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By C. Jayden Smith

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) last month announced that it is allocating $16 million to provide resources to communities interested in learning more about consent-based siting and potentially hosting a consolidated interim storage facility for the nation’s spent nuclear fuel, such as the waste stored at the decommissioned San Onofre power plant.

In a Sept. 20 press release, the department said that proper management of the spent fuel was necessary as the production of nuclear energy continues in order to meet goals for emissions reduction under President Joe Biden.

DOE is looking to award six to eight communities between $1 million and $2 million each, to spend on organizing “inclusive community and stakeholder engagement activities” related to the storage, transportation, and disposal of the spent fuel during a period of 18 to 24 months.

U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer M. Granholm said in the release that DOE wanted to advance communities’ discussions of how to host nuclear waste facilities.

“With this funding, we are facilitating constructive, community-based discussions around the consensual solutions for storing spent nuclear fuel in order to harness the true power of clean nuclear energy,” said Granholm.

Rep. Mike Levin, whose district includes the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS), was among the lawmakers who secured funding for DOE’s efforts, as he helped earmark $20 million within the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021 that led to the consent-based siting process’ restart.

“One of my top priorities since my first day in office has been moving the nuclear waste at San Onofre away from the region as quickly and safely as possible,” Levin said in a press release. “I am glad to see the Department of Energy taking another important step in the process of establishing a consent-based site for the storage of spent nuclear fuel currently at San Onofre.”

Initiatives supported within the department’s funding opportunity announcement—DOE’s detailed application process—fall under three focus areas: the organization of meaningful community engagement processes; identifying public values; and developing and reporting on outcomes that support mutual learning among stakeholders, according to the release.

Under the first focus area, awardees will be expected to organize town hall meetings and presentations by subject matter experts, ensure information is shared across multiple languages to remove participation barriers, and create community-oriented communication that includes knowledge of geological and ecological areas held by local indigenous peoples.

To best map out public values and concerns, participants are being asked to develop “innovative” ways for residents and stakeholders to identify the costs and benefits of hosting an interim repository. They must also generate ideas as to how a facility could advance community planning efforts and ensure the area’s long-term well-being.

Communities will also be expected to share expert knowledge and understanding of nuclear waste-related topics and provide resource kits that help residents engage with the information.

DOE plans to be active during the learning process, according to a department spokesperson.

“This funding opportunity will leverage awardee’s institutional capacity and provision of third-party technical assistance directly to interested communities, and the Department will be involved as a partner, available to share technical information, communications materials, and other resources,” the spokesperson wrote in an email to San Clemente Times. “DOE also anticipates to provide technical assistance, advice, and assist with integration of other awardees activities.”

Communities awarded the funds must submit reports on the success of engagement efforts, how they equitably supported participating communities and the impacts of resources to support engagement, education and training tools, and community grants. Awardees will also participate in quarterly program reviews to cover the progress made.

Manuel Camargo, Southern California Edison’s principal manager for strategic planning, told SC Times that keeping an open community dialogue on nuclear waste-related topics was “extremely important.”

Camargo touched on the company’s efforts in forming a Community Engagement Panel and the Actions for Spent Fuel Solutions Now Coalition to advocate for federal involvement in removing spent fuel from sites nationwide, including SONGS.

 He also pointed out that DOE needed to make good on its commitment to set up a storage facility per the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982. SoCal Edison’s ratepayers, Camargo noted, paid one mill, or one-tenth of a cent, for every kilowatt hour of electricity they received from the reactor.

The money spent for those hours added up to billions of dollars within the Nuclear Waste Fund that was designated to provide for the disposal of spent nuclear fuel. Because DOE has not yet constructed a facility, the government is sending money to electric utilities.

The result, Camargo said, is every U.S. taxpayer—not just the utility customers who received nuclear power—“is paying $2 million per day, and to date, $9 billion with a B in total to reimburse utilities like SCE for onsite storage that was never completed in the Nuclear Waste Policy Act.”

Given that the U.S. Navy also owns the land on which SONGS sits, he added that SCE will continue to pay rent to the Navy for as long as the nuclear waste remains on the site—a situation to which other utilities can’t relate.

During DOE’s process of identifying a potential storage host, Camargo said that local stakeholders’ consent should be the department’s most important factor to consider.

He recalled that Nevadans’ opposition to the proposed permanent repository at Yucca Mountain was the reason for the project’s failure, and said learning from Finland and Sweden, countries that have used a community-based approach for siting, have found success.

Another example occurred in Carlsbad, New Mexico, where the federal government worked with a community past its years of relying on potash mining to bring in transuranic waste.

“Sure enough, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant exists and does store … a different type of radiological waste,” Camargo said. “But it is an example of a community that was absolutely willing and interested in hosting a disposal facility for radiological material.”

Levin agreed with the importance of respecting the consent of impacted communities, and said he has been working with Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California and Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia on a policy that would establish a permanent nuclear waste administration to keep moving forward on the issue of nuclear waste disposal.

“I think we’ve made more progress in these last few years than had been made in the many years prior,” he said.

DOE said the communities awarded the funding will be largely based on initial review criteria concerning eligibility and satisfying application requirements, and merit review criteria.

Applications will be evaluated within the merit review based on the submitted approach of implementing consent-based siting with interested stakeholders, conformance to the funding application within the maximum 24-month period, experience and capabilities of the applicant team, and the approach to the three focus areas.

DOE anticipates notifying applicants of their selection for an award by February 2023.

C. Jayden Smith

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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