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Want to host San Onofre’s nuclear waste? Here’s a couple million dollars!

Want to host San Onofre’s nuclear waste? Here’s a couple million dollars!

A $16 million carrot is dangling in front of communities that may be game to temporarily host America’s nuclear waste in their backyards, courtesy of the U.S. Department of Energy.

This money will go to six to eight — lucky? — communities “interested in learning more about consent-based siting, management of spent nuclear fuel, and consolidated interim storage facility siting considerations.”

Translated, that means the Biden Administration is trying to leave moribund Yucca Mountain firmly in the past, learn the lessons of successful nations (work with folks willing to host the stuff who won’t scratch your face off) and make it worth their while with a little green and a lot of empathy.

This, many experts say, is key to removing the 3.6 million pounds of radioactive waste from the bluffs at San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, as well as from more than 70 reactor sites where the stuff languishes across the nation.

“I think this is terrific news — the FOA (funding opportunity announcement) announced today is part of a huge effort by DOE to make consent-based siting a reality,” David Victor, professor at UC San Diego’s School of Global Policy and Strategy and chair of the San Onofre Community Engagement Panel, a volunteer group that advises Southern California Edison on San Onofre’s decommissioning, said by email.

“For too long, the U.S. government has not paid close attention to finding communities that want to host spent fuel. That’s true for interim storage and also for permanent disposal. Other nations, such as Finland, Switzerland and Canada, are far ahead of the U.S. in their spent fuel programs because they have actively sought out communities that give their consent to store fuel.”

One thing to note, he said: This is meant to furnish funding to communities that want to get better organized and informed. “It is NOT a requirement that the community actually agree to host — that’s a question for much further discussion down the road. The idea is to help make sure communities are really informed and engaged, so that the process reveals true informed consent,” Victor said.

The Holtec Hi-Storm Umax dry storage system for spent fuel at San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station. (Courtesy Southern California Edison)
The Holtec Hi-Storm Umax dry storage system for spent fuel at San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station. (Courtesy Southern California Edison)

Seeking equity

Applying is clearly not for the faint of heart — the packet is 40 pages long and includes a history of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 (where the feds agreed to accept commercial nuclear waste by 1998 in exchange for ratepayers contributing to a fund to pay for it — stifle those guffaws) and tries to get in front of the familiar criticism — that these projects always hit poor, minority communities hardest, that the waste may remain there for many decades or longer, and how can people today “consent” for those who aren’t yet born? — by stressing “environmental justice” as a key principle of the consent-based siting process.

“The successful applicant will need to have an awareness of the sociocultural, economic and environmental context of the community, including the recognition of any past injustices, the current status of the harm, remediation, and/or repair, and ensure that every reasonable effort is made to remove barriers to meaningful participation … especially for historically overburdened and underserved communities,” it says.

U.S. Rep. Mike Levin, D-San Juan Capistrano, was a champion of the effort to secure this $16 million to get the ball rolling.

“One of my top priorities since my first day in office has been moving the nuclear waste at San Onofre away from the region as quickly and safely as possible,” Levin said in a prepared statement. “I am glad to see the Department of Energy taking another important step in the process of establishing a consent-based site for the storage of spent nuclear fuel currently at San Onofre. While we have much more work ahead to finally move the waste, this long-overdue progress is very encouraging, and I look forward to seeing the results from the award recipients.”

Applications are due by Dec. 19, the DOE hopes to launch the projects by March, with “deliverables” due within 24 months that detail lessons learned, community concerns and how they might be addressed.

Mind you, this is a separate, public push for temporary storage by the DOE. Private companies are pursuing their own licenses via the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for private temporary storage sites as well. The problem right now with the private approach is a) the $43 billion in the Nuclear Waste Fund can’t be used for private storage without further legislation; and b) the communities where these private companies want to put the temporary sites are, as mentioned aforehand, fighting tooth and nail against being the nation’s nuclear waste dump.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office's map of sites storing spent nuclear waste in the United States.
The U.S. Government Accountability Office’s map of sites storing spent nuclear waste in the United States.

Dealing with distrust

Last year, the DOE kick-started the consent-based siting process with a polite and philosophical request for comments on consent-based siting itself. It received 225 responses running the gamut from “nuclear power is the key to the low-carbon future” to “nuclear energy is a threat to humanity itself.”

But there were many similar threads, including great distrust of the federal government’s nuclear waste management efforts; concerns about fairness in siting waste sites; disagreement on whether temporary storage is needed at all, with some saying America should just hunker down and figure out the long-term storage picture.

There’s concern about the sturm und drang of politics where it meets the nitty gritty of nuclear waste storage (policies tend to swing wildly between administrations, from Permanent disposal at Yucca whether Nevada wants it or not! to Yucca is dead! Interim storage instead while we hash this out!), and great support for major change in how the nuclear waste issue is managed at the federal level. A new, independent organization — specifically devoted to siting and building storage for nuclear waste — was the suggestion of many.

It’s, um, not a new suggestion. A decade ago, the U.S. Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future urged policymakers to take the program out of DOE and create a semi-autonomous organization, specifically dedicated to this problem, in its place.

“It would still be accountable to congressional oversight, but with a goal to ‘buffer’ it from shorter-term political pressures,” Tom Issacs, a nuclear expert who was lead advisor to the Blue Ribbon Commission, said by email. “The other countries that are seriously pursuing a solution, like Finland, Sweden, and Canada, have dedicated organizations.”

Victor, of UCSD, believes that as more communities see a potential advantage in interim storage, they’ll push for it, which will change the politics around this challenge. That’s essentially what happened in Finland, the country that’s most advanced on permanent storage, he said.

“This is this key to political durability — to take this topic from one that blows in the wind with each shift in administration and makes it a matter for which there is more reliable and increasingly vocal political support,” Victor said.

The Blue Ribbon Commission also recommended that the billions in the Nuclear Waste Fund be available for this effort, rather than captive to annual congressional appropriations, which makes long-term planning and program implementation “exceedingly uncertain and inefficient,” Issacs said.

“But for the moment,” he said, “I am very happy to see the DOE announcement.”

Hear hear. Now, Congress, do something.

This Google Earth image shows how close the expanded dry storage area for spent nuclear waste will be to the shoreline at San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station. (Image courtesy of Google Earth)
This Google Earth image shows how close the expanded dry storage area for spent nuclear waste will be to the shoreline at San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station. (Image courtesy of Google Earth)

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