US president Barack Obama has authorised the US Department of Energy (DOE) to begin the process of developing a repository to be used for disposal of high-level radioactive waste resulting from defence activities.

As a next step, DOE says it will work to develop a consent-based process that can be used to support the development of such a repository. It will also conduct "initial work" to support the development of interim storage for commercial spent nuclear fuel.

In 1985, the decision was taken to dispose of commercial and defence high-level waste in a single repository. Under existing law, Yucca Mountain in Nevada is the USA’s designated site for such a deep-geologic repository, but DOE can develop a separate repository for defence waste if needed.

DOE stressed that moving forward with planning for a separate repository for defence waste does not mean that the Administration will put on hold efforts to find a solution for storage and disposal of commercial nuclear waste. DOE plans to start with one or more interim storage facilities that could accept spent fuel from shut down commercial reactors, energy secretary Moniz said.

The Energy Department outlined a number of important circumstances that have influenced its decision. It said that the finite inventory or defence high-level waste and the fact that some defence waste streams are less radioactive, cooler and easier to handle than commercial HLW, "means a simpler design and potentially fewer licensing and transportation challenges for a defence repository." In addition, a separate disposal of defence high-level waste could allow greater flexibility in site selection, helping to keep costs down, DOE said.

In related news, on 24 March, US Senetors Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), introduced bipartisan legislation to safeguard and permanently dispose of the nation’s stockpiles of spent nuclear fuel, which are currently accumulating at separate sites across the country.

The US Nuclear Energy Institute welcomed both developments on behalf of the US nuclear industry highlighting the potential they hold to "finally bring some progress to the nation’s long-neglected nuclear waste management policy."

"The bipartisan Senate legislation is a solid first step toward implementation of a sustainable, integrated programme to safely and efficiently manage commercial used nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste from US defence programmes," said the Nuclear Energy Institute’s president and chief executive officer, Marvin Fertel.

Fertel also said that Moniz’s announcement shows the Department of Energy "finally is giving overdue attention to our nation’s nuclear waste management challenges."

"It was appropriate to hear the secretary endorse the industry’s fervent belief that the disposal pathways and the obligations for managing DOE’s high-level waste and commercial used nuclear fuel should be addressed simultaneously, not sequentially," Fertel said.

"The industry acknowledges DOE’s parallel development of a consolidated interim storage facility for commercial reactor fuel in a willing host community and state, and a separate repository for defence waste. These must be developed in the same time frame."

Photo: Yucca Mountain (Credit: DOE)