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DOE’s Latest Run at a Nuclear Waste Solution

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Idaho National Laboratory contractor, Battelle, and its supporters in eastern Idaho would very much like to have a piece of the federal funding for commercial nuclear waste storage and disposal. It will be a pretty big pie. States that might be thinking about accepting nuclear waste are no doubt dreaming of dollars, not curies. Idaho’s current status as a “non-consent” state may be far from secure.

After failing in attempts to open a repository at Yucca Mountain, NV, the Obama Administration named a Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future to explore approaches to the nuclear waste dilemma. The commission recommended a “consent-based process” for choosing nuclear waste management sites. The Department of Energy (DOE) is now accepting public comments on what a “consent-based process” should look like.

At some point, the DOE intends to open a “pilot-scale” storage facility where all the spent fuel from shut-down reactors would be sent. It will open one or more consolidated storage facilities where spent fuel currently at operating reactors would be sent. And last – most certainly last – the DOE intends to develop a deep geologic repository for all of the commercial and most of the government-owned spent fuel and high-level waste. There’s an outside chance that some deep borehole plan will be concocted, but that plan is in its infancy and the proposed test has already hit some opposition.

No country on earth has an operating high-level waste repository. Those with programs that seem more likely to succeed have spent considerable time and resources ensuring deep and sustainable public consent. The DOE seems set on moving faster, which might result in a consent process that is not durable over time.

In January the Snake River Alliance attended a DOE meeting in Washington, DC, to hear firsthand where a “consent-based process” might lead. The DOE has given people until June 15, 2016, to respond to the following questions:

  1. How can the Department of Energy ensure that the process for selecting a site is fair? Consent based siting seeks to ensure fairness in the distribution of costs, benefits, risks and responsibilities now and in future generations. How, in your view, can fairness be best assured by the process for selecting a site?
  1. What models and experience should the Department of Energy use in designing the process? The challenges and opportunities of site selection drive us to continue to learn from previous or ongoing examples.  From your perspective, what experience and models do you think are the most relevant to consider and draw from in designing the process for selecting a site? 
  1. Who should be involved in the process for selecting a site, and what is their role?

The Department believes that there may be a wide range of communities who will want to learn more and be involved in selecting a site.  Participation in the process for selecting a site carries important responsibilities.  What are your views on who should be involved and the roles participants should have?

  1. What information and resources do you think would facilitate your participation?

The Department of Energy is committed to ensuring that people and communities have sufficient information and access to resources for engaging fully and effectively in siting. What information and resources would be essential to enable you to learn the most about and participate in the siting process?

  1. What else should be considered?

The medical community, for one, is keenly aware of the important difference between patient “consent” and “informed consent.” In this instance, the DOE keeps asking questions about a “site” without distinguishing whether the site is a “pilot-scale, short-term” facility, an “interim” storage site for a good chunk of all US spent fuel, or a deep geological repository that will hold spent fuel until the end of time. In Idaho, we’ve seen some recent contractor attempts to hide, or at least mask, plans that ran from 100 pounds to 20 tons of spent fuel.

Instead of the general dialog about a consent-based process, it might be more useful for DOE to explain upfront what people are being asked to say “Yes” to: How long? How much? What then? What if?

Decades ago, Idahoans considered all the questions and decided together to ban commercial spent fuel from our state. We learned our lessons and will be sharing them with others.

Learn more about the DOE’s consent process design and submit comments to

  • consentbasedsiting@hq.doe.gov with “Response to IPC” in the subject line.
  • S. Department of Energy
    Office of Nuclear Energy
    Response to IPC
    1000 Independence Ave, SW
    Washington, DC 20585

or online at www.regulations.gov

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