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By C. Jayden Smith

The U.S. Department of Energy issued a request for information (RFI) last week regarding a consent-based siting process that would be used to identify sites to store spent nuclear fuel (SNF) with the input of communities.

The RFI is another step in an ongoing process nationwide to determine how to best remove nuclear waste from places such as the decommissioned San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS).

In December 2020, the Consolidated Appropriations Act was signed into law, allocating $27.5 million toward dealing with spent nuclear fuel, $20 million of which would fund an interim storage program.

Rep. Mike Levin was one of the officials involved in securing that funding. The move to address nuclear fuel at SONGS has been a part of Levin’s agenda since 2019, when he introduced the Spent Fuel Prioritization Act.

Levin celebrated DOE’s move in in a press release that his office sent out last week.

“The federal government has a responsibility to address the nation’s spent nuclear fuel challenge, but history has shown us that without the consent of the communities that will be involved with the solutions, we are unlikely to succeed,” he said in the release. “Today’s announcement shows that we can address those issues directly and correct the mistakes that have led us to the current nationwide spent fuel impasse.”

The DOE stressed the importance of the consent-based siting process that addresses the concerns of communities either currently situated near SNF sites or that have the potential of hosting the interim storage facility.

Jennifer Granholm, the Secretary of Energy, said in the department’s own release last Wednesday that collaboration with potential communities was the best way to solve the long-standing issue.

“We know there are real benefits from jobs to new infrastructure that will result in interest in areas across the country,” Granholm said in the release. “The public’s input is central to identifying those locations to make this process as inclusive and effective as possible.”  

Other DOE officials echoed Granholm’s sentiments.

“I’m extremely excited about restarting the consent-based siting process,” said Dr. Kathryn Huff, principal deputy assistant secretary for Nuclear Energy. “DOE is committed to responsibly managing the nation’s spent nuclear fuel, and willing communities have the right to explore the benefits and conditions they need to host a federal interim storage facility.”

In an interview on Friday, Dec. 3, Levin was uncertain about the future timeline of seeing concrete actions take place, but said he was excited to see the desire from the DOE and the amount of momentum the siting process has.

He also mentioned the “unique set of challenges” Southern California and the San Clemente community face, with a high and dense population, sea-level rise, and the strategic asset of Camp Pendleton. Conversely, he said, the area is not unlike others living nearby the 74 sites across 33 states that are storing nuclear waste.

“I was a college sophomore when the federal government promised to take title to that waste (in 1998),” Levin said. “And here we are, 2021, and it still hasn’t happened.”

He thought restarting the consent-based process and issuing the RFI was a critical step, as it allows the community that will eventually receive the waste to speak on its own behalf and reduces the chance of opposition after the site is chosen.

The technical aspects of storing SNF are present, as is the interest in making tangible progress, he added, and the process is headed in the right direction.

“Spent nuclear fuel, being managed properly, is not a Republican issue, it’s not a Democratic issue; it’s something that we’re going to work together on and we’re going to find solutions,” Levin said. “That’s the whole point of creating the caucus.”

Huff participated in a webinar held by the DOE on Tuesday afternoon, Dec. 7, that focused on all aspects of the consent-based siting process. When asked about the challenges of weighing the opinions of numerous parties and acting in a timely manner in terms of progress, she acknowledged the work of the Office of Nuclear Energy’s Used Fuel Disposition team and others nationally in maintaining the infrastructure necessary to handle the task.

“We are really hopeful that this consent-based siting process will be helped along by interested parties just like the 300 people (in the webinar),” Huff said, adding; “I think finding a place for our spent nuclear fuel that can enable us to responsibly manage it is the ultimate goal.”

When the DOE published a notice about the RFI online, it encouraged a wide range of stakeholders to answer, such as local and tribal governments, public citizens, and environmental justice groups.

“We especially welcome insight from people, communities, and groups that have historically not been well-represented in these discussions,” the website said.

The RFI asks questions related to three areas concerned with consent-based siting, including one about the process itself, “Removing Barriers to Meaningful Participation,” and “Interim Storage as Part of a Waste Management System,” according to the notice.

Respondents will be able to voice their opinion electronically by submitting their comments to consentbasedsiting@hq.doe.gov. All responses must be received by 5 p.m. (ET) on March 4, 2022.  

More information can be found at energy.gov/consentbasedsiting.

C. Jayden Smith graduated from Dana Hills High in 2018 before pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in digital and broadcast journalism from the University of North Texas. After graduating in December 2020, he reported for the Salina Journal in Salina, Kansas. Jayden loves college football and bothering his black lab named Shadow.

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