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New Panel Seeks Nuclear Waste Solutions: Déjà Vu

With nuclear power back under serious consideration as a U.S. power source, a blue ribbon panel's decisions on what to do with waste carry great import.
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At the end of January, Energy Secretary Steven Chu appointed a Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future. The commission's principal purpose is to propose how to deal with spent nuclear fuel and high-level nuclear waste.

Bipartisan co-chairs Lee Hamilton, a former Democratic congressman, and Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser under two Republican presidents, will need all their renowned diplomatic skills and political savvy to produce a viable, sustainable answer. The urgency the administration feels to resolve the nuclear waste problem is further reflected in the commission's makeup: two former senators, two leaders of major environmental groups, several former high-ranking officials in the Department of Energy, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, and heads of major labor and industry groups.

National policymakers thought they had a viable answer more than a quarter century ago, in the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982. That law set out a process to develop and pay for deep geologic repositories; the first was to begin receiving waste in 1998.

A permanent and viable solution to the nuclear waste problem was deemed necessary to allow further development of nuclear power in the United States and to meet the obligation to future generations to provide a permanent waste solution. For the next two decades and more, however, such development did not occur. The repository program fell victim to siting politics. The 1998 date had turned into 2020 by the time the Obama administration took office.

At that point, the only option on the table was to develop a repository in the welded tuff, a uniformly dense volcanic rock, inside Yucca Mountain, Nev. Congress had approved the site in 2002 over the objections of the state of Nevada and its senior senator, Harry Reid. The outgoing Bush administration submitted a license application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in 2008.

On March 3 of this year (and with Reid now the Senate majority leader), Secretary Chu moved to withdraw the application "with prejudice" — to "provide finality in ending the Yucca Mountain project."

The program to site and develop a repository has cost upwards of $14 billion, collected from ratepayers whose electricity has come from nuclear plants and from Congress to cover the costs of disposal for high-level defense wastes. In addition, the federal government continues to pay for the costs of on-site storage of spent fuel as a result of lawsuits filed by utilities after the Department of Energy was unable to begin to accept the fuel in 1998. These costs will continue to grow until the federal government begins accepting the fuel.

Now the administration wants to include nuclear power in its strategy to reduce carbon emissions. It is counting on the commission, which starts meeting today, to provide answers for the safe management and disposal of nuclear wastes. In doing so, the commission will have to confront three major challenges.

Credibility: To anyone who has followed the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, it appears that short-term political calculations have prevented orderly and timely development of geologic disposal. The secretary of energy abruptly terminated the act's prescribed effort to site a second repository in Eastern and upper Midwestern states in the spring of 1986, when there were key House and Senate races in a number of affected states. Congress eliminated potential sites in Washington and Texas at the end of 1987 — when the speaker of the house hailed from Washington and the majority leader from Texas. The current administration ended the Yucca Mountain project in line with primary-season commitments the then-presidential candidate made in the home state of the Senate majority leader.

Also on, how an expert in nuclear power safety soured on the energy source and turned to solar.

Therefore, both industry representatives and environmental skeptics of nuclear power will be reluctant to believe that the federal government will actually implement whatever solutions the commission recommends. The path forward will need many check-in points where all sides can see that commitments are kept.

Facing up to long-term storage: Since the early 1980s, both the commercial nuclear power industry and defense nuclear facilities have assumed there would be adequate geologic disposal for their wastes within a few decades. They and the commission now have to face the reality that spent fuel and high-level waste will have to be stored for many more decades.

That raises at least three gnarly issues. First, the regulatory regime for on-site storage has focused on the short term. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission must now undertake an extensive review of its approach in order to assure safety, environmental protection and physical security for a much longer term.

Second, maintaining storage at many sites, including those of reactors that have been decommissioned, is costly and provides opportunities for highly visible acts of terrorism. On the other hand, moving toward consolidated storage will ignite new siting battles and controversy over transport of nuclear wastes.

Third, there are innumerable legal issues to sort out. For example, litigation about federal acceptance of spent fuel continues. Objections to withdrawal of the Yucca Mountain licensing application are likely to produce additional litigation if the Nuclear Regulatory Commission accedes to the secretary's request. A 1995 settlement with the state of Idaho requires spent fuel and high-level waste to be removed from the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory by 2035. Neither Hanford, Wash., nor Savannah River, S.C., has adequate National Environmental Policy Act coverage to continue to store spent fuel and high-level waste indefinitely.

Backyards: Whether for interim storage or new exploration for geologic repositories, the country will have to face siting issues. The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 had probably the most elaborate facility siting process of any federal statute. Yet it foundered repeatedly on Not In My Back Yard politics.

The commission may be tempted to rely (as some recent legislative initiatives have) on existing federal nuclear sites, like Hanford or Savannah River. It would be well to remember, however, that Hanford and the Nevada Test Site (where both surface and underground nuclear tests took place for 40 years) were "grandfathered" into the Nuclear Waste Policy Act. Yet Yucca Mountain, adjacent to the Nevada Test Site, and Hanford were eliminated politically. In the 1980s, Oak Ridge was taken off the table as sites for centralized interim storage.

This suggests why former members of Congress and experienced Washington hands make up a majority of the commission's members. However, the commission lacks state and local representation. This could weaken the viability and credibility of its recommendations concerning siting. (Note: Two governors and two organizations of states affected by nuclear waste issues recommended appointment of the author of this article to the commission; the recommendation was not accepted.)

Finally, while the commission's charter does not explicitly mention reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel, the issue will surely come up. (See Miller-McCune articles on reprocessing here and here. In the 1980s, Congress' Office of Technology Assessment concluded "reprocessing — which generates additional radioactive waste streams and involves operational risks of its own — does not offer advantages that are sufficient to justify its use for waste management reasons alone." The commission is likely to hear both that the failure to move quickly to geologic disposal and new technological breakthroughs make reprocessing an attractive option.

The fact remains, however, that reprocessing generates waste streams and emissions as well, so that siting facilities would still be a major issue. As would the prospect of transporting spent fuel to the facilities.

The commission has two years to reach its conclusions. Much is riding on its deliberations. Whatever its conclusions, Congress will have to enact new legislation to put them into effect. Given the history of the nuclear waste issues that must be addressed, the task is daunting — and based on past experience, frustrating. Preparing to attend the commission's first meeting in Washington, a person heavily involved in development of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act said, "I wouldn't miss the meeting next week for anything, although I will take a big dose of anti-déjà vu pills beforehand."

Transparency will be vital if it is to succeed. If the commission comes to a town near you, it is bound to present an intriguing view into the state of American policymaking.

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