Source: The Aiken Standard | Derrek Asberry |March 25, 2013

President Barack Obama authorized Tuesday the U.S. Department of Energy to search for separate material repositories for high-level radioactive nuclear weapon-related waste and spent nuclear fuel rods from commercial electric generation – potentially reversing a decades-long plan to dispose of them together.

The federal government poured more than $13 billion into the Yucca Mountain project, which was expected to house defense and commercial materials and remove waste from sites around the nation, including the Savannah River Site and four nuclear power plants in South Carolina.

According to John Kotek, an official from the DOE Office of Nuclear Energy, Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz made the announcement to the Bipartisan Policy Center and said the Department will work to develop a consent-based process for two activities – the development of a defense waste repository and work to support the development of interim storage for commercial spent nuclear fuel.

Federal officials said they believe finding and building a repository for the vitrified defense waste, which is less radioactive and more stable than the spent fuel rods, could be completed more quickly if it is handled separately.

Lessons learned from the accelerated siting and construction process for the defense waste could later be applied to the “hotter” commercial waste, according to the DOE release.

Under the plan, defense waste from three weapons-related facilities – SRS, the Hanford Site in Washington state and Idaho National Lab – would be sent to a repository. Together, the facilities house an estimated 23,294 canisters of glassified waste, with SRS holding 7,824 canisters.

Kotek wrote that planning for a separate repository for defense waste does not mean the administration will put on hold efforts to find a solution for storage and disposal of commercial nuclear waste.

“Secretary Moniz also announced today that the Energy Department will start with one or more interim storage facilities that could accept spent fuel from shut down commercial reactors,” Kotez wrote.

News that the federal government is searching for an interim storage facility for spent nuclear fuel caused a local uproar in 2013.

The Savannah River Site’s Citizens Advisory Board voted against storing spent nuclear fuel at the site, stating that there was no place superior to Yucca Mountain to store the material.

“The $13 billion already spent to build the Yucca Mountain facility will be totally lost if a different site is selected,” CAB wrote.

In 2002, former President George W. Bush designated Yucca Mountain as the nation’s waste repository site. The site is a volcanic structure near the former Nevada Test Site – about 100 miles from Las Vegas – where the nation intended to permanently store its nuclear waste. The facility has been heavily debated since 1994 when the Department of Energy, or DOE, began drilling a 5-mile tunnel through the mountain.

In 2010, Obama ordered work on Yucca to cease, leaving $13 billion of work on the table.

In 2014, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission began releasing a series of reports which have concluded that Yucca is suitable for storage.