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US nuclear waste plan needs public support-panel

* Public support seen necessary for nuclear waste plan

* Speakers at meeting illustrate challenge of waste issue

* Company plans hang in balance without waste strategy

* US must trim waste output to help public acceptance-Rowe

By Ayesha Rascoe

WASHINGTON, March 26 (Reuters) - Plans to boost nuclear power hinge on overcoming intense public fears about radioactive waste -- and mistrust that the government can safety store it -- federal commissioners tasked to deal with the issue said on Friday.

There’s little point in hammering out technical details about how to site a permanent nuclear waste dump without also convincing the public that storing waste won’t be a risk to health or the environment, argued Commissioner Albert Carnesale of the University of California at Los Angeles.

“We have to be careful not to focus solely on the technical questions,” Carnesale said as a panel set up to develop an alternative to the now-scrapped nuclear waste dump at Yucca Mountain in Nevada worked out logistics for their monumental task.

“To come up with an optimal policy that can not be implemented, ain’t optimal,” Carnesale said.

The White House has requested $54 billion in loan guarantees to build more nuclear plants, part of its effort to reduce the use of fuels that spur climate change, and so far has offered Southern Co SO.N an $8.3 billion guarantee to build two reactors in Georgia.

But without a long-term home, the 2,000 tonnes of nuclear waste produced each year by existing plants remains stored at sites around the country, leading to uncertainty among power companies about liabilities as they seek to revamp an industry that has languished since the 1970s.

The industry also needs new technology to reduce the amount of waste produced by nuclear plants to make industry growth sustainable, said commissioner John Rowe, chief executive of power company Exelon Corp EXC.N.

“If you assumed significant growth with the current fuel cycle, the number of waste disposal projects gets larger than one can imagine the public accepting,” said Rowe.

Exelon, one of the largest U.S. nuclear plant operators, has said it will not pursue new plants until progress is made on the waste issue.

The Obama administration canceled the Yucca Mountain project following years of opposition from Nevada and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who represents the state.

Some lawmakers and state governments have said they will fight the decision. [ID:nN24148404]

PUBLIC COMMENTS ILLUSTRATE CHALLENGE

The commission got a taste of the wide range of impassioned public views on nuclear power during more than an hour of input provided by members of public at the end of its meeting.

“Civilizations will rise and fall ... and the only constant during all that future time will be our selfish foolish generation’s lethal legacy of nuclear waste, said Mary Jane Williams, who argued against nuclear expansion.

Others also spoke vehemently against expanding nuclear power when the country is still grappling with existing waste. One woman placed a tin can on the commissioners’ table, soliciting donations to clean up a New York site she said is hazardous.

The commission must be able to generate public support for whatever plan it develops, said Bruce Breslow, executive director of the Agency for Nuclear Projects in Nevada’s governor’s office.

“You can have tremendous plans, but if they’re not sellable to the community ... and the politicians who are going make the final decisions on these things, you’re wasting a lot of time,” Breslow said.

He recommended the panel consider a strategy that would offer economic incentives to locations chosen as a nuclear waste site.

Some commissioners argued that Americans are becoming more accepting of nuclear technology and the commission must try to educate and allay concerns of the public.

“Overwhelmingly, Americans say, ‘Yes, it is needed,’” said commissioner Phil Sharp, president of Resources for the Future, an environmental policy think-tank. (Reporting by Ayesha Rascoe; Editing by Alden Bentley)

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