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Obama’s Nuclear Commission Issues Final Report, Urges Immediate Action On Atomic Waste
1/26/2012 @ 3:31PM
Christopher Helman Forbes Staff
Today President Obamas Blue Ribbon Commission on Americas Nuclear Future issued its final report urging immediate action on a number of fronts to deal with the long-intractable issue of what to do with Americas hundreds of thousands of tons of nuclear waste. According to the official press release from the commission, their final report hews closely to the draft released last year.
For some thoughts on the report and what it implies for the nation, I reached out to Dr. James Conca, senior scientist with the RJ Lee Group in Hanford, Wash. Conca who worked for many years as a repository scientist on the Department of Energys Yucca Mountain Project, as well as the New Mexicos Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (see my new article Nuke Us: The Town That Wants Americas Worst Atomic Waste) is intimately knowledgable about the issues involved and the hurdles to be overcome in finding a lasting solution to our atomic legacy. Heres Concas take on the BRC findings:
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Nuke Us: The Town That Wants America’s Worst Atomic Waste
To some, the perceived inability of the United States to dispose of high-level nuclear waste justifies a moratorium on expansion of nuclear power in this country. I see it more as an example of how science yields to social pressure, even on a subject as technical as nuclear waste. Most of the problems stem from confusion on the part of the public and their elected officials, not from a lack of scientific knowledge. We know where to put nuclear waste, how to put it there, how much it will cost, and how well it will work. And its all about the geology.
The Yucca Mountain Project, the nations first selected nuclear disposal site, could work as engineered, but the cost would be prohibitive. Something must fill its void. The Blue Ribbon Commission has just released a number of recommendations addressing nuclear energy and waste issues, and three specific recommendations have set the stage for a new strategy to dispose of high-level nuclear waste and to manage spent nuclear fuel in the future. They are:
1. interim storage for spent nuclear fuel,
2. resumption of the site selection process for a second repository, and
3. a quasi-government entity, or FedCorp, to execute the program and take control of the Nuclear Waste Fund in order to do so.
The first recommendation would allow storage of spent fuel from reactor sites either to be used in future reactors or eventually disposed, without needing to retrieve it from deep in the earth.
The second recommendation would allow permanent disposal of actual high level waste that has no value since it is the waste from reprocessing old fuel. This real waste needs to be disposed of promptly. It has cost billions to manage this waste in places that were always meant to be temporary. The Nuclear Waste Policy Act allows this second repository different criteria so other rock formations can return as candidate sites with complimentary features and the whole program can move forward faster.
The third recommendation concerns costs and administration. This quasi-government entity would be focused on this mission alone, concentrating on costs as it will be limited to the Nuclear Waste Fund, and on consensus, seeking agreement from all levels from local to tribal to State to Federal, something stressed by the Blue Ribbon Commission. Since nuclear waste has become a State-rights issue, it is critical that the States most affected, i.e., those that have the problem and those that have a solution, develop an independent multi-state agreement in order for a successful program to move forward. This multi-state compact would then approach the quasi-government entity, then that group would approach the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and if that passes, Federal approval would follow.
These recommendations, along with others from the Blue Ribbon Commission that address energy and research, outline an optimistic path forward for an essential industry that will be a significant part of our energy mix well into the future. Congress and the Administration should support them. From rumblings on the Hill, it sounds like that support will grow on both sides of the aisle.
Then again, politics could stand in the way. Congress will not easily give up control of the Nuclear Waste Fund to this quasi-government entity or FedCorp. And the lawsuits flying around from the industry and the States will muddy the waters. Thats why I stress the States most impacted have to take charge, and I think they will. The FedCorp would then be able to carry it out as a partner and fund it without Congressional appropriations. The key step is the forming the FedCorp and repealing parts of the 1987 amendment to the NWPA. No new laws have to be written, just clarified.
The BRCs recommendations provide a path forward that everyone can accept where only strife and discord existed before.
Wed love to hear your thoughts on the viability of these recommendations and whether theres enough political will to push them through. Also, for a good look at the town that thinks it holds the key to disposing of our nuclear trash, check out my new cover story, Nuke Us: The Town That Wants Americas Worst Atomic Waste, where commission member Sen. Pete Dominici (ret.) shares his thoughts on where the waste should go.