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U.S. Grapples with Solution to Nuclear Waste Disposal

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U.S. Grapples with Solution to Nuclear Waste Disposal

Politics

U.S. Grapples with Solution to Nuclear Waste Disposal

U.S. Grapples with Solution to Nuclear Waste Disposal

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A bill before Congress offers a temporary solution to U.S. nuclear waste problems: Leave the waste where it is — at power plants around the country. The government is required by law to dispose of the waste. Now it's facing more than 60 lawsuits for failing to do so.

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

From NPR News this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

: Leave the waste where it is, at power plants around the country. The government is under pressure to figure out a solution. It's required by law to dispose of the waste, and it's facing over 60 lawsuits because it hasn't. NPR's David Kestenbaum has the story.

DAVID KESTENBAUM: The new bill has been introduced in the House and Senate. Ten law makers have signed on, all from either Nevada or Utah.

JIM MATHESON: Well, we're the two states that are targeted for the rest of the country who wanna dump their waste so I don't think that should come as any surprise that we're trying to provide an alternative.

KESTENBAUM: That's Jim Matheson, democrat from Utah. His state has a tribe of Native Americans who want to host a temporary nuclear waste storage facility. Nevada, next door, is home to Yucca Mountain, where the waste is ultimately supposed to be entombed. By law, the government was supposed to start disposing of the waste eight years ago. The lawsuits it's facing could cost the government billions of dollars. Matheson said the new legislation would take care of the government's obligation, at least in the coming decades. The Department of Energy would take ownership of the waste and see to its safekeeping.

MATHESON: We said the government was gonna take responsibility for this and we will. The federal government will take title of this waste, but we're leaving it on site.

KESTENBAUM: He agreed this does not solve the bigger problem. The waste will remain highly radioactive for thousands of years.

MATHESON: Look, we all wish we could come up with a magic formula to get rid of this stuff. That magic formula doesn't exist today.

KESTENBAUM: When people talk about nuclear waste from reactors, they're really talking about used fuel pellets that are held in metal rods. The bill would store the rods in huge metal containers called dry casks. Many nuclear plants already used those. But the idea that the government could come and put a sign up that says Property of Federal Government and walk away is not enough. Not for John Kane with the Nuclear Energy Institute which represents the utilities.

JOHN KANE: The obligation of the federal government, which they took on way back when nuclear power plants first came into commercial operation was to take responsibility for the fuel. It designated 1998 as the pick up year that the federal government would come around and start collecting fuel, spent fuel from commercial reactor sites, and putting it in one safe, central repository. Taking title to the fuel and calling it government spent fuel and not moving it is far from meeting its obligation.

KESTENBAUM: The Nuclear Energy Institute last week sent letters to two members of Congress saying the bill was a bad idea. Kane says it's hard to imagine many member of Congress voting for the bill, because they would essentially be voting to say, yes, please keep nuclear waste in my state.

KANE: And that would be counter to, pretty much, their interests, I would believe.

KESTENBAUM: The Institute's letter also urged lawmakers to move ahead with Yucca Mountain but the Yucca Mountain project faces some new obstacles. A lawsuit last year forced the environmental protection agency to redo its radiation safety standards, the standards used to limit the amount of radioactive material that could leak out 10,000 years in the future. The new proposed standards stretch one million years into the future and some scientists wonder whether anything can be proved that far out.

David Kestenbaum, NPR News.

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