WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States could alleviate growing stockpiles of nuclear waste at U.S. power plants by allowing private companies to dispose of it and foster support for new nuclear projects, U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz said on Tuesday.
The U.S. government spent billions of dollars on the Yucca Mountain project in Nevada that was supposed to store nuclear waste permanently underground, but politicians from the state, including top Senate Democrat Harry Reid, opposed the project, leading to its cancellation in 2010.
The waste is now mostly held at power plants in dry cask storage or in spent fuel pools, said Moniz, a nuclear physicist who has run the department since 2013. The United States could start transferring that waste to interim sites, potentially including government and private disposal sites, in the middle of the next decade until a permanent solution is developed.
"We would like to have the authority for publicly owned and operated (storage) facilities. We are also very much interested in the possibility of pursuing private storage," Moniz said in an interview about the nuclear issues the next administration will face after President Barack Obama leaves office on Jan. 20.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission received an application earlier this year from Waste Control Specialists, part of Valhi Inc to store waste at a site in Texas. More companies may also apply.
"Potentially that could go faster," if the private sector took on the challenge, Moniz said of the mid-2020s' timeframe for moving waste into interim storage.
Nuclear power supplies 60 percent of the country's virtually carbon-free electricity and is an important part of Obama's plan to fight climate change. But even some of his fellow Democrats have reservations about moving ahead with nuclear, which faces competition from natural gas, until the waste problem is solved.
Senator Diane Feinstein told Moniz at a congressional hearing last week she would not support new nuclear power projects unless the issue is dealt with.
Moniz said if companies take over storage, Congress will still need to act. One thing the next administration will have to work on with Congress is making sure that money from the nuclear waste fund, set up in 1983 to help pay for Yucca Mountain, would be available to pay companies for the storage.
Another thorny issue on nuclear waste has been an agreement with Russia to convert plutonium left over from the Cold War to nuclear plant fuel. Under the deal struck in 2000, each country is expected to convert 34 tons of the material into fuel pellets.
The federal government has spent about $5 billion on a plant in South Carolina and associated facilities that would convert the material into MOX, or mixed-oxide pellets for reactors. But cost estimates for the project have soared, and now Moniz says the MOX method would cost up to $50 billion over 50 years.
He wants the country to consider simply diluting the plutonium with inert materials and disposing the mix deep underground, such has been done for other nuclear materials in New Mexico.
But Russia would have to sign off on the idea, an action Moniz is optimistic about in part because Moscow has already changed its side of the original deal. Russia now wants to dispose of the fuel in a so-called fast reactor, a technology the United States does not have. Moniz has brought up the idea of underground disposal to his counterparts in Russia as a "heads up," he said.
"What Russia has said is if Congress acts to say that the dilute and dispose approach is the preferred alternative, then they will engage on this question of change," he said.
With many hurdles ahead on nuclear issues, speculation has grown on whether Moniz would remain in his role as energy secretary in the next administration. Moniz would not say whether he would rule it out.
(Reporting by Timothy Gardner; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)