With all the confusion in Congress, it's hard to tell where the nation's nuclear waste program is heading. One thing is for sure: the words "interim storage" are on everyone's lips. But just exactly what does that mean?
Interim storage refers to above-ground, temporary, retrievable storage of spent fuel rods. Repository storage, on the other hand, refers to permanent (generally irretrievable), deep geologic disposal of commercial spent fuel, with some defense waste as well.
Under legislation now proposed in Congress, interim storage could last from 20 to 100 years, and perhaps much longer, depending upon whether the Nuclear Regulatory Commission renewed an interim storage facility's license.
If an interim site were congressionally approved, the DOE would be looking to build an above-ground facility for dry-cask storage of commercial fuel, much like what now occurs at the nuclear utilities that presently store their own spent fuel rods.
Even DOE is receiving mixed messages over the quick change from permanent to interim storage. Under current law, interim storage cannot occur in a state that is being considered for permanent storage.
Gregory Cook, a public affairs officer with the Nevada Test Site, said the DOE is in a position where it can't officially plan for interim storage, but at the same time, an appropriation bill and other legislation is seriously considering interim storage.
"It puts the department in a difficult position. Unofficially, we'd be stupid if we didn't (plan for interim storage)."
Some say chances are good that an interim disposal facility would be built at the Nevada Test Site. One Washington trade reporter who covers nuclear waste issues said the same forces that put Yucca Mountain in the position as the nation's sole nuclear waste repository are still at work.
"Nevada is still the weakest state politically, and if legislation passes that cites an interim facility, I would bet on it being at NTS," said the reporter, who requested anonymity.
The shift in emphasis from a permanent site at Yucca Mountain toward interim storage is that site characterization and licensing of the proposed Yucca Mountain site will not be complete by January 31, 1998. The 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act set the 1998 deadline as the date when the federal government would begin accepting spent fuel at a repository.
Many utilities have run out of storage room for the radioactive waste and claim that they are paying twice for the waste, first by paying into the Nuclear Waste Fund to develop a permanent repository, and a second time when they pay to manage and store the waste while the federal government attempts to build a permanent repository. Lobbyists for the nuclear industry have brought pressure to bear. Lawsuits have been filed against the government claiming damages if no waste storage site is available by January 31, 1998 as promised.