Last December, the Department of Energy (DOE) finally announced the next step in its plan to manage nuclear waste, as roughly outlined in its 2013 Strategy for the Management and Disposal of Used Nuclear Fuel and High-Level Radioactive Waste. In what the DOE characterized as a “critical step, ” it opened a public comment period to gather input on how a new consent-based siting process for nuclear waste facilities might work. The DOE has yet to offer any technical framework or guidelines for what a desirable site would be.

A DOE blog post announcing the comment period states that the goal of this next step is “the long-term storage and disposal of spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste, ” which is important “so that we can continue to benefit from nuclear technologies.” However, this “critical step” does not ultimately address the goal of long-term storage nor does it increase the likelihood that Americans will continue to benefit from nuclear technology, regardless of the DOE’s intent. In fact, the DOE is largely settling for the much more short-sighted goal of addressing government liability for commercial nuclear waste.

A truly consent-based process is not primarily politically brokered and managed, but a market-based process in which costs and benefits are fully negotiated by companies and communities and the nuclear industry, and the government fulfills its appropriate function as an unbiased regulator.

Side-Stepping Long-Term Storage

The DOE’s December announcement specifically called for comments to develop a consent-based process to site the nuclear waste facilities outlined in its Strategy, namely a pilot interim storage facility, a larger interim storage facility, and eventually a long-term geologic repository. The problem is that building interim storage as the DOE proposes does not support the DOE’s stated goal of ultimately building long-term storage and disposal for nuclear waste.

When it became apparent that the DOE would not be collecting waste according to the 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act’s deadline, industry worked with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to develop interim storage in cooling pools and dry casks. Consequently, most operating and decommissioned nuclear power plants are currently functioning as what the NRC dubs an Independent Spent Fuel Storage Installation (ISFSI). In other words, the U.S. already has an interim storage system.

The DOE’s plan for two interim storage sites is even less necessary because the current temporary storage managed by nuclear power plants is safe. The NRC has determined, and the DOE itself recognized in its announcement, that “nuclear waste is safe and secure in these locations.” As commonly designed in the U.S., an interim storage facility is little more glamorous than an expensive concrete pad for large concrete-encased casks of spent nuclear fuel or keeping fuel in existing pools for longer than planned. The DOE’s proposed consent-based siting of interim storage—as opposed to the current private storage on nuclear power plant sites—does not mark a big technological step forward, only sideways.

Despite the existing interim storage situation, the DOE explains that there are other reasons for building interim storage, namely that “the purpose of a pilot facility is to begin…developing and perfecting protocols and procedures for transportation and storage of nuclear waste.” Though individual routes may have unique challenges, there is no technical unfamiliarity with the logistics and safety measures necessary for transporting nuclear waste. The World Nuclear Association estimates that since 1971 there have been some 20, 000 shipments of 80, 000 tons of used nuclear fuel and high-level waste around America and the world without injuries or damage to property. This is just a very small subset of nuclear material transported by road, rail, and ship from the medical, research, agricultural, mining, and other industries.