WASHINGTON, D.C.—To successfully fix the federal government’s moribund program for managing used nuclear fuel, newly proposed legislation requires a more comprehensive framework, a nuclear energy industry leader told a U.S. Senate committee today.
Henry B. Barron, president and chief executive officer of Constellation Energy Nuclear Group, said the proposed Nuclear Waste Administration Act of 2012 is a “positive start to overhauling the federal program” but needs to incorporate additional elements and principles to be successful.
“A key element to the long-term success of a federal program is establishing a new entity to assume program management responsibility from the U.S. Department of Energy. It is imperative that the CEO not be subjected to the political uncertainties associated with presidential appointments,” Barron said in testimony before the Senate panel. “He or she can then focus entirely on performing the task at hand with the requisite attention to nuclear safety and security that is expected from all employees of a nuclear industrial company.”
Barron testified before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, whose chairman, Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) introduced the Nuclear Waste Administration Act of 2012 (S. 3469) in August. Bingaman’s proposal would establish a separate board of federal officials within the executive branch to oversee a nuclear waste program administrator, but it stops short of creating the semi-autonomous government corporation recommended earlier this year by the administration’s Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future (BRC).
Barron told the committee that the operating characteristics of the new management entity must more closely resemble those of a corporation rather than a federal agency.
“Congress and the administration should retain an oversight authority, but this role should be structured to avoid creating an impediment to the efficient operation of a new management entity,” he said.
Barron voiced overall support for the BRC conclusions that the United States needs a new, integrated strategy for managing the byproducts of nuclear energy. But additional elements need to be incorporated in the BRC’s recommendations, including a plan for the ultimate disposal of used nuclear fuel, he said.
An “ideal” technical solution isn’t required to begin implementation of a new policy direction, he said, because advances in technology can be incorporated over time without waiting until decades of research are completed.
“The successes and failures of the past must be understood to help guide future innovation, especially the need to build public trust in the systems and facilities ultimately developed,” Barron said.
Barron said the nuclear energy industry opposes DOE’s move to abandon the effort to develop a used fuel repository in Nevada—a project approved by Congress in 2002—before the Yucca Mountain license review was completed by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The industry was well-justified to file a lawsuit against DOE for continuing to collect electricity customer payments to the federal Nuclear Waste Fund in the absence of a federal program to dispose of used nuclear fuel, he said.
Barron also voiced the industry’s support for the BRC’s recommendation to build consolidated interim storage facilities via a consent-based approach embraced by states and local communities.
These interim facilities can be funded with the more than $26 billion in the Nuclear Waste Fund, which has been accumulating at a rate of $750 million a year for three decades from consumers, he said.
“Consolidated storage is the quickest route for the federal government to begin moving used fuel from nuclear energy facilities and to stem the increase in damage awards beyond the estimated $20.8 billion through 2020,” Barron said. His reference was to the growing federal liability that has resulted from the 60-plus lawsuits filed against DOE by energy companies as the result of the federal government’s failure to begin disposing of used nuclear fuel in 1998 as required by the Nuclear Waste Policy Act. While billions of dollars in damages already have been awarded, dozens of those lawsuits remain pending in federal court.
Barron emphasized that a multi-pronged approach is necessary for the used fuel management program to succeed.
“We should not lose sight of the fact that consolidated storage is not a complete answer. A repository will be required and should be pursued simultaneously with the development of a consolidated storage facility,” Barron said.
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