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"Gang of 4" U.S. Senators off to the races: Mobile Chernobyl/Parking Lot Dump bill introduced

The Mobile Chernobyl mock nuke waste cask, a full size replica of a truck shipping container, shown in front of the State Capitol in Jefferson City, MO during a cross-country educational tourThe so-called "Gang of 4" U.S. Senators -- Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Ranking Member Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), as well as Appropriations Subcommittee for Energy and Water Development Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Ranking Member Lamar Alexander (R-TN) -- have introduced the Nuclear Waste Administration Act of 2013.

The Gang of 4 has issued a press release, a one page summary of the bill, a section by section summary, and the 71 page bill.

The bill's introduction follows a month-long public comment period on an earlier "Discussion Draft," which reportedly garnered 2,500 comments, including from Beyond Nuclear, scores of environmental and public interest groups, and thousands of concerned citizens. However, despite so much public engagement, initial analysis of the newly introduced legislation reveals objectionable provisions have been retained, despite large numbers of comments in opposition. Also, newly proposed provisions raise additional objections.

The bill would rush unprecedented numbers of high-level radioactive waste (HLRW) shipments onto the roads, rails, and waterways, in a race for "priority" or "emergency" centralized interim storage by 2021. Such a rush into large-scale transportation increases the safety and security risks of severe "Mobile Chernobyl" accidents or "Dirty Bomb on Wheels" attacks.

The bill risks "interim" storage sites becoming de facto permanent parking lot dumps, by stating a preference for co-location of pilot interim storage alongside large-scale nonpriority interim storage, and even the permanent repository. The waiver of any connection or "linkage" between development of centralized interim storage and progress toward opening a repository only increases the risk that stored wastes will simply be allowed to remain in surface facilities indefinitely into the future.

The bill seems to undermine "consent-based approach" principles, by allowing site suitability characterization and even final suitability determination activities to proceed, without requiring consent or cooperation from the targeted state, Native American tribe, or local municipality.

No restrictions on how much waste could go into the first centralized interim storage site, and the elimination of an upper limit for how much waste could be stored in the country's first deep geologic repository, runs the risk that a single nuclear sacrfice area could be targeted for the entire country.

Please contact your two U.S. Senators, as well as your U.S. Representative, and urge they block such Mobile Chernobyl and de facto permanent parking lot dump risks. Urge they instead pass a law requiring Hardened On-Site Storage. You can phone your Members of Congress via the U.S. Capitol Switchboard at (202) 224-3121.

More detailed analysis of the bill's provisions follows.

Off to the Races: Parking Lot Dumps

The most immediate risk included in this bill is a "pilot" centralized interim storage site for "priority" and "emergency" irradiated nuclear fuel or high-level radioactive waste (HLRW) opening by 2021. This would launch unprecedented numbers of HLRW trucks, trains, and barges onto the country's roads, rails, and waterways in less than a decade.

If enacted, the bill would pull the trigger on a starter's pistol. In fact, the newly created agency of the Nuclear Waste Administrator -- likely only partially set up yet -- would be mandated to issue Requests for Proposals for this pilot facility a mere 180 days after enactment of the legislation.

"Parking" space at the pilot facility would be reserved for "priority" irradiated nuclear fuel, that is, from permanently closed atomic reactors, or "emergency" wastes that can be shown at heightened risk, as from natural disasters such as earthquakes, tsunamis, flooding, etc.

This scheme was retained in the bill, despite the fact that community groups living in the shadows of even permanently closed reactors have, for over a decade, urged implementation of Hardened On-Site Storage (HOSS) as their highest priority, not shipment off-site. Those community groups have been joined by over 200 environmental and public interest groups across the country, representing all 50 states, in calling for HOSS as the top priority for HLRW management. 

The Gang of 4 Senators, as well as the Department of Energy (DOE), have attempted to justify rushing stored wastes away from closed reactors in order to free up the land for "un-restricted re-use," despite the lingering radioactive contamination even after the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) certifies decommissioning as "complete."

Risk that "interim" would become de facto permanent

The risk that such a "priority" parking lot dump would become de facto permanent is increased by the stated preference in the bill that the pilot facility be co-located with the nonpriority (that is, all other HLRW in the country) storage site, to be opened by 2025, as well as co-located with the geologic repository (that is, the permanent dumpsite), to be opened by 2048.

The plan also seems geared to make certain companies in the nuclear industry a lot of money, referring to "non-Federal sector partners" as being in charge of opening and running the pilot storage facility.

Whatever happened to consent?!

