Monday, August 01, 2011

U.S. "Nuclear Waste Management Program Is At An Impasse"

Jul 29: The President's Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future (BRC) released the draft full commission report for public comment. The draft report represents the work and recommendations BRC to date. BRC said, "It is important to note that we expect this document to continue to change and take form as we receive additional comments." The public comment period will be open through October 31, 2011. On May 13, the BRC held a day-long meeting in Washington, DC, and released its draft recommendations from subcommittees on: Reactor & Fuel Cycle Technology; Disposal of Nuclear Waste; and Transportation and Storage of Nuclear Waste [See WIMS 5/16/11].
    The draft recommendations respond to questions presented to the three subcommittees. The BRC was co-chaired by: Lee Hamilton, former Democratic U.S. Representative from Indiana from January 1965-January 1999; and, Brent Scowcroft, a Republican who served as the National Security Advisor to both Presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush. Thirteen additional members included former Senators Chuck Hagel (R-NE); and Pete Domenici (R-NM) and long-time chair of the Senate Energy & Natural Resources Committee; John Rowe, CEO of Exelon Corporation; MIT Physics Professor Ernie Moniz and others.
    According to the BRC final draft report, "America's nuclear waste management program is at an impasse. The Obama Administration's decision to halt work on a repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada is but the latest indicator of a policy that has
been troubled for decades and has now all but completely broken down. The approach laid out under the 1987 Amendments to the Nuclear Waste Policy Act (NWPA) -- which tied the entire U.S. high-level waste management program to the fate of the Yucca Mountain site -- has not worked to produce a timely solution for dealing with the nation's most hazardous radioactive materials. The United States has traveled nearly 25 years down the current path only to come to a point where continuing to rely on the same approach seems destined to bring further controversy, litigation, and protracted delay.
    "The Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future (the Commission) was chartered to recommend a new strategy for managing the back end of the nuclear fuel cycle. We approached this task from different perspectives but with a shared sense of urgency. Put simply, this nation's failure to come to grips with the nuclear waste issue has already proved damaging and costly and it will be more damaging and more costly the longer it continues: damaging to prospects for maintaining a potentially important energy supply option for the future, damaging to state–federal relations and public confidence in the federal government's competence, and damaging to America's standing in the world -- not only as a source of nuclear technology and policy expertise but as a leader on global issues of nuclear safety, non-proliferation, and security. Continued stalemate is also costly -- to utility ratepayers, to communities that have become unwilling hosts of long-term nuclear waste storage facilities, and to U.S. taxpayers who face mounting liabilities, already running into billions of dollars, as a result of the failure by both the executive and legislative branches to meet federal waste management commitments.
    A new strategy is needed, not just to address these damages and costs but because this generation has a fundamental ethical obligation to avoid burdening future generations with the entire task of finding a safe permanent solution for managing hazardous nuclear materials they had no part in creating. At the same time, we owe it to future generations to avoid foreclosing options wherever possible so that they can make choices -- about the use of nuclear energy as a low-carbon energy resource and about the management of the nuclear fuel cycle—based on emerging technologies and developments and their own best interests.
    "Almost exactly one year after the Commission was chartered and less than five months before our initial draft report was due, an unforeseen event gave new urgency to our charge and brought the problem of nuclear waste into the public eye as never before. A devastating earthquake off the northeastern coast of Japan and the unprecedented tsunami that followed set off a chain of problems at the Fukushima Daichii nuclear power station that eventually led to the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl. In the
weeks of intense media coverage that followed, many Americans became newly aware of the presence of tens of thousands of tons of spent fuel at more than 70 nuclear power plant sites around this country -- and of the fact that the United States currently has no physical capacity to do anything with this spent fuel other than to continue to leave it at the sites where it was first generated.
    "The strategy we recommend in this draft report has seven key elements:
  1. A new, consent-based approach to siting future nuclear waste management facilities.
  2. A new organization dedicated solely to implementing the waste management program and empowered with the authority and resources to succeed.
  3. Access to the funds nuclear utility ratepayers are providing for the purpose of nuclear waste management.
  4. Prompt efforts to develop one or more geologic disposal facilities.
  5. Prompt efforts to develop one or more consolidated interim storage facilities.
  6. Support for continued U.S. innovation in nuclear energy technology and for workforce development.
  7. Active U.S. leadership in international efforts to address safety, waste management, nonproliferation, and security concerns.
    The elements of this strategy will not be new to those who have followed the U.S. nuclear waste program over the years. All of them are necessary to establish a truly integrated national nuclear waste management system, to create the institutional leadership and wherewithal to get the job done, and to ensure that the United States remains at the forefront of technology developments and international responses to evolving nuclear safety, non-proliferation, and security concerns. . .
    "Overall, we are confident that our waste management recommendations can be implemented using revenue streams already dedicated for this purpose (i.e., the Nuclear Waste Fund and fee). Other Commission recommendations -- particularly those concerning nuclear technology programs and international policies -- are broadly consistent with the program plans of the relevant agencies. A second overarching point concerns timing and implementation. All of our recommendations are interconnected and will take time to implement fully, particularly since many elements of the strategy we propose require legislative action to amend the NWPA and other relevant laws . . ."
    Acting Department of Energy (DOE) Press Secretary Damien LaVera issued a brief comment on the BRC "Interim Recommendations" saying, "The Obama Administration continues to believe that nuclear energy has an important role to play as America moves to a clean energy future. As part of our commitment to restarting the American nuclear industry and creating thousands of new jobs and export opportunities in the process, we are committed to finding a sustainable approach to assuring safe, secure long-term disposal of used nuclear fuel and nuclear waste. Secretary Chu appreciates the hard work done by the members of the Blue Ribbon Commission, and thanks them for a very thoughtful report. The interim report issued today is a strong step toward finding a workable solution to the challenges of the back end of the fuel cycle."
    The Nuclear Energy Institute's (NEI) senior vice president for governmental affairs, Alex Flint issued a statement on the report saying in part, "The Blue Ribbon Commission has rightly recognized that the national nuclear waste management system must be truly integrated and that the United States should remain at the forefront of technology developments and international efforts to responsibly manage nuclear materials. A number of recommendations in the report strike the nuclear energy industry as sensible, desirable and, given time, achievable. The industry is particularly gratified to see the recommendations calling for the establishment of one or more consolidated interim storage facilities for used nuclear fuel; development of a permanent underground repository for commercial used fuel and high-level radioactive waste from U.S. defense programs; creation of a new management organization that will assume the U.S. Department of Energy's role in managing this material; and legislation providing full access to nuclear waste fee revenues and the federal Nuclear Waste Fund. These should be among the nation's top energy policy priorities.The industry concurs with the Blue Ribbon Commission's assertion that the availability of consolidated interim storage will provide 'valuable flexibility' in the nuclear waste management system. . . the nuclear energy industry continues to believe that . . . review of the Department of Energy's license application for the proposed Yucca Mountain, Nevada, repository should continue."
    Access the complete 192-page final draft report (click here). Access the BRC website for additional draft reports, background and an online commenting form (click here). Access the DOE statement (click here). Access the NEI statement (click here). [#Energy/Nuclear, #Haz/Nuclear]