By Roberta Rampton and Ayesha Rascoe
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Senators on Wednesday zeroed in on the safety of storing nuclear waste in pools at reactor sites as they grilled regulators on how to prevent a Japan-style disaster in the United States.
As Japan struggles to contain damage from the Fukushima nuclear plant hit by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, lawmakers questioned how the United States can move forward with plans to boost production of nuclear power without dealing with the waste left behind.
"We must begin to rethink how we manage spent fuel," said Senator Dianne Feinstein, chairman of a committee in charge of the Energy Department's budget said at a hearing.
The government had worked on a long-term storage site for waste for years deep inside Yucca Mountain in Nevada, but that plan was shelved because of local and political opposition.
Feinstein said she made her first-ever visit to the two nuclear plants in her home state of California last week, and said she was struck by spent fuel removed from a reactor in 1984 that was still stored in a wet pool on the site.
"It is clear that we lack a comprehensive policy to address the nuclear fuel cycle," she said, calling for an independent review of the safety of all U.S. nuclear plants by the National Academy of Sciences.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission will be closely looking at spent fuel storage as part of its short- and long-term review of U.S. nuclear safety in the wake of the Japan disaster, said Gregory Jaczko, its chairman.
The head of the U.S. nuclear regulator told Feinstein that waste can be stored safely in pools for 100 years, although much of it would likely be moved to "dry casks" before that horizon.
A physicist from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology told senators that Congress needs to ensure research on waste gets the funding it needs to fix the "fundamentally broken" waste storage system.
"We think there is a good case to be made for the integrity of 100-year storage, but the reality is, it's based upon an extraordinarily skimpy database," said Ernest Moniz, emphasizing his testimony was his personal view.
After the Yucca Mountain plan was shelved after a protracted fight with local residents, the Obama Administration appointed a panel of experts to come up with new solutions for the long-term problem.
The "blue ribbon" panel is slated to deliver a draft report by July 29 with final recommendations in January.
Moniz, who is part of the panel, said he believes Congress should fund centralized regional storage sites for waste entombed in "dry casks" while pursuing a long-term permanent site.
But a staunch Republican advocate for nuclear power questioned how the government could find places where residents were willing to accept waste in their midst.
"If the nation can't agree on a single repository, what makes you think it can agree on more than one consolidated site?" said Lamar Alexander.
In a somewhat uncharacteristic moment for a Congress usually locked in partisan battles, Alexander complimented Obama for his continued support of nuclear power.
"When he started his administration, I was afraid he was going to lead us on a national windmill policy, instead of a national energy policy," Alexander said.
"But his attitude toward nuclear power in my opinion has been thoughtful and balanced, including through this crisis."
(Reporting by Ayesha Rascoe and Roberta Rampton; Editing by Alden Bentley)