Blue Ribbon Panel Issues Call for Action on Nuclear Waste

WASHINGTON -- A White House commission tasked with finding long-term solutions for storing the nation’s spent nuclear fuel says that the government needs to fix its broken nuclear-waste management policy and begin the simultaneous development of at least one permanent geological repository and at least one centralized interim storage facility. And it needs to do so fast (see GSN, Jan. 26).

“Progress on both fronts is needed and must be sought without further delay,” the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future said in a final report to the Energy secretary released on Thursday.

With more than 65,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel in on-site storage at about 75 operating or closed reactor sites across the United States—and more than 2,000 tons accumulating on top of that every year -- a safe and long-term solution for the management and disposal of the nation’s nuclear waste is urgent and necessary, the report says.

The commission, appointed by President Obama after he suspended plans for a nuclear-waste repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, also issued a harsh assessment: “The overall record of the U.S. nuclear waste program has been one of broken promises and unmet commitments.”

The 15-member commission, which deliberated for nearly two years, was co-chaired by former Representative Lee Hamilton (D-Ind.) and former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft.

Obama shuttered the Yucca Mountain site and cut its federal funding soon after taking office, making good on a campaign promise.

The commission did not comment on the decision to close Yucca Mountain, but it did call the controversy about the site symptomatic of a greater problem with the nation’s nuclear waste management: a lack of trust. 

“Past decisions -- first to truncate the siting process for two repositories that was established in 1982; then to limit all efforts to a single site at Yucca Mountain, Nevada; and then, after more than 20 years of work on the site, to request to withdraw the license application for that site -- have only increased this deficit of trust, particularly among nuclear utility ratepayers and in communities that host nuclear waste storage facilities,” the commissioners say in the 160-page report.

The nation has 104 nuclear-power plants supplying about 20 percent of U.S. electricity, but those plants also generate 2,000 to 2,400 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel every year, nearly all of which is stored at the reactor sites. About 80 percent of that nuclear waste is stored in on-site, water-filled pools, with the rest stored in dry steel-enclosed casks. The Energy Department also stores an additional 2,500 tons of spent fuel and large volumes of high-level nuclear waste from past weapons programs at government-owned sites.

Storing nuclear waste at reactor sites is not only costly, requiring security and monitoring at both active and inactive sites, but it is also potentially dangerous, as highlighted by Japan’s nuclear disaster in March.

The earthquake and tsunami that hit the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant damaged the water-filled pools meant to cool the plant’s spent fuel rods, exposing them and causing the water to boil. A 2011 report from Robert Alvarez, senior policy adviser to the Energy secretary during the Clinton administration, found that America’s spent-fuel pools are more dangerous than Japan’s, in part because spent fuel rods are more densely packed at many U.S. plants.

In light of all of these concerns, the commission recommends prompt efforts to develop one or more geological disposal facilities and one or more consolidated storage facilities, all with a new, "consent-based" siting approach in order to ensure that states, tribes, and communities are amenable to the site before development begins. In the same vein, the commission calls for efforts to prepare for the eventual large-scale transport of spent nuclear fuel and high-level waste to such facilities, once they are sited. The commission was not tasked with proposing any specific site.

In order to improve the overall waste management, the commission recommends several steps to get the government's program "back on track."

Among these is a recommendation that the management of the nuclear-waste program be transferred to a new organization with implementation as its sole mission, independent of the Energy Department. With that in mind, the commission also calls for better handling of nuclear-waste fees and the department's Nuclear Waste Fund. Access to the dedicated fund for the nuclear-waste program is difficult, if not impossible, under current federal budget rules and laws. The commission therefore recommends separating out the Nuclear Waste Fund and fees from the annual appropriations process, but still leaving them subject to “rigorous independent financial and managerial oversight.” The fees paid into the Nuclear Waste Fund amount to about $750 million per year.

Six stakeholder and nuclear-lobbying organizations, including the Nuclear Energy Institute and the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, endorsed all eight of the commission’s key recommendations in a joint statement on Thursday. The groups specifically highlighted three of the action items as priorities: ensuring access to fees and the dedicated program fund, efforts to site and develop interim storage solutions, and the transfer of nuclear-waste management to an independent organization.

“Although many of the key BRC recommendations require congressional action to be fully implemented, the Energy Department, under existing authority, can and should take action immediately to advance the recommendations,” the six organizations said in a joint statement, adding that they are ready to work with the administration and Congress to move these legislative options forward.

The next step for these recommendations is legislative action, said the commission, providing several proposals for changes to the Nuclear Waste Policy Act or other legislation.

“The majority of these recommendations require action to be taken by the Administration and Congress, and offer what we believe is the best chance of success going forward, based on previous nuclear waste management experience in the U.S. and abroad,” the commissioners wrote in a letter to Chu that accompanied the report.

“We are committed to seeing action taken on our recommendations because we believe it is long past time for the government to make good on its commitments to the American people to provide for the safe disposal of nuclear waste.”

Congress takes its first steps in reviewing the report next week, when the House Energy and Commerce Environment and Economy Subcommittee holds a hearing on the recommendations. The semi-dormant battle over Yucca Mountain is expected to resurge, as committee members bemoan Obama’s decision to suspend the site and mull the commission’s proposed legislative changes.

“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,” Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and the subcommittee Chairman John Shimkus (R-Ill.) said in a joint statement about the report.

January 27, 2012

WASHINGTON -- A White House commission tasked with finding long-term solutions for storing the nation’s spent nuclear fuel says that the government needs to fix its broken nuclear-waste management policy and begin the simultaneous development of at least one permanent geological repository and at least one centralized interim storage facility. And it needs to do so fast.