Blue Ribbon Commission Delivers Nothing New on Nuke Waste

By Kennedy Maize

Washington, D.C., July 30, 2011 — If you want “outside the box” thinking, don’t ask it from those who built the box. That’s the thought that came to mind when I read this week’s draft report from the group of Washington has-beens and hangers-on the Obama administration asked last year to formulate a nuclear waste policy following the political decision to kill the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste dump project.

Don’t get me wrong, here. I think the White House was correct to euthanize Yucca on purely political grounds. The atomic industry is right when it says nuclear waste is a political issue, but that hardly contributes to the discussion. Of course it is, but so what?

Just look at how we got to where we are. The Washington energy establishment, led by the always slippery J. Bennett Johnston, then a Democratic Senator from Louisiana and now a classic Washington hanger-on, pinned the political and radioactive tail on Nevada in 1987, not because Yucca Mountain was the “best” place for a permanent waste dump, but because it was politically toothless.

But fesity Nevada fought back with a rear-guard, delaying game — what used to be known in college basketball before the shot clock as “stall ball.” In time, Nevada grew teeth; Harry Reid from Searchlight, Nev., became the Democratic Senate majority leader after the 2006 election. The price of his support for Obama in the 2008 Democratic primaries was a pledge of death to Yucca.

In announcing he was pulling down the Yucca Mountain edifice, Obama executed one of the classic moves in the Washington policy game of kick the can down the road. He named a “Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future.” Imagine the chutzpah, or cynicism: The White House even called it a “blue ribbon commission.” Normally, that’s a branding decision left up to a lazy Washington press corps.

Who are the eminences grises the administration named to this punt-pass-and-kick panel? Almost all of the 15-person panel are men and women who were either present at the creation of the legal monstrosity that erected the Yucca Mountain failure or who were implicated in implementing the 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act and its evil spawn, the 1987 “Screw Nevada” amendment. To wit: Former Democratic House members Lee Hamilton and Phil Sharp and former Republican New Mexico Senator Pete Domenici, all of whom served in Congress in leadership roles in 1982 and 1987; environmental lobbyist Jonathan Lash, who lobbied on both bills 30 and 25 years ago; perpetual master of blue ribbon ceremonies Brent Scowcroft, veteran of the Ford, Reagan, and first Bush go-rounds; former Nuclear Regulatory Commission chairman Dick Meserve; Ernie Moniz, former Clinton energy department political bureaucrat and MIT ringmaster of multiple energy circuses; and so it goes.

None of these fine folks has ever had an original thought. So it’s no surprise that what they came up with in draft recommendations constitute a compilation of the anodyne, mundane and shopworn. The current law, they conclude, has failed. Well, duh. Reprocessing is a dangerous, dirty dead end. No joke. We need new ideas. Got any? These folks don’t.

The blue ribbon commission recommends pushing the reset button, arguing for a combination of above-ground allegedly-temporary dry storage during what is doomed to be a feckless search for a permanent, underground dump. Those with long memories (or at least good long-term memories) will recognize this formulation. It was the heart of the debate over the 1982 act. In those days, the nuclear industry was pushing for what was then called “monitored retrievable storage” or “MRS” in acronym-addicted Washington as a first step toward permanent disposal. Environmental groups, fearing a back door to reprocessing, balked. The green groups out-lobbied the industry.

The result was the 1982 law, which established a cumbersome, political share-the-pain approach that the Reagan administration abandoned in 1986, fearing the turmoil would bring down several Republican Senators running for reelection, costing the GOP its tenuous Senate majority (which occurred). That led, via some work by former Science magazine journalist Luther Carter, to the 1987 law, where Johnston looked at Nevada, saw its political anemia, and pounced.

And that brings us to where we are today. The president names a “blue ribbon” commission, a classic ploy to deflect the damage and delay the reckoning. The commission’s report is a draft. Comments are due by Oct. 31, with a final report going to the energy secretary by the end of January 2012. If anyone out there thinks the final report will have any policy traction in a presidential election year, I have a used Space Shuttle I’d like to sell you.

What’s the answer to nuclear waste? In the words of the song, “use your mentality, wake up to reality.” There is no solution. Not yet. The answer is to keep the stuff safe, on site, and supervised, which is what will happen in any case; any so-called solution is decades away. Ronald Reagan had the best advice for nuclear waste, and many other vexing issues facing the nation and the world: “Stand there, don’t just do something.”