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Commission Seeks Comments on Nuclear Waste Report

Richard M. Jones
Number 101 - August 26, 2011  |  Search FYI  |   FYI Archives  |   Subscribe to FYI

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Characterizing the U.S. approach to the handling of nuclear waste as a “deeply flawed program,” the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future has released a draft report recommending fundamental changes in the nation’s management of spent nuclear fuel.  The Commission is accepting public comment on its 192-page report through October 31, 2011.

One of the Commission’s central recommendations is for a consent-based approach to be used in the siting of future nuclear waste management facilities.  As outlined in the report, Canada, Finland, France, Japan, Spain, Sweden, and the United Kingdom have instituted procedures under which local communities consent to the location of a nuclear waste facility.  The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico was also established using a consent-based procedure.  This approach contrasts to the mandated, and long-troubled, designation of Yucca Mountain NV as the candidate site for the nation’s sole geologic repository.  The Obama Administration is seeking to terminate this repository on the grounds that it is not a “workable option.”  There is now approximately 65,000 metric tons of commercial spent fuel in wet and dry storage facilities. 

The Administration’s intention to establish the Commission was announced in the FY 2010 budget request for the Department of Energy when it declared its intention to terminate the repository. The Commission, chartered in March 2010, is co-chaired by Lee Hamilton and Brent Scowcroft, and includes among it fifteen members Pete Domenici, Richard Meserve, Ernest Moniz, Per Peterson, and Phil Sharp.  After its initial meeting on March 25 and 26, 2010, the full Commission, or its subcommittees, met a total of 25 times in the U.S., Finland, Sweden, Japan, Russia, France, and the United Kingdom.  The final report will be presented to President Obama and Energy Secretary Chu on or before January 29, 2012. 

The opening paragraph of the report’s Executive Summary aptly describes the current situation:

“America’s nuclear waste management program is at an impasse. The Obama Administration’s decision to halt work on a repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada is but the latest indicator of a policy that has been troubled for decades and has now all but completely broken down. 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.”

The Commission recommends a seven part strategy “to establish a truly integrated national nuclear waste management system” that will ensure institutional and national leadership and respond to concerns about nuclear safety, non-proliferation, and security.  It calls for a new organization, outside of the Department of Energy, to manage the nation’s nuclear waste.  Declaring “the [Nuclear Waste] Fund does not work as intended,” the Commission recommends that Congress reform the financing mechanism.  One or more interim storage facilities should be developed, “without further delay,” with priority given to transferring spent nuclear fuel at closed nuclear generating plants.  Of note, the Commission calls for the development of more or more geologic disposal facilities, explaining:

“Deep geologic disposal capacity is an essential component of a comprehensive nuclear waste management system for the simple reason that very long-term isolation from the environment is the only responsible way to manage nuclear materials with a low probability of re-use, including defense and commercial reprocessing wastes and many forms of spent fuel currently in government hands. The conclusion that disposal is needed and that deep geologic disposal is the scientifically preferred approach has been reached by every expert panel that has looked at the issue and by every other country that is pursuing a nuclear waste management program. Moreover, all spent fuel reprocessing or recycle options either already available or under active development at this time still generate waste streams that require a permanent disposal solution. We believe permanent disposal will very likely also be needed to safely manage at least some portion of the commercial spent fuel inventory.”

The Commission’s report does not contain any recommendation about the future of Yucca Mountain, locations for the interim or geologic repositories, nuclear fuel reprocessing, or the future role of nuclear power. 

In commenting on the report, House Science Committee Chairman Ralph Hall (R-TX) said “I appreciate the good faith effort put forth by this highly-esteemed Blue Ribbon Commission . . . and look forward to the Committee’s close examination of the Commission’s recommendations.”  The Republican leadership of the House Energy and Commerce Committee also expressed general support for the report.

“The overall record of the U.S. nuclear waste program has been one of broken promises and unmet commitments. And yet the Commission finds reasons for confidence that we can turn this record around,” the report states.  A copy of the draft report, information on five public meetings during September and October in Denver; Boston; Atlanta; Washington, D.C. and Minneapolis and a comment form can be viewed here.

Richard M. Jones
Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics
rjones@aip.org
301-209-3095