By Ayesha Rascoe
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States must urgently work to find a new central site to house its spent nuclear fuel and probe whether Japan's nuclear disaster has any safety implications for storage at the country's plants, a federal panel said on Thursday.
The U.S. government has struggled with how to manage the 65,000 tons of radioactive waste produced by its nuclear reactors over decades and stored throughout the country.
Concern over nuclear waste has heightened since a massive earthquake and tsunami hit Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex last year, triggering the world's most serious nuclear disaster since Chernobyl.
The Obama administration set up the panel, co-chaired by former Congressman Lee Hamilton and former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft, to find solutions to the issue after it shelved the controversial Yucca Mountain disposal facility in Nevada.
Republicans have accused the administration of making a political decision to close the site before it became operational, squandering billions of dollars that had already been spent on its development.
In its final report, the panel reiterated its previous findings that the nation would need to find a long-term disposal site, while also developing at least one interim storage facility.
"The need for a new strategy is urgent, not just to address these damages and costs but because this generation has a fundamental, ethical obligation to avoid burdening future generations with the entire task of finding a safe, permanent solution for managing hazardous nuclear materials they had no part in creating," the report said.
U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu welcomed the report, saying it will help form a strong foundation for the new national strategy the department is set to present to Congress in six months.
NO "UNMANAGEABLE" RISKS
Nuclear waste is now stored on-site at the nation's 104 reactors, similar to waste at the Fukushima plant where there were concerns after the disaster that the spent rods would overheat.
The commission said based on its review, there were no "unmanageable" risks with the current methods of storage, but said that there should be an independent study by the National Academy of Sciences to evaluate whether the Fukushima disaster has any implications for U.S. storage.
After strong local opposition helped to scuttle the Yucca site, the commission said it was imperative that the government ensure the site was supported by surrounding communities.
The panel also recommended the creation of a new government agency, independent of the Energy Department, that would focus on handling nuclear waste.
A coalition of utility regulators and nuclear energy trade groups expressed support for the commission's recommendations.
It said it believed actions could be taken to establish an interim storage site in a "host community within the next 10 years, well before a repository could be opened."
Two Republicans, staunch supporters of the Yucca site, also offered their backing for some of the ideas in the report, such as the independent oversight entity.
"The commission underscored the need for prompt action on a long-term storage disposal facility, and we believe Yucca Mountain remains the most shovel-ready, thoroughly studied option," said Fred Upton and John Shimkus of the House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee.
The committee will hold a hearing on the report next week.
Still, the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit advocacy group, questioned some of the report's findings.
"Efforts to site an interim storage facility could distract from the far more important goal of finding a repository site," UCS senior scientist Edwin Lyman said in written comments to the panel.
(Editing by Xavier Briand)