Alarmingly, the bill's Section 305, "Storage Facilities," appears to violate the "consent-based" approach President Obama's Blue Ribbon Commission for America's Nuclear Future called for. Site characterization and final site suitability determination activities could be undertaken, and completed, even without the consent or cooperation of the municipality, state, and/or Native American reservation being targeted. Even though the bill calls for the consent of the targeted community before storage site development proceeds, the lack of required consent for site characterization and suitability determination activities would build a lot of momentum towards "getting to yes." That is, consent would only be required for the final stage of interim storage site development, but would not be required in the earlier stages setting the stage for final decisions. This would undermine a comprehensively consensual approach.

This is documented in the one page summary, where it states "obtain state and local (and tribal if on an Indian reservation) cooperation to study sites, with cooperation agreements optional for storage sites." (emphasis added)

The Devilish details of the rush job into centralized interim storage

The Section by Section summary lays out how this race would proceed:

"Section 305 – Storage Facilities

Requires the new nuclear waste agency to establish a Storage Facility Program, beginning with a pilot program for storage of priority waste which is defined in Sec. 103 as spent fuel from nuclear power plants that have been shut down and spent fuel that justifies emergency delivery.  The Administrator is required to —

  • issue a request for proposals, including general review guidelines, for cooperative agreements to demonstrate storage of priority waste not later than 180 days after enactment; 
  • review each proposal;
  • select at least one site for characterization after holding hearings in the vicinity of each site and at least one other location in the state of each site;
  • notify Congress;
  • may enter into a cooperative agreement for state and local consent prior to site characterization; (emphasis in original)
  • make a final determination on the suitability of sites characterized;
  • obtain state and local (and tribal if on an Indian reservation) consent to site a repository;  
  • select one or more suitable sites for storage facilities;
  • not less than 30 days before selecting a site, provide a program plan to Congress; and
  • submit a license application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission."

Given the choice of words,

  • obtain state and local (and tribal if on an Indian reservation) consent to site a repository;  
  • select one or more suitable sites for storage facilities;

it seems that the Gang of 4 U.S. Senators has retained more comprehensive consensual principles only for repositories (permanent dumpsites), but significantly less so for centralized interim storage sites.

Disconnect between centralized interim storage and permanent disposal

Regarding "linkage" between "interim" storage sites and permanent dumpsites, the bill would do away with any connection for the first 10 years of transfer to parking lot dumps. As stated in the Section-by-Section Summary:

"There are two significant changes in the introduced version of the bill compared to the discussion draft. The first is the provision linking construction and siting of a consolidated storage facility to progress on a repository. The draft did not include a volume limit on consolidated storage, but required the Administrator to cease shipments of nuclear waste to the storage facility if progress is not being made on the repository. The introduced bill removes the requirement to cease shipments in the event of no progress on the repository. Instead, for 10 years after the enactment of the Act, the Administrator may site storage facilities and ship fuel as long as funds have been obligated toward the siting and/or construction of a repository. After 10 years, the Administrator may not site an additional storage facility unless one or more repository sites have been selected for evaluation."

Section 305 adds: "The Administrator must ensure that efforts on a storage facility for nonpriority waste are paralleled by efforts on a repository. In the 10 years following enactment of the Act, the Administrator may not issue additional requests for proposals or select sites for characterization for additional nonpriority storage facilities unless the Administrator has obligated funds to meet the requirements of Section 306. After 10 years, the Administrator may only develop additional storage facilities if one or more repository sites have been selected for evaluation."

Whereas the Bingaman bill of 2012 would have dis-connected permanent disposal from centralized interim storage for the first 10,000 tons of "priority" or "emergency" irradiated nuclear fuel, the current proposal would allow unlimited tonnages of transfer for a decade.

A single nuclear sacrfice area for the entire country?!

Another alarming provision in the current bill is Section 509 – Repeal of Volume Limitation, which states:

"Eliminates 70,000 metric ton cap on the first repository (which was designed to ensure that more than one repository would be needed), but authorizes the new agency to build additional repositories if additional capacity is needed."

The 70,000 ton cap at the now-cancelled Yucca Mountain dump, included in the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1983, as Amended, was a safeguard against a single state being targeted for all of the country's HLRW. It appears that now, a single municipality, state, or even Native American reservation could be singled out as THE "nuclear sacrifice area" for the entire country.

The Gang of 4's "preference" for "co-location" of pilot "priority" and "emergency" centralized interim storage by 2021, "nonpriority" centralized interim storage by 2025, and even the permanent dumpsite by 2048, makes this risk of a single nuclear sacrifice area for the entire country all the more likely.