Senate bill takes first new step on nuke waste

Sen. Dianne Feinstein unveiled a bill Tuesday that she said takes a first step, though admittedly a small one, to relocate thousands of tons of nuclear waste left in limbo by the cancellation of the Yucca Mountain repository.

The Department of Energy would be given the authority to get started on a search for one or more volunteer states or tribes to host above-ground storage for used nuclear fuel, according to the fiscal 2013 spending bill for Department of Energy programs.

Feinstein, D-Calif., is the chairwoman of the Senate energy and water subcommittee that approved the bill and sent it to the full Appropriations Committee for review on Thursday. The nuclear waste provisions are a small part of the $33.4 billion measure that funds the DOE and also the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Feinstein said the nuclear waste authority in the bill is a "very limited" pilot program. It directs DOE to initiate a new "consent based" search for locations where nuclear fuel now stored in pools and in casks at 78 sites around the country could be consolidated at one or more complexes.

The bill is based on one of the recommendations of the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future, formed by the Obama administration after it terminated the contentious Yucca Mountain program that was developing an underground repository in Nevada.

In an effort to avoid a replay of years of resistance from Nevada, the commission advised the government to take a more cooperative approach to recruit volunteers for centralized interim sites and for a permanent nuclear waste repository.

Under the Senate bill, the Department of Energy would need to begin soliciting sites within 120 days and then report to Congress on its progress, which Feinstein said could be in six to eight months.

Lawmakers ultimately would need to pass legislation to authorize an interim storage site, she said, but they are limited until current nuclear waste law is repealed or changed. Under present law, an interim storage site can’t be opened before a permanent repository has been licensed.

Feinstein said the modest step unveiled Tuesday may be the only nuclear waste bill able to pass Congress this election year. Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., is drafting a broad bill to restructure the government’s management of radioactive waste but he has not said when it might be ready.

"While we work on comprehensive legislation, I feel it is imperative to begin to address the issue of spent nuclear fuel," Feinstein said.

While pursuing these new strategies, Feinstein said the Senate bill contains "nothing for Yucca." A companion bill moving through the Republican-controlled U.S. House contains $35 million to revive the canceled program, setting up a showdown later this year over funding for the Nevada site.

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