Obama’s Blue Ribbon Panel on Nuclear Waste Fuels the Nuclear (Debate) Revival

On January 29, President Obama announced the formation of the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future, a panel of policymakers, scholars, and industry representatives organized to “conduct a comprehensive review of policies for managing the back end of the nuclear fuel cycle, including all alternatives for the storage, processing, and disposal of civilian and defense used nuclear fuel and nuclear waste.”

Despite the lofty and broad goals for the panel, as outlined by the Obama administration and the DOE, it seems that the panel is born from the outcry over the scuttling of Yucca Mountain. However, it also appears that the “comprehensive review” of disposal options is exclusive of Yucca Mountain, as panel member Pete Dominici, a former New Mexico senator, said of Yucca Mountain: “It’s like it doesn’t exist, so let’s get on with it.” Panel members expect to find options that they call “much more attractive” than Yucca Mountain.

Opposition to the panel is fronted by Sen. John McCain, a supporter of the Yucca Mountain project, who stated his concern regarding the usefulness of the commission’s recommendations if it does not consider Yucca Mountain. However, opposition to the panel focused on issues outside of Yucca Mountain as well. Critics cite the lack of panel members with technical backgrounds, as 11 of the 15 panel members fall into the policymaker or industry executive categories.

Support for the panel seems mostly conditional, with various organizations backing the formation of the panel while still opposing existing or new nuclear policy.

The White House memo ordering the DOE to form the panel also suggested that the panel’s “review should include an evaluation of advanced fuel cycle technologies that would optimize energy recovery, resource utilization, and the minimization of materials derived from nuclear activities in a manner consistent with U.S. nonproliferation goals,” which could be interpreted as a go-ahead for the panel to reopen serious discussion of reprocessing.

The motivations and usefulness of the panel can only be speculated for the next 18-24 months. It is equally difficult to say whether the “long overdue expansion of nuclear energy” will materialize, but it is clear that the recent developments in nuclear energy policy, including the formation of this panel, the increase in loan guarantees for new reactors, and the funding cuts for Yucca Mountain among others, have revived the debate over the role that nuclear power will play in America’s energy future.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Obama’s Blue Ribbon Panel on Nuclear Waste Fuels the Nuclear (Debate) Revival

  1. Allison

    What strikes me first is the possibility of discussion of reprocessing. Correct me if I’m wrong, but since 1977, opinion about reprocessing has followed party lines, with Republicans supporting and Democrats opposing. That the President is allowing it on the table is a clear departure from the historical Democratic position, even with the caveat (without which this document could not have existed) that reprocessing not lead to proliferation.

    As a former citizen of a city with a DOE nuclear research site, and of a state where there is buried nuclear waste a-plenty, I am exasperated with the waffling on nuclear waste. People using nuclear power have been paying into the Nuclear Waste Fund since 1982 so that our waste would be taken away someday (go to NEI’s website for an Excel spreadsheet showing each state’s contribution to the Fund through 2009). We bet and lost on Yucca Mountain, but we are still paying for some kind of solution.

    Another positive feature is the mention of statutory change recommendation. It may be a standard feature of such directives, and the Panel can’t really recommend any changes in policy without changes in the law (since the law requires the use of Yucca Mountain), but it seems like a step in the right direction to me. If no one can agree to open Yucca, then we should move more quickly to find alternatives.

  2. juliaharvey

    The future of Yucca Mountain as a high-level waste repository is indeed grim. For one, the EPA radiation standards for the facility stand as a significant technical hurdle for its implementation.
    Revised in 2008, the mandate now requires that the NRC and DOE determine radiation containment of the repository for up to 1 million years, including seismic verification. I believe that even the most sophisticated supercomputer operated by the most brilliant analysts could not reasonably assure seismic stability for that length.

    On another note, although the repository is all but dead, I was fascinated by the plan to erect giant spikes around the site, as a diversion to alien races who might colonize the planet after we’re gone, or to future generous of humans who forgot English. Ominous columns must be the universal sign for hazardous waste. According to the Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management, the monuments are warnings for the future, “when human society and languages could change radically.”

    http://www.ocrwm.doe.gov/factsheets/doeymp0115.shtml
    http://www.epa.gov/rpdweb00/yucca/

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