The U.S. Department of Energy is moving forward with developing a consent-based process for siting nuclear waste facilities. The topic was the focus of a public meeting the DOE held in Chicago Tuesday. Progress Illinois provides highlights from the event.
The U.S. Department of Energy's plans to develop a consent-based siting process for nuclear waste facilities was the topic of a public meeting hosted in Chicago Tuesday. A consent-based siting process is designed to ensure that the public and all stakeholders are involved in determining the location of nuclear waste facilities.
The DOE is gathering written public comments on the topic now through June 30. In addition, DOE is hosting eight public meetings around the country to gather input on the issue, with the first having been held today in Chicago.
Tuesday's meeting featured a panel discussion with a diverse group of speakers, including Zion Mayor Al Hill.
Zion is home to a retired nuclear power plant, which ComEd shut down in 1998. On top of the retired Zion plant, Illinois has six active commercial nuclear plants, the most of any U.S. state.
Hill said the Zion community is housing 2.2 million pounds of spent fuel rods from the retired nuclear plant.
"There was never an understanding that once the plant closed, the Zion community would play host to a radioactive, and I'll be blunt here, a radioactive dump," he stressed. "That wasn't part of the deal that we were gonna be hosting these here. I speak for all of Zion when I say we do not want to be a storage facility for radioactive waste."
Hill said he wants the spent fuel rods removed, or his community compensated for becoming a "defacto interim fuel storage facility."
"With Yucca Mountain being scuttled in 2010, we're not naive enough to believe that these rods are going to be moved anytime soon," he said, referring to the once-proposed, long-term nuclear waste repository site in Nevada. "We therefore believe that in the meantime, until they are moved, our community should be compensated, and we also believe that the federal government should do the compensating."
Almost all existing spent nuclear fuel from commercial electricity generation is currently stored at facilities where it was generated, according to the DOE. Additionally, DOE has five storage sites for spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste from defense activities.
Last year, Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz announced that the DOE would move forward with what the department describes as a "consent-based siting process to establish an integrated waste management system to transport, store, and dispose of commercial spent nuclear fuel and high-level defense radioactive waste."
Later this year, DOE plans to publish a summary report based on the public input it receives, which will be used to design a consent-based process for siting.
"In a consent-based siting approach, DOE will work with communities, tribal governments and states across the country that express interest in hosting any of the facilities identified as part of an integrated waste management system," according to the energy department.
An integrated waste management system could include a pilot interim storage facility, a consolidated interim storage facility, and a permanent geologic repository for nuclear waste, among other potential sites.
"The federal government pays hundreds of millions of dollars a year right now out of something called the 'Judgement Fund' because of the government's inability, or failure, to start receiving nuclear waste as required under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act in 1998," explained DOE's Acting Assistant Secretary for Energy John Kotek. The funds go to pay court judgements to utilities as compensation for storing the waste on their property.
"We think it makes sense to consolidate that material to one location with the capabilities there to manage that material safely for the long term," he added.
David Kraft, director of the Nuclear Energy Information Service, a Chicago-based non-profit focused on ending nuclear power, spoke to the need for "informed consent" in siting nuclear waste facilities. But before any new radioactive waste facilities are sited, Kraft said the DOE and other agency's dealing with nuclear waste in the United States need to fix their "enormous credibility gap."
"The public lacks confidence in everything that's gone on before. Your history is very clear on how selective you are and what treaties, what agreements you will keep and which ones you will break, with or without consequence," Kraft said. "That's very hard to get a community to trust you, and move into an informed consent dialogue, under those circumstances."
Also on the panel was Kim Wasserman-Nieto with the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, which helped shut down the Crawford and Fisk coal-fired power plant sites on Chicago's South Side.
She said any consent-based process for siting nuclear waste facilities should be open and transparent and specifically detail the potential health and environmental costs associated with such projects.
"A lot of times, our communities are sold on a notion of jobs and economic benefit," she said. "It's a very good conversation to say, 'This is how many jobs will be created. This is what the tax base is gonna be.' But a lot of times, our community, because we're so caught up in this conversation, because we may be economically distraught or for any number of reasons, nobody ever wants to talk about the health impacts, and the monetary cost of that associated with the other side."
Wasserman-Nieto went on to say that she expects it will be difficult finding communities that would be willing to house a nuclear storage site.
"Until we stop creating this waste, we're gonna continue to be in the same space and having the same conversation," she added.
Another panelist was Ann McCabe, a commissioner on the Illinois Commerce Commission and chair of the Nuclear Issues Subcommittee at the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NARUC).
NARUC wants to see the administration and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission complete the process of determining whether Yucca Mountain can be licensed as a permanent geologic repository for nuclear waste.
"NARUC believes the goal should be progress on the permanent repository," she said. "The interim site is by definition a temporary, and not inexpensive, measure to bridge the gap to a permanent repository, assuming it can be cost justified."
The DOE will hold its next consent-based siting meeting with the public in Atlanta on April 11, with events to follow in Sacramento, Denver, Boston, Tempe, Boston and Minneapolis.
Obama Hosting Nuclear Security Summit This Week
Today's discussion comes ahead of this week's Nuclear Security Summit, being held Thursday and Friday in Washington, D.C.
President Barack Obama is convening the fourth and final Nuclear Security Summit with leaders from 56 nations and organizations, with the goal of "advancing tangible improvements in nuclear security behavior and strengthening the global nuclear security architecture." The Obama administration held the first Nuclear Security Summit in 2010.
Last week, U.S. Rep. Bill Foster (D-IL,11), the only physicist currently in Congress, spoke on the House floor about the importance of strengthening global nuclear security.
In discussing the past Nuclear Security Summit gatherings, Foster said they have thus far "been instrumental in achieving critical nuclear security objectives, such as minimizing the use of highly enriched uranium in reactors around the world and enhancing membership in international organizations like the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency]."
However, Foster stressed that "more remains to be done" on the issue.
"It is no secret that rogue regimes and clandestine organizations continue to exhibit the ambition to acquire nuclear materials that can be used to create crude radiological dirty bombs or nuclear weapons," the congressman said. "I am, however, optimistic that with our allies and partners around the world, we will continue to develop new and innovative ideas to secure vulnerable nuclear material and make the world a safer place."
Activists with Global Zero, an international movement for the elimination of nuclear weapons, are heading to Washington this week for demonstrations coinciding with the summit.
The group "will urge participating world leaders to expand their approach to reducing the threat of nuclear terrorism by advancing actionable plans for the phased, verified elimination of all nuclear weapons globally," reads a statement from Global Zero.
Chicago-based Global Zero activist Kylie Allen is among those traveling to Washington this week.
"Securing nuclear material is important, but there's no such thing as 'nuclear security' while there are more than 15,000 nukes in the world," Allen said. "Eliminating these weapons must be at the top of the agenda."
Image: AP/Robert Ray