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What to do with all this spent nuclear fuel?

In the wake of the devastating nuclear disaster at Japan's Fukushima plant in 2011, many worried Americans began to ask whether our nuclear fleet here at home could fall victim to the same catastrophe. While we've done some important work to increase safety at our homegrown plants so that a Fukushima-style calamity can't happen here, we still have more work to do.

Central to that question is one of storing spent nuclear fuel - the clusters of uranium rods that nuclear reactors gradually deplete in order to create power. The state of spent fuel storage here in the United States is a mess. For states like Connecticut with both active and deactivated nuclear plants, it's a problem our nation needs to solve, and solve now.

Why does this matter to Connecticut? We've got one shut-down nuclear station (Connecticut Yankee in Haddam) and one that's still running (Millstone Station in Waterford), and both have lots of spent nuclear fuel that have been waiting for years to be trucked off to a permanent repository. These fuel rods are packed into large concrete casks while they're stored on-site, and they don't present any danger to the public. But they were never meant to stay there in Waterford and Haddam forever. They need a home, and the federal government has a legal responsibility to find them one.

What's the problem? Well, nuclear waste needs to go somewhere, and it needs to go somewhere deep underground where it will be safe and contained for thousands of years. For decades, that place was supposed to be Yucca Mountain in Nevada, which Congress designated as a long-term waste disposal facility in the early 1980s.

While I've voted in favor of Yucca Mountain for years, it's clear that opposition to the site from the state of Nevada has made completion of that facility difficult. Nuclear utility customers in Connecticut have been paying a tax to finance the construction of such a storage site for decades, so most of the money to make this project a reality is already in-hand.

That's why folks in Congress like me have embraced a process called "consent-based siting" for a new storage facility. It's a fancy-sounding phrase that describes a simple idea: rather than mandating that we store nuclear waste somewhere, why don't we work with willing towns and states that want to store the waste instead? Using such a "consent-based" approach, we can find a place where a storage facility - and the jobs it would create - would be welcomed while a permanent disposal site is developed. It's the approach that was endorsed by a recent bipartisan blue-ribbon commission created by the president and I think it's one that makes sense.

While reasonable people can disagree about the viability of nuclear power over the long-term, the reality is that the nation has 102 operating nuclear reactors (and five more under construction), and most are slated to run for decades more. They're producing waste, and we owe it to the American public to take care of that waste in the smartest, safest manner possible.

That's why I'm hopeful that, in this session of Congress, both Republicans and Democrats can work together to makes this much-needed (and little-understood) solution into a real-life success.

Chris Murphy, a Democrat, represents Connecticut in the United States Senate.


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