ways to kill the project outright.

"This is the more of the same nuclear snake oil that has been peddled before and there is no reason to believe it's going anywhere," added Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev.

Domenici is retiring from Congress this year. His bill was cosponsored by Sens. Jeff Sessions. R-Ala., Mary Landrieu, D-La., and Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska.

Domenici has touted Sessions as most likely to continue promoting nuclear waste legislation after he retires.

The new bill authorizes the Department of Energy to enter into contracts with private companies to store waste at two interim sites -- one in the East and one in the West -- while reprocessing plants are licensed and built nearby.

Western storage would not be at Yucca Mountain, a Domenici aide said.

Costs would be shared 50-50 to finance engineering and designs and licensing applications for two recycling plants. The bill would divert 5 percent from a $20 billion Yucca Mountain construction fund to explore the possible alternative.

The Secretary of Energy would be authorized to offer benefit payments to communities willing to serve as hosts.

The Domenici bill dovetails with an ongoing community recruitment project by the Nuclear Energy Institute.

NEI president Frank Bowman said the legislation was "pragmatic -- and needed." A surge of interest in nuclear power "necessitates a fresh look at used fuel management policies," he said.

Domenici has touted nuclear waste reprocessing techniques being used in France. Some critics say the French method creates more pollution, and plutonium byproducts that pose proliferation risks.

The Bush administration has attempted to launch a U.S. program involving advanced reprocessing technologies. Some experts say that could be decades away from fulfillment.