With hopes for restarting a plan to open a permanent nuclear waste storage site at Yucca Mountain all but dead, four senior Senators have introduced legislation that seeks new temporary and permanent solutions to storing the mounting radioactive spent fuel at nuclear power plants.

The legislation would create a new federal agency, the Nuclear Waste Administration (NWA), to manage the nation’s nuclear waste, lifting this responsibility from the Energy Department. The NWA would be directed to site, build and operate a pilot storage facility to hold priority waste and one or more sites for non-priority waste. One or more permanent repositories would also be constructed. The bill mandates broad public input, and state and local consent to site a repository.

Entitled the Nuclear Waste Administration Act of 2013 and enrolled as S. 1240, the bill was introduced by Senators Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), the top Democrat and Republican on the Senate Energy Committee. It is also cosponsored by Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Lamar Alexander (R-TN), who together lead the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water.

Under current law, the federal government was supposed to start taking possession of spent fuel in 1998, paid for by the industry and its ratepayers. Since the early 1980s, nuclear utilities have paid an annual fee into the Nuclear Waste Fund at the rate of 1 mil (0.1 cent) per kilowatt-hour of electricity sold to consumers. The fees total approximately US$750 million annually, with an unspent US$28.2 billion balance in the Nuclear Waste Fund.

With no permanent storage facility on the horizon, nuclear plants currently hold the mounting piles of spent fuel onsite in dry casks or giant pools. Courts have found the federal government in default of its obligations, with billions of dollars awarded in damages to utilities. Like the spent fuel itself, these legal liabilities continue to mount and are predicted to top US$20 billion by 2020.

Almost everyone agrees the problem needs a permanent solution, but partisan and regional differences remain. The President pulled the plug on Yucca several years ago and appointed a commission to come up with an alternative plan. The legislation introduced in June is based in part on the commission’s recommendations.

The Administration has not taken a position on the bill yet. However, the bill received cautious praise from the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), which has long supported the opening of a permanent storage site at Yucca Mountain—and still does. “This bipartisan legislation recognizes the urgency for Congress to reform federal used fuel policy,” said Alex Flint, NEI’s Senior Vice President for Governmental Affairs. “Whether the Congress decides to pursue consolidated storage or Yucca Mountain or, as the industry recommends, both, there needs to be attention focused to this issue. We welcome the introduction of bills, hearings and, eventually, consideration in the House and Senate of used fuel legislation.”

The Senate Energy and Commerce Committee plans to hold a hearing on the legislation this summer. For more information on the Nuclear Waste Administration Act, see: