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Blue Ribbon Mission

Can a broadly based committee resolve the nuclear waste dilemma?

Fortnightly Magazine - July 2010

should, be dealt with over the decades to come.

To achieve effectiveness and results, the commission arguably must narrow its focus. Short-term storage naturally rises to the top of an action agenda. Witnesses speaking at the May BRC meeting expressed the nearly unanimous opinion that dealing with short-term interim storage is the commission’s most important task, along with establishing a management process for addressing the longer term fuel-cycle issues.

Some experts, like Crowley of NAS, advised the BRC that the entire process needs to be revised, and that the DOE effort over the past decade won’t result in a long-term solution because of the narrow way the Nuclear Waste Policy Act mandates solutions. This perspective largely echoes what NAS said two decades ago in a 1990 position paper. 3 Experience since then has reinforced the same conclusion.

Two management options emerged from preliminary BRC testimony: Either a new, independent agency with funding directly from the nuclear waste fund, independent of annual Congressional appropriation; or a new corporation to be established and run by the nuclear industry with some kind of federal oversight and funded directly from the nuclear-waste fund.

Tom Sanders of the American Nuclear Society (ANS) called for creating an independent entity to oversee management of the current and expected stockpile of U.S. spent nuclear fuel. And Commissioner Greg White of the Michigan PSC and NARUC urged consideration of other organizational alternatives. He pointed out that Canada has a “well-managed interim storage program in place” with a “nuclear waste management organization, responsible for the repository program, created and managed by the nuclear reactor owners.” ( See “Spent Fuel Management Models.” )

During the BRC meeting in May, there seemed to be strong support for turning much of this management over to the private sector—perhaps through the new U.S. Nuclear Waste Management Corp. recently proposed by Senator George Voinovich 4 —or to an independent nuclear-waste management agency separated from DOE, with a reliable funding mechanism independent of annual Congressional appropriations. Norris McDonald of the Nuclear Fuels Reprocessing Coalition called for “a financially autonomous, federal corporation to replace DOE.”

Moving forward, the commission proposed to establish three sub-committees to deal in detail with the questions of storage, reprocessing and disposal. The scope of the sub-committees and membership are being reviewed with Energy Secretary Chu, in advance of the BRC’s next meeting in July.

No matter what approach the BRC takes, the potential scope of its mandate is enormous, time is limited, and focus is essential to success.