Presidential Blue Ribbon Panel Issues Warning: Time to Get Serious about Nuclear Waste Strategy

The long-awaited final report from the President's Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future was issued yesterday and offered stark warnings that inaction on developing a long-term strategy for disposing and handling nuclear waste threatens to strand 65,000 tons of spent fuel at 70 reactors across the country. 

Co-chaired by former White House National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft and former Representative Lee Hamilton of Indiana, the Blue Ribbon Commission was created by the President nearly two years ago to review current nuclear waste management policies and recommend a new plan to improve nuclear safety and energy security. In their letter to the President, the 15-member commission stated, "Put simply, this nation’s failure to come to grips with the nuclear waste issue has already proved damaging and costly.It will be even 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." The commission recommended eight strategies for policymakers:

  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 storage facilities.
  6. Prompt efforts to prepare for the eventual large-scale transport of spent nuclear fuel and high-level waste to consolidated storage and disposal facilities when such facilities become available.
  7. Support for continued U.S. innovation in nuclear energy technology and for workforce development.
  8. Active U.S. leadership in international efforts to address safety, waste management, non-proliferation, and security concerns.

CSG's Midwestern Radioactive Materials Transportation Committee played an active role in helping shape the commission's report during its draft stages and offered extensive comments regarding complex issues around the transportation and storage of nuclear waste across state lines. The Midwestern Radioactive Materials Transportation Committee includes gubernatorial and legislative appointees from the 12 Midwestern states: Illinois, Indiana, Iowa,Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, and Wisconsin. The Blue Ribbon Commission took one of the region’s suggested legislative changes – namely, making financial and technical assistance available under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act for essential activities like inspections,escorts, and equipment purchases to states and tribes for shipments of transuranic waste headed to the Department of Energy's Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico.  

The commission's report danced around the politically sensitive topic of the Yucca Mountain repository, which is opposed by the Administration, and chose instead to offer prospective recommendations for the selection of a future waste repository. Yucca Mountain was chosen by Congress in 1987 as the nation's sole waste repository, when it amended the complex, multi-site selection process outlined in the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982. Ironically, the site was chosen to avoid the rancorous and difficult decision of siting multiple repositories in several states. Twenty-five years later, opening Yucca Mountain has proven to be one of the most politically difficult energy policy dilemmas to solve, and after decades of studies and fighting both for and against the repository, the Obama Administration withdrew the license application from consideration by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

One recommendation that states should pay particular attention to is access to the fees paid into the Nuclear Waste Fund by electricity ratepayers. Under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982, the Department of Energy levys a one-tenth of a cent per kilowatt-hour surcharge on consumers' monthly electric bills for spent fuel management activities and the construction of a permanent repository for waste. By law, that spent nuclear fuel was supposed to be removed from reactor sites beginning in 1998 and bound for permanent repository. Clearly the political stalemate and eventual demise of Yucca Mountain has prevented that waste from going anywhere, but states and ratepayers are still on the hook and have paid billions of dollars for a repository that may never be built. To see how much your ratepayers in your state have been charged, the Nuclear Energy Institute has an interesting spreadsheet with data compiled from the Department of Energy. The commission recommended the creation of a federally chartered corporation, like TVA, to focus primarily on nuclear waste policy. That newly chartered organization would fall outside the auspices of the Department of Energy and the federal appropriations process and would then eventually receive the remaining balance of the Nuclear Waste Fund. Historically, funds have been collected for the Nuclear Waste Fund but congressional appropriations for nuclear waste management and related repository actions have been haphazard at best, and politically contentious. Although the commission recommended that this new organization be removed from DOE's jurisdiction, it needs some degree of autonomy to effectively carry out the obligations under the Nuclear Was Policy Act and to ratepayers across the country.

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