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Around the Halls: President Obama and America’s Nuclear Future

The Waste Control Specialists' Andrews County, Texas site

On January 27, 2012, President Obama's Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future (BRC) issued its final report, outlining a roadmap forward for nuclear waste policy. Charles Ebinger and John Banks weigh in on the BRC's recommendations.

President Obama and America’s Nuclear Future: A Stunning Disappointment?
Charles Ebinger, Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy
Director, Energy Security Initiative

President Obama’s Blue Ribbon Commission report on America’s Nuclear Future, released today, is exasperatingly devoid of meaningful concrete policies that will move the industry ahead and allow it not only to contribute to the future supply of electricity in the United States but also to make the vital contribution that Professor Socolow’s wedge theory posits nuclear energy must make if we have any chance of reducing rising global CO2 emissions over the next 30 years.

The commission’s mandate was to make detailed recommendations for creating a long term safe solution for management and disposal of the nation’s spent nuclear fuel from reactors and other high level radioactive wastes. While the candid tone of the report deserves praise with the authors warning of the necessity of acting on its recommendations immediately so that we do not abnegate our moral integrity and put off politically difficult decisions onto the next generation for which it holds no responsibility for having created the problem. At the same time, the report does little in addressing what sites might best be investigated as a replacement for Yucca Mountain. Rather it calls for the creation of a major above ground storage facility that could serve as a consolidated single repository for all nuclear waste currently scattered around the country while a permanent geological waste repository is established. The report also says that the nation must move to insure that the proper policies are in place once this single above ground repository is in place to insure that the large volumes of waste moved all over the country to the facility are done utilizing safe and secure manner procedures. While this proposal has merit in that it will over time reduce the volume of waste trafficking the nation’s highways and railways, one has to query why the commission believes that the selection of such a site will not be as subject to local political opposition as have other proposals such as converting the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico, an excellent geologic site , into a waste disposal site for all civilian nuclear reactor spent fuel and other high level radioactive waste or evacuation concerns that arose over the siting of the Seabrook,Shoreham or Indian Point nuclear power generation facilities.

In this latter regard, the commission’s clarion call for a ‘ consent based approach” to siting any new nuclear spent fuel facilities borders on the laughable to anyone who has been involved in the sitting of any type of nuclear facility over the last nearly 50 years. Consent and debate needs to be based on fact based investigations and not on emotions. There are times when he national interest must prevail over local parochial interest and while public dialogue and transparency are always good when confronting difficult issues there are times when tough political decisions need to be made and the construction of a long term spent fuel geologic repository is one of them. We spent over 30 years on Yucca Mountain and $20 billion dollars after it was chosen by a distinguished scientific panel and cannot spend another 30 years having the same battles all over again.

The report’s call for the creation of a new agency, independent of Department of Energy, that will be responsible solely for the safe storage and disposal of civilian and other high level nuclear waste may have some merit but given the role that a number of the national laboratories spend on nuclear issues it remains to be seen how these activities might be carved out of the labs’ other activities without creating new redundancies, and more bureaucracy. Would it not perhaps be as reasonable to turn this function over to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Environmental Protection Agency, or perhaps the Interior Department? The commission does make a bold and much needed call for changing how the $750 million dollar/year Nuclear Waste Fund is managed to insure that the money appropriated is truly lock boxed so that it is available to be uses as the Congress intended and not for other means.

Finally the report calls for the United States to continue to be the world leader on questions related to nuclear safety, waste management, nonproliferation and security. While reasonable people can disagree it is the opinion of the author that we lost any moral authority we had on non proliferation when we signed the U.S./Indian civil nuclear agreement allowing India , a non-NPT signatory to divert plutonium from reactors produced indigenously to its nuclear weapons program throwing away 30 years of nonproliferation policy. Nonetheless while not perfect the United States remains a positive voice on all these issues in a world that makes policy coherence increasingly complex and often difficult to implement.


The BRC’s Final Report: Workable Solutions Worth Pursuing
John Banks, Nonresident Fellow, Foreign PolicyEnergy Security Initiative

The Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future (BRC) issued its final report this week, outlining a roadmap forward for nuclear waste policy. The BRC hit the nail on the head starting with their correct assumptions that waste management policy in the United States is broken, a burden on taxpayers, and constraining America’s choices in nuclear energy policy. Continuing on this path is not an option, and BRC proposes a sound, workable approach for fixing the main problems afflicting the process.

BRC’s principal recommendations are: establish one or more geologic disposal facilities, and one or more interim centralized storage facilities; develop and implement a consent-based approach to siting; create a congressionally-chartered federal corporation to site, build and operate storage and disposal facilities, thus removing this responsibility from the Department of Energy; and allow access to Nuclear Waste Fund resources to more directly support a revamped waste management policy.

These recommendations address the non-integrated, inflexible, politicized and expensive waste management process that has been in place for decades.
First, establishing consolidated storage facilities provides much greater flexibility to work out longer-term solutions in a more integrated fashion. Specifically, it allows time to study options for long-term geologic disposal and fuel cycle approaches. This point was emphasized in MIT’s 2010 report The Future of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle. While the NRC has ruled that dry cask storage is a safe option, there will be a need to expand dry cask storage capabilities in the near future: about 75 percent of the country’s spent nuclear fuel is in cooling pools at reactor sites, and some analysts suggest that pool capacity could be reached by 2015. In addition, initiating efforts to develop a geologic disposal facility provides policy makers the flexibility to look beyond the debilitating debate over Yucca mountain since, as BRC notes, United States spent nuclear fuel inventory will soon surpass the volume of waste that can be legally placed at Yucca even if it moved forward.

Second, the consent-based approach to siting described by the BRC is exactly what is needed to avoid the top-down method that has failed here and in other countries. Recent experience in several European countries and at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico (for defense-related waste) indicates that a focus on an approach that is adaptive and seeks to partner with local stakeholders is much more likely to succeed and, in the end, be cheaper. Why not try; states or local communities may actually want the jobs associated with developing and maintaining a centralized storage site, and others may applaud efforts to remove dry cask storage facilities at operating reactors—as well as “stranded” waste from decommissioned sites—in their communities.
Third, the creation of a new waste management institution to develop and manage the spent nuclear fuel policy and facilities can help to de-politicize the process. While it certainly won’t remove political considerations entirely, it can provide a degree of insulation from day-to-day politics, not to mention carve out a specialized institution dedicated solely to the issue.

Fourth, BRC’s recommendations to alter the manner in which the Nuclear Waste Fund is managed are a sound way to provide the resources needed for the new waste management institution, as well as give some relief to nuclear utilities. The BRC proposals seek to ensure that fees paid by utilities on a per kWh basis designed to support a waste management program actually get used for that purpose, and that any unspent monies in the Fund are allocated to the new waste management organization.

There are surely challenges to the BRC’s recommendations: there are many legislative changes required, and in the current small government, belt-tightening environment the creation of a new institution may be a tough sell.

But the BRC’s plan is worth pursuing. Even if all nuclear plants were shut down and no additional plants were built, we still have to deal with spent nuclear fuel. And if we want nuclear power to play a role in our future energy mix, particularly to help combat climate change, we still have to deal with spent nuclear fuel to build a stronger foundation for developing a comprehensive energy policy. Nuclear power faces four fundamental challenges: economic (high up-front capital costs), safety and security, waste, and proliferation. A comprehensive approach to all of these factors is required to maintain nuclear power as a viable policy option. The BRC’s recommendations address the key issues that have plagued the waste management part of the equation for decades. Let’s put that piece back together and move forward.