In testimony before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works subcommittee on Clean Air and Nuclear Safety, members of the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future touted creation of a quasi-government entity to oversee spent fuel storage.
Brent Scowcroft, a retired Lieutenant General in the U.S. Air Force and National Security Advisor to two Republican presidents, testified before the congressional panel June 7. Scowcroft was joined by another member of the commission, Per Peterson, who chairs the University of California at Berkeley’s department of nuclear engineering.
The commission, appointed by Energy Secretary Steven Chu, published its report a few months earlier.
The two representatives reviewed some of the key recommendations. They include a new “consent-based” approach to siting nuclear waste sites; a new organization to manage the waste; access to funds already paid by utility ratepayers for waste disposal; prompt efforts to develop one or more geologic disposal sites and consolidated storage facilities; plans to transport the spent fuel cross-country; support for new technology; and active U.S. leadership on safety and non-proliferation.
Chu appointed the commission shortly after the Obama Administration announced it would no longer pursue a long-controversial federal waste repository at Nevada’s Yucca Mountain.
Officials cite ‘lack of trust’ on nuclear waste
“A serious lack of trust exists today in the federal government’s ability to meet its nuclear waste cleanup obligations,” the commission said in an April letter to Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., who both sit on the Senate Appropriations Committee panel on energy and water.
“The longer our country fails to solve the nuclear waste problem, the greater the trust deficit becomes – with the U.S. government continuing to fail in its legal and moral obligation to take spent nuclear fuel and defense high level waste while the future of nuclear power as an option for electrical generation in this country is seriously jeopardized,” the commission said in the letter.
Former Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Ind., co-chaired the commission along with Scowcroft. Hamilton was not among the witnesses during the June 7 Senate committee hearing.
Since the commission issued its report, one of its members, Allison MacFarlane, has been nominated by President Obama to serve on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).
“While we were initially dismayed with the lack of balance in the composition of the BRC [Blue Ribbon Commission], we think the Commission delivered a useful, although limited, report that identified several components of what could become a successful strategy for the ultimate safe disposal of commercial and defense spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste,” Natural Resources Defense Council Senior Project Attorney Geoffrey Fettus said in his June 7 testimony before the Senate panel.
Issuance of a report, however, is far from a guarantee that its recommendations will ever be implemented, Fettus said.
“This Committee needs no reminding that failure to achieve consensus legislation, especially with a history as fraught as that of nuclear waste, invites the likelihood of more political and legal gridlock down the road,” Fettus said. The NRDC official also recommended that Congress “reject closed fuel cycle and reprocessing options from the charter of any new federal corporation created to implement the interim storage and ultimate disposal missions.”
The time is not right to commit to a reprocessing strategy as an economic proposition, “although R&D should continue,” testified National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NARUC) President David Wright. Wright is a commissioner with the South Carolina Public Service Commission.
“NARUC and State utility commissions in 40 States served by nuclear-generated electricity have been involved in the troubled history of nuclear waste disposal since 1983,” Wright said. “That is when the utilities, which own the used fuel, were required by the Nuclear Waste Policy Act to enter into contracts with DOE,” Wright said, in reference to the Department of Energy.
“As you know, that disposal has not happened, but the fee payments continue to be made,” Wright said. “Or, as a former Florida utility commissioner summarized the status in 1991, ‘The government has our money—we have their waste.'”
Reform of the much-litigated Nuclear Waste Fund is essential for most of the Blue Ribbon Commission’s recommendations to occur, Wright said. “Regardless of Yucca Mountain, we need another repository. The lessons of Yucca and the better lessons of Finland, Sweden and WIPP [the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico] suggest the ‘consent-based’ siting approach may get better results, but will require patience,” Wright said.