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Action urged on nuclear waste storage

State Senate President Therese Murray called on the federal government to dispose of spent nuclear fuel.

State Senate President Therese Murray called on the federal government to dispose of spent nuclear fuel.

Two top Massachusetts officials on Friday called on the federal government to fulfill its obligation to dispose of spent nuclear fuel stored in the Commonwealth and around the country.

State attorney general Martha Coakley and state Senate president Therese Murray on Friday sent a letter to a bipartisan group of US senators, calling on them to pass a piece of legislation that would, among other actions, create a new federal Nuclear Waste Administration and move toward the creation of a long-stalled permanent storage facility for high-level nuclear waste.

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There is no central federal facility for very radioactive nuclear waste, such as spent fuel from commercial power plants. That means the waste is usually stored on the site of the power plant where the fuel was used, including plants in New England, such as Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station in Plymouth.

Murray and Coakley, both of whom have expressed concern about Pilgrim’s stored nuclear waste over the years, sent the letter in support of the Nuclear Waste Administration Act of 2013.

“This legislation will establish long-needed procedures to move this waste to a permanent offsite location and ensure the safety of our communities and the quality of our environment,” said Murray, a Plymouth resident, in a statement. It is “the responsibility of our Congress to act quickly on this matter.”

“This is a public safety issue,” Coakley said in a statement, “and the federal government has an obligation to act.”

Murray and Coakley said in the letter that when Pilgrim and other reactors were licensed by the federal government in the 1970s, “regulators assumed that the spent fuel would be transferred offsite to a permanent disposal facility. More than 40 years later, a permanent repository still has not been constructed.”

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In a phone interview Monday evening, Coakley said the government’s delay was irksome and it was long past time for the federal government to finally make a substantive move on resolving this issue.

“It is frustrating. And I know that the Senate president, with Plymouth in her district, lives with this,” Coakley said. “This is not an abstract problem for many people in Massachusetts.”

In the letter, Murray and Coakley make the case that spent fuel on the sites of nuclear plants is not as safe as it would be in a central repository.

Carol Wightman, a spokeswoman for Pilgrim, agreed that the federal government has an obligation to take spent fuel. “We support a single repository for spent fuel,” she said.

But, Wightman said, the temporary storage mechanisms in place at Pilgrim are safe.

Since the 1980s, the US government has planned to create a central repository for nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. But that project, opposed by President Obama and US Senate majority leader Harry Reid of Nevada, is essentially stalled, probably permanently.

The draft legislation supported by Murray and Coakley would create an agency to pick a new permanent storage site and, in the interim, come up with temporary storage facilities for nuclear waste.

“This specific bill doesn’t solve all the problems,” Coakley said in the interview, “but we felt it was good place to start.”

Joshua Miller can be reached at joshua.miller@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jm_bos.
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