Maine Yankee’s spent nuclear fuel and other nuclear waste has been stored in these cement and steel canisters since the plant's decommissioning. Credit: Courtesy of Maine Yankee

The Biden administration is restarting the process of finding a temporary home for the spent nuclear fuel stranded at sites around the country, including at the decommissioned Maine Yankee site in Wiscasset.

“We cannot continue to defer this challenge for future generations to figure out,” Kathryn Huff, the U.S. Department of Energy’s principal deputy assistant secretary for nuclear energy said in a press conference Tuesday afternoon. “We must manage the back end of the nuclear fuel cycle.”

Right now, the department is asking for input about how it can move forward with a “consent-based” process for an interim federal nuclear storage facility. Ultimately, the government is seeking locales that are willing to volunteer to take in the nuclear waste until a permanent storage facility can be created.  

Currently, although it is the federal government’s obligation to create a permanent facility for nuclear waste disposal, it’s been left up to nuclear facilities around the country to figure out temporary storage. There are more than 100 communities in the U.S. serving as often-reluctant hosts to nearly 100,000 tons of nuclear waste that has no other place to go.

In Maine, securing the remnants of nuclear energy generation is an ongoing task that requires armed  guards around the clock and costs Maine Yankee’s owners some $10 million per year, which is being paid for with money from the government.

Huff pointed out that those communities did not agree to store the spent fuel for the long-term.

“We think this consent-based approach is … the right thing to do,” she said. “Today, we’re making the very first step in restarting that consent-based siting process.”

In 1982, the Nuclear Waste Policy Act required the U.S. Department of Energy to create a permanent underground facility for nuclear waste disposal. In 1987, Yucca Mountain in Nevada was named the sole site for such a repository. The government was supposed to start  accepting nuclear waste by 1998, and poured $15 billion into creating a repository deep under the mountain.

But from the beginning, the Yucca Mountain plan faced fierce opposition from Nevada residents, environmentalists and elected officials. The effort to build the repository stalled, and it was never completed.

During the Obama administration, the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future recommended that the government should work on creating a “consent-based” process to find a community where stakeholders agree to store the spent fuel. The energy department had begun to develop that process in 2015, but that work stopped during the Trump administration.

The Office of Nuclear Energy and the U.S. Department of Energy  said in a notice filed Tuesday that they will welcome ideas from communities, local, state and tribal governments, members of the public, energy and environmental groups and others.

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

Huff said that communities that volunteer to host the waste may benefit from jobs and “other potential benefits,” such as funding, but did not offer specifics about the funding possibilities. The government expects to receive thousands of responses to the request for information before its deadline of March 4, 2022, she said.

After that, it will be a long process before a temporary storage facility can be developed.

“There are still a number of things that have to happen, even if a community was willing and ready,” Huff said.