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Tons of nuclear waste sitting near Sacramento finally might move

More than two hundred tons of nuclear waste have been sitting a half-hour drive from downtown Sacramento for decades, as policymakers in Washington haggle over where to send the material.

A breakthrough in Congress Thursday improves the chances that the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) will finally be able remove the spent uranium fuel stored at the decommissioned Rancho Seco nuclear power plant since 1989.

It would ultimately mean lower costs for local ratepayers.

The House of Representatives on Thursday overwhelmingly passed the Nuclear Waste Policy Amendments Act, which represents a bipartisan compromise on nuclear waste disposal. The legislation restarts work on the controversial nuclear waste storage site at Yucca Mountain, Nevada, as Republicans favor. But it also authorized the temporary storage of nuclear waste at other sites. Democrats have supported interim storage provisions, but until now, House Republicans refused to consider that option, independent of resolving Yucca Mountain's status.

"When this bill was first presented in committee, the licensing of an interim storage facility was linked to a final decision on Yucca Mountain," noted Democratic Rep. Doris Matsui of Sacramento, who was one of the key players in the negotiations that led to the bill's passage. That "meant that our nation’s nuclear waste could continue to be stranded at decommissioned plants in California and across the country."

Speaking on the House floor before the vote, Matsui hailed the bipartisan negotiations that produced "a separate path to interim storage, decoupling it from a permanent repository."

It's unclear where the waste would go. Two private companies have already applied to take the uranium spent fuel from SMUD and other nuclear facilities, creating a much more immediate storage option than Yucca Mountain, which has yet to be constructed and faces intense local opposition.

SMUD is eager to rid itself of the 228.8 metric tons of uranium spent fuel and 13.6 metric tons of metal from the reactors, dubbed Greater Than Class C waste, stored in casks on the site in Herald, Calif., just east of Galt.

The waste has resided there for nearly 30 years now, ever since Sacramento voters elected to shut down the plant in June 1989. That vote came after a 1986 cooling accident at the plant that came close to triggering a reactor meltdown. And it made Sacramento the first community to shutter a nuclear plant by public vote anywhere in the world.

SMUD estimates that it spends roughly $5 million each year to essentially "babysit" the waste, which requires tight security and a small crew to oversee its proper storage. On Thursday, SMUD CEO and General Manager Arlen Orchard called the uranium's removal one of SMUD's "top legislative priorities.”

“Not only will this legislation save our customers money," Orchard said, "it will also allow us to restore the site to a beneficial use, such as expanding our nearby solar array or pursuing other renewable energy projects."

First, however, the bill has to pass the Senate, which will be difficult. Nevada's senators oppose any move to advance Yucca Mountain and Republican leaders aren't inclined to hold a vote on legislation that could hurt their Nevada colleague, Dean Heller, who faces a tough Democratic challenge in 2018.

But the strong bipartisan vote in the House sends an important signal to Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which is attempting to push forward on interim storage removal on its own. The House's ability to reach an elusive policy agreement on nuclear waste could prompt the Senate to move forward after the election.

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