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Floor Statment: Introduction of the Nuclear Waste Policy Amendments Act of 2008
January 24, 2008

Mr. President, I believe that a vibrant and growing nuclear energy industry is vital to the energy security of our nation and the health of our economy.  However, I am concerned that continuing delays in opening our nation’s repository at Yucca Mountain will hinder the resurgence of nuclear energy in the U.S.

The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 established a program to locate and develop a repository for nuclear waste, including both defense waste legacy from the Cold War and civilian spent fuel.  In 2002, after 20 years of research, the President recommended to the Congress that Yucca Mountain should be developed as the repository.  The State of Nevada objected, as was their right under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act.  However, Congress passed a joint resolution affirming the Administration’s recommendation of Yucca Mountain with strong, bipartisan majorities in both Houses.

Mr. President, the location has been decided.  The debate on this issue is no longer whether a repository should be built at Yucca Mountain.  That decision was made in 2002.  The task that remains is to develop a repository that protects public health and safety, and the environment: a permanent solution for our nation’s nuclear waste.  It’s high time that we accomplish this task.  We’ve passed laws and resolutions to do it.  We’ve collected over $27 billion dollars from electricity consumers to pay for it. And courts have affirmed that we have a legal obligation to do it.  Like many people, I am frustrated that the Department of Energy (DOE) is 20 years behind schedule.  However, I am pleased that the DOE appears to have made significant progress in the past few years and will hopefully file a license application this year despite the persistent assault on program funding.

I understand that opposition to Yucca Mountain remains, advocating that we abandon it in favor of interim storage.  There have been many proposals on interim storage, and I expect there will be more in the future.  But we have interim storage right now at 121 locations in 39 states.  Make no mistake, interim storage is a temporary fix and forces future generations to solve our waste problem. 

Mr. President, it’s time to move forward with the permanent solution at Yucca Mountain.  I’ve visited the site.  I have a question for those who want to abandon Yucca Mountain:  If you can’t build a repository in the middle of a mountain in the middle of a desert, where should it be?

Let’s think about this for a moment. The logical first step to finding a new repository site is to begin by re-evaluating sites that have been considered before.   Here is a map showing the 37 states that the DOE and its predecessor, the Energy Research and Development Administration, have evaluated in the past based on the presence of favorable geologic formations:   

Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Idaho, Kansas, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, my home state of Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.

37 states have been considered as possible candidates for developing a repository.  Does it really make sense to abandon a site, where we’ve invested 25 years and $8 billion dollars, before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission even considers it, only to turn around and start from scratch re-evaluating sites in 37 states?  I don’t think so.

As the generation that has benefited from the use of nuclear energy and the resulting spent fuel, I believe it is incumbent upon us to manage spent fuel in a manner that is fair to current generations and generations to come.  I am introducing a bill that will do just that. 

DOE has indicated there are legislative provisions they need to complete the licensing process and begin construction of the repository our electricity consumers have paid for.  Senators Domenici and Craig introduced their NU-WAY bill, S. 37, which includes those provisions within the jurisdiction of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.  My bill includes the remaining DOE provisions that are within the jurisdiction of the Environment and Public Works Committee.

But my bill goes beyond that.  My bill will incorporate a flexible framework for future generations to apply their knowledge and innovations to improve the repository.  The task at hand is to develop a safe repository using state-of-the-art technology and cutting edge science.  The trouble is, technology that is “state-of-the-art” now, won’t be 50 years from now, much less one hundred years from now.  When making decisions on how to develop a facility that will be safe for up to one million years, we should not limit ourselves to the science and technology available today.  We should establish a flexible framework that incorporates technological advances into the facility design over time. One that allows our grandchildren and great-grandchildren to improve on the project we’ve started. 

Several international bodies, including the National Academy of Science and the international Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Nuclear Energy Agency, have advocated repository development in stages that will incorporate technological advances over time.  The reformed licensing process in this bill integrates that concept into the current licensing process. 

My bill reforms the licensing process for authorizing construction, operation, and closure of the repository.  The threshold for approval to construct the repository is based on a determination that the facility could be safely operated for 300 years.  During this time, a long-term science and technology program will be established to monitor and analyze the repository’s performance and to conduct research into technologies that would improve the facility.  The repository license will be amended every 50 years, at a minimum, to incorporate these improvements.  During this phase, waste would remain retrievable so that future generations may recover valuable material or upgrade disposal systems, for example. 

When the DOE applies to permanently close the repository, it must then demonstrate compliance with the EPA’s radiation standard before ceasing operations at the site.  Until then, the facility will be subject to strict NRC regulation as an operating facility. 

Today, this program has been litigated into a corner.  After several lawsuits, the EPA has responded by drafting a radiation standard for a million years.  That’s right, based on what we know today, DOE must prove a reasonable expectation that Yucca Mountain will be safe for one million years before DOE can even begin building a repository.  This is a ridiculous and arrogant requirement that assumes we know right now all that will ever be known about the management of spent nuclear fuel and its impact of public health and safety.  That compliance decision only makes sense when DOE decides to close the repository and cease operations.  Until that time, repository enhancements reflecting 300 years of scientific innovation will improve its protection of public health and safety, and the environment.

My approach is not about kicking the can down the road and forcing future generations to solve the problem.  My approach is about meeting a legal and moral obligation to build the best facility we can now, laying a solid foundation for future generations to improve it based on what they learn.  I’m confident that we can build a repository that will protect public health and safety and the environment.  BUT, I’m equally confident that, 50 years from now, our grandchildren could build a BETTER repository.  50 years from now, they will have learned a lot about the actual performance of the repository, something we can only predict right now.  50 years from now, the waste placed in the repository may require isolation for a few hundred years instead of a million.

Lastly, my bill includes provisions necessary to support new nuclear plant construction.  Before receiving a license, nuclear plants must meet two requirements.  The first is that companies must sign a contract with the DOE to provide for disposal of spent fuel.  My bill modifies those provisions in the Nuclear Waste Policy Act to make them current.  The second is known as waste confidence.   Nuclear plants must demonstrate there is confidence that the spent fuel will be managed and disposed of in a manner that protects public health and safety.  My bill clarifies that the repository program meets this requirement for disposal. 

When a society takes on the task of building a complex, first-of-a-kind facility envisioned to remain robust for a million years, it immediately raises questions about generational equity.  As Senators, we must balance fairness to future generations that haven’t been born yet with fairness to the generations that we currently represent.  Finding that balance must be based on several principles, including:

-Protecting the health and safety of current generations;

-Protecting the health and safety of future generations; 

- Minimizing the impact on the environment; 

  Meeting the need for reliable, cost-effective energy; 

-  Meeting legal obligations;

-Minimizing Taxpayer liability; and

-Costs are covered by those who produce the waste.

My bill adheres to these principles and strikes that balance.

Rumors of Yucca Mountain’s demise have been highly exaggerated.  It is time we focus on developing the safest, state-of-the-art repository that we can, one step at a time.  We owe it to our generation and to the generations that follow.


January 2008 Speeches
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