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Congress' next nuclear waste task

May 16, 2024
Illustration of a glowing green radioactive trash can.

Illustration: Gabriella Turrisi/Axios

An Energy Department decision to move ahead with a temporary storage site for high-level commercial spent fuel returns Congress to the forefront of the nuclear waste debate.

Why it matters: Before any federally-run storage facility could be built, lawmakers would have to amend the 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act.

Driving the news: The department announced this week it's pursuing a federal temporary storage project.

  • Absent a central location, about 90,000 metric tons of nuclear reactors' spent fuel is being stored at more than 70 plants.
  • The only permanent U.S. nuclear waste disposal site, New Mexico's Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, is solely for weapons-generated waste and doesn't accept spent fuel.

The agency already has started on a "consent-based siting" process that doesn't dictate where to eventually put waste.

Zoom in: A federal appeals court recently vacated the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's license to Holtec International Corp. to temporarily store spent nuclear reactor fuel in southeastern New Mexico. The court ruled that private companies' efforts can't supersede the feds'.

  • A separate proposed private-storage site, in nearby West Texas, also has faced legal challenges. Some observers believe the Supreme Court will have to settle the question of private interim storage.

Our thought bubble: The department's decision won't please House E&C Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers and others who want Nevada's mothballed Yucca Mountain made the permanent — not interim — disposal site.

  • But given that Nevada is a key swing state, no presidential candidate is likely to agree.
  • Environmentalists don't like interim storage, either, arguing that there's no guarantee a "temporary" site won't become permanent.
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