A Step Toward Breaking the Logjam on Nuclear Waste
Senator Ed Markey and Congressman Mike Levin have introduced legislation that would establish a task force and help set new approaches for handling nuclear waste.
For way too long, many in Washington have tried to get around the impasse over nuclear waste by trying to force Nevada to take it. It hasn’t worked—and now, after decades of futile effort, Congress is waking up to the fact that waving their arms and stomping their feet isn’t going to change that reality.
We need a new approach to handling our nuclear waste, and today Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Congressman Mike Levin (D-CA) have introduced legislation that offers a way forward. This historic proposal would establish a task force of federal agencies, states, tribes, and a host of others to analyze the “implications of amending the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 to remove exemptions from environmental laws for spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste to allow for consent-based siting of geologic repositories.”
This is just the change that NRDC has advocated for years. Ending this exemption would allow EPA to set health standards for this extremely toxic waste—and give states authority to decide if and how much waste to accept.
The Task Force would analyze, write a report, and potentially recommend legislation that would place our most dangerous nuclear waste directly under our bedrock environmental laws.
The way the Task Force will be set up is key to its success. Five federal agencies (Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Energy, Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Department of Transportation and the White House Office of Science), seven states and at least three tribal nations from across the country compose the government portion of the task force. After that, non-governmental environmental and social justice groups, industry, health, and labor organizations comprise the remaining members of a 30-member, geographically balanced group. There will be three hearings—one in the West, one in the East, and one in the middle of the country. Along with the hearings, the Task Force will issue a draft report for public comment on (i) the implications of amending the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 to remove exemptions from environmental laws while maintaining Federal minimum standards; (ii) the likely allocations of precise regulatory responsibilities under any such amendments; and (iii) the timeframe necessary for developing regulations and recommendations for appropriate legislative and regulatory changes.
This is the long-awaited follow up to former President Obama’s Blue Ribbon Commission on nuclear waste. That commission spent years getting to two important conclusions: (1) we need repositories for nuclear waste and, (2), in order to gain the publics’ acceptance, we must obtain consent of the governed for such facilities, something that’s been lacking in every effort since our nation first started trying in the 1960s to impose sites on unwilling hosts.
But the Blue Ribbon Commission neither defined consent nor charted a workable path forward. This is the time to do so. The Task Force’s wide inclusion of all the interested players, three open hearings, and a draft report for public comment will give everyone the opportunity to weigh in on how we can finally get that elusive “consent” to accept the disposal of nuclear waste.
NRDC thinks that bedrock environmental laws can break this 60-year logjam, but others (read: industry) may have different ideas. Fine—this is the perfect opportunity to make the case why strong environmental laws, successful in improving so many parts of American life via cleaner air and water and the cleanup of toxic industrial sites, aren’t up to the task of solving nuclear waste. When everything is on the table, we are confident that bedrock environmental law will carry the day, but that’s why we have task forces on such challenging issues. Senator Markey and Congressman Levin have made a wise choice to propose this path instead of simply making such a recommended change in law.
Congress should pass this legislation into law with all speed and get the Task Force cracking on finally putting nuclear waste on the path to a publicly acceptable solution, one that will leave the waste in repositories, deep underground, for the length of time the waste is dangerous.