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Blue Ribbon Mission

Can a broadly based committee resolve the nuclear waste dilemma?

Fortnightly Magazine - July 2010

Nuclear Department Head Prof. Ernest Moniz, and Allison MacFarlane, an environmental expert from George Mason University, bring a mature practical understanding of the issues.

In its first sessions, in addition to the directives from Secretary Chu, the BRC received testimony from expert witnesses who articulated many of the hurdles that a re-invigorated spent-fuel management program must address. The commission’s process is open to public scrutiny and comment. The issues as they are being laid out for the BRC seem clear, and though challenging, they aren’t insurmountable. But whether the BRC can overcome the hurdles before it and bring about meaningful change to nuclear waste management might depend on the ability of its leaders to focus on a mission that’s both politically and practically achievable.

Political Context

Understanding this commission’s purpose and timing requires understanding a complex political context.

In 1982, the Nuclear Waste Policy Act established the federal government’s responsibility to provide a place for the permanent disposal of high-level radioactive waste and spent nuclear fuel by 1998. The act also set forth the generators’ responsibility to bear the costs of permanent disposal. As a requirement, a nuclear waste fund was created from charges on nuclear electricity users. Thus, the ratepayers would pay for the development and construction of the needed waste-disposal facilities.

Since 1984, nuclear power ratepayers have paid more than $17 billion into the nuclear waste fund that grew over time to $34 billion and now has a balance of $24 billion. The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) alone has performed about 140 studies since 1956, and spent some $4 billion on siting at Yucca Mountain facilities out of the $13 billion expended to date. With the cancellation of the Yucca Mountain option, the ratepayers have received nothing in return for their massive investment. Representing the utilities and these ratepayers, the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NARUC) forcefully articulated the outrage of their constituents at the BRC sessions. They decried the failure of the federal government to meet its obligation under the 1982 act to begin accepting nuclear waste by 1998. Thus the BRC begins its work in the context of the federal government’s $30 billion failure to develop a site for storing the nation’s nuclear waste.

The Yucca Mountain site was shut down at least in part because of the opposition of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). In principle, it could be resurrected if either Senator Reid loses re-election to a candidate who supports the repository, or if NARUC wins a lawsuit it has mounted against the federal government to prevent the shutdown. 1 Either outcome could affect the commission’s ultimate recommendation.

Many states and cities are opposed to having nuclear waste facilities within their borders, even though most states currently store such waste. Likewise, Nevada has said no to Yucca Mountain, but recent polls indicate support might be increasing—particularly for facilities that aren’t perceived as merely a dump for nuclear waste. 2 Thus, in spite of broad popular opposition, the prospect for siting nuclear spent-fuel management facilities is difficult, but not hopeless. The BRC heard National