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.
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.