The nation's nuclear regulator is scheduled to discuss a proposed rule Thursday that underscores the complexity and stalemate surrounding the long-simmering debate about how to store the nation's nuclear waste.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission will hold the first of several national meetings on its draft "waste confidence" rule. The NRC needs to finalize the rule, which states how long waste can be safely stored, from an environmental perspective, at commercial sites, so it can consider and approve reactor licenses.
The draft floated by the NRC says that it believes a permanent long-term repository will be built within 60 years after expiration of a reactor license, which can last up to 80 years through renewals.
"It's basically a realization that — or just the government recognizing that — there is a need to do something. And 60 years would be plenty of time to do the process," NRC spokesman David McIntyre said.
So far, the absence of a permanent repository has burdened taxpayers.
The Energy Department had entered into contracts with commercial nuclear utilities to collect and dispose of waste, a service that was supposed to begin in 1998.
But since a permanent site was never developed, the waste had nowhere to go — roughly 70,000 metric tons of it sit onsite at commercial reactors across the country, accumulating 2,000 metric tons every year, according to industry group the Nuclear Energy Institute.
Those utilities have successfully sued the federal government for breach of contract, arguing they have incurred expenses for security and building storage tanks. The Energy Department has agreed to pay about $2 billion in judgments so far — it anticipates that figure to hit $20.8 billion by 2020 — which are paid to the utilities.
"The waste is not supposed to be there. They're not built to hold the waste for as long as they've been holding them, and certainly not that amount of waste," said Rob Thormeyer, spokesman with the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners.
And people who live in a nuclear utility's service area get hit another time, Thormeyer said.
They pay a fee that's baked into electricity rates that is supposed to supplement construction of a permanent repository — the DOE-administered Nuclear Waste Fund has roughly $28 billion that hasn't been touched.
The recent history of the rule illuminates the difficulty the federal government, utilities and lawmakers have experienced in pursuit of finding a permanent nuclear waste dump.
Until 2010, the NRC could continue licensing reactors because it intended to develop a permanent waste repository by the first quarter of the 21st century.
"But it was becoming pretty obvious that wasn't going to happen," McIntyre said.
That's partly because of the impasse over Yucca Mountain, the proposed long-term storage site in Nevada. A 1982 federal law stipulates that the NRC must evaluate whether that site is safe for permanent storage.
But Yucca has been met with fierce opposition from Nevada lawmakers, who say the responsibility for holding the nation's nuclear waste was forced upon the state. And President Obama, with the support of longtime Yucca opponent Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., pulled the plug on the reviews in 2009.
Following that, the NRC changed the waste confidence rule to say the commission could continue issuing licenses for reactors because it would build a permanent repository "when necessary." But that didn't pass muster with the courts, as the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit in June 2012 told the NRC to revise its rule.
In the meantime, a separate decision from that court in August ordered the NRC to restart its review of Yucca. The NRC had contended it didn't have enough money to finish the review, but the court said not doing so violated the 1982 federal law.
Ellen Ginsberg, vice president and general counsel with the Nuclear Energy Institute, said she doesn't envision the remaining $11 million NRC has to review Yucca will be enough. That will put Congress in the position of needing to appropriate more money or change the law, she said.
"The decision by the D.C. Circuit has shone a bright light on the problem," she said.
Each chamber of Congress has a different approach.
House Republicans are holding the line on Yucca and have voted to appropriate more money to finish the review.
The Senate, meanwhile, is focusing on a bipartisan bill that would, among other things, permit some waste storage on an interim basis and encourage states or local government to apply to host the nation's permanent repository.
That bill, which a Senate aide said the Energy and Natural Resources Committee is hoping to mark up by the end of the year, is based on the recommendations of independent expert panel convened by Obama in 2010. Two of its participants were Ernest Moniz, who is now Obama's Energy secretary, and Allison Macfarlane, now chairman of the NRC.
The NRC cited that panel and the Senate bill in its rationale for settling on the 60-year scenario for the waste confidence proposal, rather than the 120-year and "indefinite" options it also considered.
"There is certainly a realization in the federal government that something needs to be done," McIntyre said.
"I think there's a lot of interest in solving the used-fuel dilemma," she said.