Waste issue hurting U.S. nuclear revival: panel

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The lack of a permanent home for the nation’s radioactive waste is dampening prospects for a resurgence of the U.S. nuclear industry, federal commissioners said at their first public hearing on the subject.

Steam rises from a cooling tower on September 7, 2007 at the Tennessee Valley Authority's Watts Bar Nuclear Plant in Spring City, Tennessee, 50 miles south of Knoxville. REUTERS/Chris Baltimore

The Energy Department set up the panel of former Congressmen, academics, and business leaders after deciding to scrap the long delayed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste dump in Nevada.

Commissioners said nuclear waste does not pose an immediate threat to the nation, but a plan on its disposal must be hatched to address the concerns average Americans have about expanding nuclear power.

“This is a major impediment to the development of new nuclear sites,” said commissioner John Rowe, chief executive officer of power company Exelon Corp. “While we don’t have to do anything quickly to keep the public safe, we do have to do something decisive to have public credibility.”

Despite opposing the Yucca Mountain site, the Obama administration is pushing to expand the U.S. nuclear power industry, which has been stagnant since the 1970s. The White House budget proposal provides $54 billion in loan guarantees for new nuclear plants.

Ultimately the United States will need a geologic repository to deal with the 2,000 metric tons of waste produced annually by U.S. nuclear power plants, said Allison Macfarlane, a George Mason University professor. “We cannot escape that fact.”

Commissioner Pete Domenici, a former Republican Senator, touted an operational repository for military waste located in New Mexico underground salt deposit as proof that waste can be held safely.

One of the main obstacles the Yucca project ran into was the strong opposition from citizens of Nevada and the states’ lawmakers, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

The nuclear waste panel is scheduled to produce an interim report within 18 months and a final report within two years.

Federal law required the government to take ownership of the spent fuel in 1998, but with no repository completed that has yet to happen and leaves the dangerous used fuel on site at the nation’s numerous nuclear plants.

Administration efforts to scrap the Yucca Mountain site have run into stiff opposition from some lawmakers who say it is hazardous to continue to have nuclear waste stored across the country.

Energy Secretary Steven Chu reiterated at the meeting that the panel cannot choose a permanent site for the nation’s nuclear waste, but should suggest options and policies to deal with long-term disposal of used nuclear fuel. He also made clear that the Yucca project is not on the table.

“We’re going to look to the future,” Chu said. He said he doesn’t want the commission examining whether Yucca could be a suitable site for the future.

Domenici said it is time to move on from the Yucca project.

“We’ve got to get on with things,” Domenici told Reuters on the sidelines of the meeting. Yucca “wasn’t going anywhere, that’s the problem.”

Reporting by Ayesha Rascoe; editing by Jim Marshall