By: Congresswoman Mimi Walters
While generating nuclear power is one of the cleanest and most efficient forms of electricity, the process creates what is known as spent nuclear fuel. Unfortunately, spent nuclear fuel currently sits idle across our state: 228 tons isolated at the Rancho Seco site, 29 tons at the decommissioned Humboldt Bay site, 1,490 tons stored at the still operating Diablo Canyon site, and most concerning is the 1,800 tons at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station along the Pacific coastline and San Diego Freeway.
This used fuel was originally intended to be sent to the middle of the Nevada desert at Yucca Mountain for disposal. However, 35 years after the Nuclear Waste Policy Act was enacted and 30 years after Congress designated Yucca Mountain as the first site for a permanent geological repository, this material still sits just off our California beaches. The time to fix this problem is now.
For 35 years, ratepayers in California and around the country have paid a tax on electricity generated from commercial nuclear power plants into the Nuclear Waste Fund to study, license, and ultimately construct and operate Yucca Mountain. Californians have contributed over $2 billion into this fund.
Unfortunately, the fund was never managed as Congress had intended, creating challenges to successfully implement a nuclear waste management program. After the previous administration determined the Yucca Mountain project was “unworkable” it illegally tried to take it off the table and left ratepayers in California and around the country holding the bag.
At Yucca Mountain, spent nuclear fuel and high-level waste — waste generated from maintaining our nation’s nuclear weapons stockpile, as well as from submarine and aircraft carrier propulsion systems — would be permanently isolated 1,000 feet underground in the middle of the Nevada desert. In 2013, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission determined the Yucca Mountain site could safely store spent nuclear material for up to one million years. The study met the high regulatory standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency and found that the annual release of radiation from the mountain would be about equal to a cross-country airplane flight.
Despite the exceptional safety standards and the billions of dollars ratepayers across the country have paid, the project was sidelined for the previous seven years.
Thankfully, the Energy and Commerce Committee — of which I am a member — has been hard at work on the Nuclear Waste Policy Amendments Act of 2017. The NWPAA reforms the broken financing system to protect ratepayers in California and in the 121 communities across 39 states that have paid into the Nuclear Waste Fund and currently have spent nuclear fuel sitting in their states.
Recently, the committee overwhelmingly passed the NWPAA by a vote of 49-4. This was the result of a bipartisan agreement to find common ground and break the impasse on our nation’s nuclear waste management policy.
This bill allows for the first time a new private interim storage initiative to move forward. It would allow the Department of Energy to contract with a private entity to store spent nuclear fuel on a temporary basis while the federal government continues to work on the permanent repository at Yucca Mountain. In doing so, the legislation would provide a path for private companies to partner with the federal government once those companies are fully licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to safely store spent nuclear fuel and as long as the federal government maintains work towards completing next critical step for our nation’s disposal program.
This is a win-win for Californians who would have a new pathway to move spent fuel out of the state and finally get an up-or-down decision on the viability of the Yucca Mountain project, which Californians have already paid for.
In 2012, the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station fully ceased operations. The federal government needs to fulfill its obligation and take ownership of this used fuel. It’s time we get this spent nuclear fuel off our beaches. This bill is the most viable solution to quickly and safely getting this nuclear material out of our state, while not kicking the can to our children and grandchildren to finish the permanent disposal facility.
I stand ready to work together in a bipartisan way to ensure that the spent nuclear fuel scattered throughout the country is safely and responsibly managed.
Mimi Walters represents the 45th Congressional District, which includes the communities of Irvine, Tustin, North Tustin, Villa Park, Orange, Anaheim Hills, Laguna Hills, Lake Forest, Rancho Santa Margarita and Mission Viejo.