U.S. needs fresh look at nuclear waste issue: Chu

SANTA BARBARA, California (Reuters) - U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu said on Friday that the United States needs to come up with a better system for storing or disposing of radioactive nuclear waste than a planned repository near Las Vegas.

United States Secretary of Energy Steven Chu makes a speech at the 53rd International Atomic Energy Agency IAEA General Conference in Vienna September 14, 2009 file photo. REUTERS/Herwig Prammer

“The president has made it very clear that we are going to go beyond Yucca mountain. You should go beyond Yucca mountain,” Chu said. “But instead of wringing my hands, let’s go forward and do something better.”

The Obama administration, in January, announced it was stopping the license application for a long-planned multi-billion dollar nuclear waste storage site at Yucca Mountain near Las Vegas, which is opposed by environmental groups.

The Energy Department formally asked the Nuclear Regulatory Commission this week to withdraw the application.

Chu said when the waste site was first started, there were conditions put in the requirements for the repository that didn’t really mesh with what scientists knew even back then.

“Long, long ago, it began looking less and less ideal,” he said. “As time wore on, it’s got to be one of those things: ‘oops this might have happen, oops the Supreme Court says this...’,”

“Wouldn’t it be nice to step back and take a fresh look?” he asked.

The energy secretary said he would like to have the new blue ribbon panel of experts the administration recently created study the issue of managing nuclear waste on a long-term basis rather than spend money building a waste storage facility.

“Yucca mountain was designed at a time when we didn’t think we would start the nuclear industry again,” Chu said.

The Yucca mountain storage site, planned about 90 miles from Las Vegas, has endured years of bureaucratic delays and scientific foul-ups.

Yucca Mountain was designed to store millions of pounds of radioactive waste from 104 U.S. nuclear power reactors along with tons of leftovers from the country’s nuclear weapons program.

Currently, spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste are stored at 121 temporary locations in 39 states across the country.

Reporting by Poornima Gupta; editing by Carol Bishopric