Blue Ribbon Commission on Nuclear Waste—Subcommittee Releases Recommendations

By Paula Cotter, Energy & Environment Counsel

Paula Cotter, Environment Project Director and Chief Counsel

State energy officials, including Attorneys General, are reviewing the deliberations of the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future because it could affect how nuclear waste in their states will be handled. On May 13, three Commission subcommittees announced conclusions and recommendations that will likely form the basis of the Commission’s final report to President Obama. The subcommittee assigned to study waste disposal recommended that the United States move forward in finding a deep geologic repository as a permanent site for spent nuclear fuel and defense-related nuclear waste. The Transportation and Storage Subcommittee recommended use of long-term offsite storage to manage commercial nuclear waste while a permanent disposal site or sites are found and developed. The May 13 public meeting of the Commission also incorporated other recommendations from the subcommittees, and reports from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Department of Energy. The two federal agencies discussed the current status of their analyses of the problems at the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan.

President Obama announced the formation of the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future in January 2010; it functions as a Federal Advisory Committee under the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA), as amended, 5 U.S.C. App. 2. Former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft and former Indiana Congressman Lee Hamilton jointly chair the Committee. The other 13 members are prestigious members largely drawn from academia and industry. The group divided itself into the three subcommittees that made recommendations at the May meeting:

  • Disposal Subcommittee, chaired by former Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel and World Resources Institute President Jonathan Lash;
  • Transportation and Storage Subcommittee, chaired by Richard Meserve, Carnegie Institution for Science president and Phil Sharp, Resources for the Future president and former Indiana congressman; and
  • Reactor Fuel Cycle Technology Subcommittee, chaired by former New Mexico Senator Pete Domenici and Per Peterson, professor at the University of California – Berkeley.

State Attorneys General share an interest in the work of the commission for two reasons. First, many states are home to nuclear power plants, which produce spent fuel waste. As existing plants have aged, concern has risen about the amount of waste held at the plants and about the method of storage. While the Transportation and Storage Subcommittee mentioned its finding that current storage methods do not create an unmanageable risk, it also noted that continued risk management will become more difficult. The derailed Yucca Mountain disposal site licensing process has highlighted the increasing inventory of spent fuel and the potential problems associated with it. Moreover, state Attorneys General historically have been concerned with such civilian nuclear waste because of its impact on electricity rates.

The second nexus between state Attorneys General and nuclear waste disposal is a result of the fact that states enforce a variety of judgments, consent decrees, and administrative orders—all of which govern the cleanup of the Department of Energy ‘s waste disposal sites. While the states do not directly regulate nuclear waste, the non-radioactive cleanups of those sites are directly linked to removal and disposal of high-level radioactive waste. As in the case of the privately-generated radioactive waste, the unavailability of the previously anticipated high-level waste repository at Yucca Mountain has emphasized the desirability of finding a permanent site for the Department of Energy waste.

The Disposal Subcommittee’s charge was to answer this question: “How can the United States go about establishing one or more facilities for permanently disposing of high-level nuclear waste in a manner and within a timeframe that is technically, socially, economically, and politically acceptable?” As its first draft recommendation, the Subcommittee renewed the concept of deep geological disposal, calling it the most workable approach. It called for a new federal agency dedicated to siting, constructing, operating one or more permanent nuclear waste disposal facilities, and for appropriate authority and access to funding for that institution. The Subcommittee also attempted to address the questions of process that have hindered the government’s attempts to find permanent disposal sites for nuclear waste. The draft recommendation was for a site-selection process described as consent-based transparent, phased, adaptive, and standards- and science-based. The Committee went on to make a draft recommendation to continue the existing balance of regulatory powers and duties shared by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Perhaps most relevant to states, the Subcommittee recommended a consultative role for states, local governments and tribes—but specifically did not recommend a state veto option.

The Transportation and Storage Subcommittee made several draft recommendations that touch on state concerns. Its primary direction was to address the question of whether the United States should “change its approach to storing and transporting spent nuclear fuel (SNF) and high-level radioactive waste, while one or more permanent disposal facilities are established?” Dovetailing its draft recommendations with those of the Disposal Subcommittee, the Transportation and Storage Subcommittee suggested the siting and development of one or more interim storage facilities, and recommended that nuclear waste from decommissioned nuclear reactors have the highest priority for shipment to such interim storage sites. The Subcommittee on Transportation and Storage echoed the other subcommittee’s draft recommendation for a new organization charged with an integrated approach to both interim and permanent storage, as well as transportation. The Subcommittee also recommended guidelines for site-selection, using very similar terms to the draft recommendations of the Disposal Subcommittee.

The final subcommittee report was from the Reactor and Fuel Cycle Technology Subcommittee, which had deliberated on the request in the Blue Ribbon Commission charter to “evaluate existing fuel cycle technologies and research and development (R & D) programs in terms of multiple criteria.” This charge was linked to several programs that have attempted to develop reprocessing initiatives. The benefits of such reprocessing could theoretically include improvements in safety, economic savings, reduction of environmental risk and energy security enhancement. The Subcommittee found that no such program is currently available or reasonably foreseeable for the next 30 or 40 years. However, it recommended that R & D continue to pursue such goals.

The meeting concluded with a discussion of the Blue Ribbon Commission’s next step: developing a Committee-wide report and recommendations. Co-chair Lee Hamilton said he hopes to have that work finished in the next several months. Any Attorney General who would like to submit comments should be aware that there is still an opportunity do so. The Blue Ribbon Commission’s website provides information about how to file comments and how to reach its coordinating staff.

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