Commission Seeks Comments on Nuclear Waste Report

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Publication date: 
26 August 2011

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.