WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, today delivered the following speech at a policy forum on the recommendations of the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future hosted by the Bipartisan Policy Center.
The commission issued recommendations in January for a new comprehensive strategy to manage and dispose of the nation's spent nuclear fuel. The federal government continues to incur financial liability due to its failure to provide long-term storage for the nuclear material used to generate 20 percent of the nation’s electricity. Sen. Murkowski continues to press for the creation of interim storage sites as an initial step that could be taken to address the backend of the nuclear fuel cycle in the near term, while the issue of where to construct a permanent repository is resolved.
Sen. Murkowski’s prepared remarks are below:
“The issue of nuclear waste management has been frustrating Congress, multiple administrations, utilities, and rate payers for many decades now. Efforts to address it through the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 and further amendments remain unresolved. Taxpayers have paid over $2 billion in damages so far, all resulting from the government’s failure to take title to the used nuclear fuel. The Department of Energy estimates that if title were to be taken by 2021 – just a few years from now, the total liability incurred would be over $13 billion. Some in industry are estimating that the total cost will be closer to $50 billion, if not higher.
“When the administration announced its intent to form a Blue Ribbon Commission to examine the back-end of the nuclear fuel cycle, I freely admit to having had a healthy dose of skepticism. I did not believe that any new solutions would be proposed. The administration’s decision to not allow the commission to even consider Yucca Mountain as a possible repository introduced political influence into what should have been a strictly fact-based process. At best, I believed forming this commission would postpone the government’s inevitable responsibility to dispose of commercial spent fuel and government-produced highly radioactive waste.
“I wish I could say that today we are in the same place that we were at the time of the commission’s formation. Unfortunately – from my perspective – we are in a worse place. Any possibility of advancing legislation to address the back-end of the nuclear fuel cycle was effectively put on hold while the Blue Ribbon Commission conducted its review. In the meantime, the administration shut down all activity on Yucca Mountain. The Department of Energy attempted to withdraw its application for the Yucca repository, an effort rejected by an NRC licensing board. Given the NRC’s inability to break a tie vote, it appears that a court will need to decide the issue. At this point, the possibility of the federal government fulfilling its contractual obligations by 2021 seems to be even more unlikely than it was when the BRC was formed.
“It took us 30 years and over $10 billion to get this far on the Yucca Mountain repository site. While many will remain focused on Yucca, I believe must also consider the potential of starting anew. In looking at our own and other nation’s siting processes, the time frame to establish a repository seems to be roughly 20 to 40 years. I would like to believe that we have learned enough along the way to speed up this process, I know the prospect of the American people paying $50 billion in taxes is simply unacceptable.
“The BRC report revives many recommendations that have been made in past proposals. Earlier this Congress, Sen. [Mary] Landrieu [D-Louisiana] and I introduced S. 1320, the Nuclear Fuel Storage Improvement Act, designed to provide for interim storage of used nuclear fuel. Similar legislation has been proposed in past congresses. The commission agreed with our position and included interim storage in its recommendations. I also cosponsored Sen. Voinovich’s Fed-Corp proposal that would create a quasi-governmental entity to manage the backend of the fuel cycle. The Blue Ribbon Commission based much of its recommendation for a similar organization that would implement a waste management program on this bill.
“With this report, the Blue Ribbon Commission has successfully ignited a heightened sense of urgency and renewed focus on our need to resolve this issue. As the commission’s report notes, the government’s failure to address our nuclear waste issues is damaging to the development of future nuclear power and simultaneously worsening our nation’s financial situation. We need to act, and we need to act soon.
“It is a credit to the quality of the commission’s members – not its mission– that action may occur on the backend of the nuclear fuel cycle in the near future. The credibility of the co-chairs and the other members of the commission are what give the recommendations the exposure and attention lacking from past attempts.
“As many of you are aware, Sens. [Jeff] Bingaman, [Dianne] Feinstein, [Lamar] Alexander and I have been working together – as the top members of the appropriating and authorizing committees on nuclear waste issues – to see what aspects of the commission’s recommendations could be implemented. Language included in the Senate Energy and Water Appropriations bill focuses on interim storage, particularly the consolidation of decommissioned sites. It would require the Secretary of Energy to issue a request for proposal on interim storage with a defined time table in an effort start moving forward on transporting the spent fuel.
“This doesn’t mean that Yucca Mountain is off the table. It’s the most studied piece of real estate in this country and will be considered as a repository. I have, however, come to accept the BRC’s recommendation that whatever site is chosen must have local support. Wherever the final destination, moving the spent fuel in dry cask canisters will need to be addressed and the legislation we are considering would start us down that path. In addition, consolidating the orphaned sites would reduce the government’s liability price tag, which should make it fiscally attractive in today’s political climate.
“While the interim storage approach is a first step, it is by no means the only step that needs to be taken. I have been working with Sen. Bingaman to draft more comprehensive legislation to implement many of the Blue Ribbon Commission’s other recommendations. While the odds of comprehensive language being enacted this Congress are not in our favor, it remains important to lay out a path forward to keep the legislative process alive and begin regaining the trust of the American public on this issue.”