Blue Ribbon Commission: U.S. Nuclear Waste Policy “Completely Broken Down”

The 15-member Blue Ribbon Commission (BRC) appointed by Energy Secretary Steven Chu in January 2010 to provide comprehensive recommendations for a long-term solution to managing and disposing the nation’s spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste released its much-anticipated final report last week.

But in it, the commission finds that the Obama administration’s decision to dismantle Yucca Mountain, a permanent geological waste repository planned in Nevada, after $15 billion had been spent on the project, was “but the latest indicator of a policy that has been troubled for decades and has now all but completely broken down.”

The report begins: “The approach laid out under the 1987 Amendments to the Nuclear Waste Policy Act (NWPA)—which tied the entire U.S. high-level waste management program to the fate of the Yucca Mountain site—has not worked to produce a timely solution for dealing with the nation’s most hazardous radioactive materials. The United States has traveled nearly 25 years down the current path only to come to a point where continuing to rely on the same approach seems destined to bring further controversy, litigation, and protracted delay.”

In its letter to Secretary Chu, the commission added that the “nation’s failure to come to grips with the nuclear waste issue has already proved damaging and costly.” It also says that it did not evaluate Yucca Mountain “or any other location as a potential site for the storage of spent nuclear fuel or disposal of high level waste, nor have we taken a position on the Administration’s request to withdraw the Yucca Mountain license application.”

Its recommendations would serve, instead, as a possible “sound waste management approach that can lead to the resolution of the current impasse; an approach that neither includes nor excludes Yucca Mountain as an option for a repository and can and should be applied regardless of what site or sites are ultimately chosen to serve as the permanent disposal facility for America’s spent nuclear fuel and other high-level nuclear wastes,” the commission said.

Three-Pronged Strategy

The strategy outlined in the commission report contains three crucial elements. First, the commission recommends a consent-based approach to siting future nuclear waste storage and disposal facilities, noting that trying to force such facilities on unwilling states, tribes, and communities has not worked.

Second, the commission recommends that the responsibility for the nation’s nuclear waste management program be transferred to a new organization—one that is independent of the Department of Energy and dedicated solely to ensuring the safe storage and ultimate disposal of spent nuclear waste fuel and high-level radioactive waste.

Third, the commission recommends changing the manner in which fees being paid into the Nuclear Waste Fund—about $750 million a year—are treated in the federal budget to ensure they are being set aside and available for use as Congress initially intended.

The report also recommends immediate efforts to commence development of at least one geologic disposal facility and at least one consolidated storage facility, as well as efforts to prepare for the eventual large-scale transport of spent nuclear fuel and high-level waste from current storage sites to those facilities. The report also recommends the U.S. continue to provide support for nuclear energy innovation and workforce development, and strengthen its international leadership role in efforts to address safety, waste management, nonproliferation, and security concerns.

Pressing Problems

The massive earthquake and ensuing tsunami in Japan that set off the Fukushima disaster in March 2011 added “more urgency” to the BRC’s charge, it says. In the weeks following the disaster, many more Americans became aware that the U.S. had more than 65,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel stored at about 75 operating and closed reactor sites around the country, and that more than 2,000 tons were being produced each year.

One issue the government would be forced to deal with when implementing the BRC’s recommendations concerns timing and implementation. All recommendations would take time to implement fully—especially since many elements proposed required legislative action to amend the NWPA—but “prompt action” could be taken without waiting for legislative action to get the waste management program back on track.

The BRC also considered cost, keeping in mind “acute concern about the federal budget deficit” and high energy prices. “Certainly it will cost something to implement a successful U.S. waste management program; however, trying to implement a deeply flawed program is even more costly, for all the reasons already mentioned,” the BRC says. “In fact, U.S. ratepayers are already paying for waste disposal (through a fee collected on each kilowatthour of nuclear-generated electricity)—but the program they’re paying for isn’t working. Taxpayers are paying too—in the form of damage payments from the taxpayer-funded Judgment Fund to compensate utilities for the federal government’s failure to meet its contractual waste acceptance commitments.”

The BRC’s recommendations will now be considered by Congress and the Obama administration. Congressional hearings on the report are expected to begin as soon as Feb. 2.

Senate Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Ranking Member Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) called for legislative action this year. “The fiscal year 2012 omnibus bill already moves us forward on a number of the commission’s key recommendations,” Feinstein said in a statement, “and the Energy and Water Subcommittee stands ready to continue down that path. I look forward to holding hearings on this very important issue soon.”

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Ala.), who has been working with Sens. Feinstein, Alexander, and Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), said Congress has “a lot of issues to address—not just the need for a long-term repository, but also transportation safety issues, the federal government’s contractual liability and the need to consolidate and prioritize the existing temporary storage facilities—and I’ll be looking to the commission for guidance as we consider possible legislative action.”

Murkowski said that though the commission’s report “doesn’t break a lot of new ground,” it did offer some solid recommendations for improving U.S. policy, “especially the call for the creation of a new organization that’s protected from political influence or annual funding bills to handle nuclear waste disposal.”

Sources: POWERnews, BRC, Sens. Feinstein and Murkowski

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