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Nuclear Standoff - Hope for Change

Fortnightly Magazine - December 2009

the commission will be launched, however, and how its work will translate into actual policy, remains unknown. In response to  Fortnightly’s inquiries, DOE only reiterated what’s it’s said all year—that the commission would be formed “soon.” In any case, NEI argues that a careful and deliberative approach will yield a better result than would a faster decision. “Time is on our side,” Kass says. “The first plan would’ve put all the fuel into a deep repository, but now we’re looking at recycling and reprocessing, harvesting more energy from the fuel and having a smaller waste stream at the end.”

However, as time passes with no effective solution in sight—and with spent-fuel management becoming more costly and risky—a nuclear renaissance looks increasingly unlikely.

“The industry views the blue ribbon commission as progress because it allows the government to kick the waste-management can down the road a little,” Spencer says. “But it’s a façade that allows the government to check off the boxes and pretend they’ll come up with a plan, and allows the industry to build highly subsidized reactors without fixing the waste problem.”

And while loan guarantees and other policy changes might allow the industry to build a few new reactors, Spencer argues those projects won’t launch a renaissance, because they’ll be relying on more of the same inefficient, centralized policy approaches that led to the industry’s state of paralysis. As such, any hope for a true renaissance might be naïve.

“Nuclear is in a better position than it’s been in since the early 1960s, and that’s what makes this so frustrating,” Spencer says. “Subsidies and central control only reward mediocrity and take away incentives to innovate and reduce costs. We have this historic opportunity to bring about a systemic change and create a truly American approach, a sustainable and economical nuclear industry. But as long as the industry is so focused on government subsidies and support, we’ll never get there.”