Members of Congress who hoped that the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future would offer sure-fire recommendations enabling the U.S. to move ahead on a permanent solution to the disposal of nuclear waste were surely disappointed in what commission members advised at recent hearings. Any solution is likely to take decades and billions of dollars to implement, and remains highly uncertain in having a successful outcome.
“President Reagan signed the  Nuclear Waste Policy Act into law and praised the bipartisan cooperation, resolve, and good sense that made it possible. Those traits deserted us in 1987. Bowing to public opposition and budget constraints, Congress short-circuited the siting process and focused all of our efforts on Yucca Mountain. That has now proved to have been a mistake.” So said Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) at a hearing of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee earlier this month, one of three hearings on the commission’s report that was released on January 26. Hearings were also held by the House Subcommittee on Environment and the Economy and the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee.
Committee Chairman Bingaman, Ranking Member Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and their Senate colleagues held a thoughtful two-hour hearing that was free of the rancor that has characterized previous debate about the proposed Yucca Mountain repository. Testifying were the commission’s co-chairs, Lee Hamilton and Brent Scowcroft and the committee’s former chairman Pete Domenici. Murkowski spoke for all as she described her frustrations that thirty years and approximately $10 billion have not resulted in solution to the disposal of the nation’s civilian nuclear waste. Compounding the problem is mounting financial liability because of the government’s failure to take possession of this waste. The government has paid $2 billion in damages with the expectation that it could increase to $13 to $15 billion (with some industry observers predicting it could be considerably higher.) Murkowski predicted that the administration’s decision to terminate the Yucca Mountain project would probably be reviewed by a court, and that in any event it is highly unlikely that the government would start to take possession of the waste by 2021.
Hamilton shared the senators’ frustrations. He told the senators that the Nuclear Waste Policy Act “simply hasn’t worked.” He said that the committee members were unanimous in their approval of the report, adding “we are confident that we can turn this record around.” Hamilton and Scowcroft briefly outlined the commission’s recommendations for a truly integrated waste management system.
A central finding is the need for a consent-based approach to the siting of a shorter-term waste storage site(s), and permanent geological repositories, an approach used in in Spain, Finland, Sweden and other countries. Notably, it was also successfully used in the establishment of the nation’s defense nuclear waste facility, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad NM. Other recommendations include a significant change in the manner in which a mandated nuclear waste fee is used, the establishment of a new congressionally-chartered entity whose sole mission would be the handling of the nation’s spent nuclear fuel, the establishment of one of more short term storage (as opposed to disposal) facilities, and the immediate initiation of planning for large-scale waste transportation. The commission found that the “scientifically preferred approach” is the construction of one or more deep geological disposal facilities.
In concluding his remarks, Scowcroft told the committee that there is wide agreement about the outlines of a solution. “Simply put, we know what we have to do, we know we have to do it, we even know how to do it,” he said. It is possible to identify and develop suitable deep geological repositories. “The core difficulty remains what it has always been: finding a way to site these inherently controversial facilities and to conduct a waste management program in a manner that allows all stakeholders, especially those host communities, states, tribes to conclude that their interests have been adequately protected and their well-being enhanced – not merely sacrificed or over-ridden by the interests of the country as a whole.”
Domenici’s remarks echoed those of the co-chairmen. He stressed the need for a consent-based approach to the construction of nuclear waste facilities, stressing that by taking this approach “we will not have the Yucca fight.” Of note, he said that Carlsbad and near-by Hobbs NM were developing a strategy for another facility to be built next to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant. Indicative of the commission’s contention that a consent-based approach is necessary is a fact sheet from the Carlsbad Department of Development stating “Active community support has been a key to WIPP success,” adding “The Carlsbad Department of Development . . . supports the Blue Ribbon Panel process to recommend to Congress alternatives for managing high-level waste.”
The witnesses warned that a solution to short-term nuclear waste storage will take at least five years, with fifteen to twenty years needed to develop a geologic repository. Transportation is a thorny problem with many communities wary if not opposed to the transportation of spent nuclear fuel (although Scowcroft said there have been 10,000 shipments to the Carlsbad plant.) Distrust of the federal government is high, with Hamilton saying “we heard that 150 times” at different meetings.
“Obviously you have to have good science,” Hamilton said. Also needed, the witnesses testified, was a consensus within Congress to enact authorization bills, and action by the Obama Administration to implement the commission’s recommendations. Said Bingaman, “The Blue Ribbon Commission has provided us with a roadmap for putting the program back on track, but it will obviously once again take bipartisan cooperation, resolve and good sense on our part to act upon its recommendations.”