Yucca Mountain commission to recommend that a new site be found for nuclear waste

A blue-ribbon commission assigned by President Obama in January 2010 to come up with an alternative to the plan for a nuclear waste repository at Nevada’s Yucca Mountain will recommend that at least one new site be found to store waste left over from the nation’s nuclear power plants, people familiar with the report said Thursday.

The commission — chaired by former Democratic congressman Lee Hamilton and Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser to President George H.W. Bush — does not suggest where that storage site would be located.

Their report, to be issued Friday, does urge the creation of a new federal corporation to manage the site, rather than turning it over to the Energy Department, which is responsible for managing nuclear waste. And it recommends guidelines for a selection process — such as giving local communities, but not states, the power to veto a facility.

Many members of the commission believe that New Mexico, which already has a nuclear waste storage facility, might prove more receptive than Nevada to a federal waste site.

The group also recommends finding an interim storage site for waste that is now being stored at 10 closed reactors at nine different sites. All but one of the sites have the used nuclear fuel in dry casks, and the commission said there would be fewer security risks if the waste were stored in one place.

Critics say that any central waste site would require costly preparations and expensive and potentially hazardous transportation, while dry casks commonly used at power plants could last decades.

Obama asked Energy Secretary Steven Chu to create the 15-member commission after his administration decided against going ahead with long-delayed plans to create a national nuclear waste storage site at Yucca Mountain.

For years, electric utilities with nuclear power plants paid about $23 billion in fees to the federal government to finance the repository, and substantial preparation was done at the Nevada site. Some of those utilities have filed lawsuits to recover the money.

Opponents of the Yucca site pointed to possible corrosion, water contamination and earthquake hazards.

The issue of nuclear waste storage flared up after an earthquake and resulting tsunami rocked the Fukushima Daiichi complex in Japan in March. Damage there extended to the spent fuel pools, which contributed to the release of radioactive materials.

The report contains no dissenting opinions, but members of the commission could not reach agreement on whether to move ahead with reprocessing of used nuclear fuel, a process used today in France.

One person who was familiar with the commission’s deliberations and asked for anonymity to preserve relationships with commission members said that even members who favored reprocessing did not believe that it would eliminate or even significantly reduce the need for nuclear waste storage over the next three decades.

Steven Mufson covers energy and other financial news.
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