SCE, Key Stakeholders, Respond to DOE Initiative on Consent-based Siting for Offsite Federal Interim Storage

In December, the Department of Energy effectively restarted the federal spent nuclear fuel management program when it announced a request for information, or RFI, to help create the framework for a consent-based siting process for one or more federal interim storage facilities

Consent-based siting, getting up front buy-in from local communities to host a facility, was a recommendation of the presidential Blue Ribbon Commission in 2012. The process has historical success, most notably in Finland and Sweden where it was used to site federal spent fuel facilities. Canada is using a consent-based siting process and has narrowed down to two communities that are interested in hosting a permanent disposal facility. Here in the U.S., Nevada’s Yucca Mountain repository, chosen in 1987, did not embrace a consent approach and the results have been disappointing and costly. The project was essentially abandoned around 2010 following political pressure, state opposition and, eventually, federal funding being withdrawn.

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The Yucca Mountain site in Nye County, Nev.

Thirty-five years later and after spending $13 billion on Yucca, it remains the only destination, by law, for the DOE to dispose of commercial spent nuclear fuel and it likely will never see a single fuel pellet due to the lack of consent. Needless to say, much work must be done to find a new permanent home for the nation’s spent nuclear fuel. A home in an informed, willing community. With the worries about climate change growing, utilizing all carbon-free electricity sources, including nuclear, is imperative. Building more nuclear plants demands solving this issue, as DOE’s Dr. Kim Petry explained to the SONGS Community Engagement Panel last month.

“As we can continue to deploy nuclear energy as a solution for decarbonization, increase access to energy, and tackling climate change, we need to make progress on management of the spent nuclear fuel,” Dr. Petry told the CEP. “Inaction on this issue has already cost the taxpayers, you and I, nearly $9 billion in settlements and judgments. And while spent nuclear fuel is stored safely all over the country, the communities, including yours, that have the spent nuclear fuel never agreed to host the material long term, and we do recognize that.”

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The spent nuclear fuel storage systems at SONGS contain 123 canisters of spent fuel. More than 80% are currently ready to be shipped off-site if a repository were available.

The DOE’s request for information on consent-based siting is a first step to developing a federal interim storage facility, a preferred option in the Strategic Plan developed by Southern California Edison with help from leading experts. Such a facility can be developed faster than a permanent, deep geologic repository, allowing decommissioned nuclear plants like SONGS to transfer its fuel decades sooner. It’s also important for the DOE to restart work on a permanent repository because communities that are interested in hosting an interim storage facility will want to have confidence that interim storage does not become permanent by default.

The responses

SCE submitted a response to the RFI, as did the SONGS Community Engagement Panel leadership, San Diego Gas & Electric (a SONGS co-owner) and the Action for Spent Fuel Solutions Now coalition.

“SCE is committed to working with the DOE and community stakeholders to find solutions for relocating the spent nuclear fuel now stored at SONGS,” said Manuel Camargo, principal manager for strategic planning.

Relocating the spent fuel will allow for the full decommissioning of the SONGS site, restoration of the land, and eventual return to the U.S. Navy, since it’s part of Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton.

Another key reason for relocating the fuel is fulfilling a long-standing federal government obligation to do just that. As SCE wrote in its RFI response:

“Further, SONGS customers have already paid nearly one billion dollars into the Nuclear Waste Fund (“NWF”) consistent with their financial obligations under the NWPA (Nuclear Waste Policy Act). These customers have held up their end of the bargain. By law, the federal government is accountable for the spent fuel program and solutions are more than 20 years overdue. Now is the time for the federal government to finally honor its legal and contractual obligations.”

In her presentation to the CEP on Feb. 10, Dr. Petry echoed that sentiment.

“It is our responsibility, the Department of Energy's, to those communities to move the spent nuclear fuel to an interim storage facility, and the time to start work on that is now. We cannot continue to defer the problem for future generations to figure out,” Dr. Petry said.

(Posted March 8, 2022)