Monday, September 12, 2011

Hitting the "reset button" on nuclear waste management

In the first of many in a series of posts on "We Read It So You Don't Have To™," I recently reviewed the draft report of the Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Energy Future - i.e., the committee tasked by President Obama to devise an alternative path forward in light of the administration's decision to zero-fund the Yucca Mountain geologic repository.

Several nuclear bloggers offered (including yours truly) their thoughts on the draft summary of the BRC recommendations when they were posted back in May. Since that time, the release of the full draft report expands upon earlier BRC recommendations, which largely focused upon centralized interim storage for spent nuclear fuel until a new permanent geological repository can be sited.
While centralized interim storage remains at the heart of its recommendations, a major focus of the full report has been on the process of nuclear waste management policy, including issues of site selection, regulations, and access to funding. Concerns over spent fuel in light of Fukushima also permeate the full report, underscoring the need for an integrated fuel management strategy.

However, in particular, much of the report promotes hitting the "reset button" on nuclear waste management policy, turning the clock back to the 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act, prior to the 1987 amendments which designated Yucca Mountain as the nation's sole geologic repository and the decades of scientific and engineering study which followed.

Read the whole summary exclusively at the ANS Nuclear Cafe.


  1. As far as I know, there is no reset button in the Constitution when it comes to abrogating federal law. Right now, the NWPA is still on the books. It says that DoE must develop a repository and Yucca Mountain is it. DoE cannot withdraw that law from the books. The President cannot unilaterally cancel it. The NRC has no legislative authority to veto a federal law. Only Congress can amend the law, and that is via a process more complicated than hitting a reset button. The BRC better tread lightly here.

  2. @Anonymous: Concurred; the NWPA and its subsequent amendments are the standing law of the land. What makes this more complex is the political chicanery being used to implement this end-run; zero-funding Yucca Mountain rather than directly declaring the law null and void, etc.

    Unfortunately, it would seem that it will take a long time for the courts to sort this one out.

  3. All I know is that if I disregarded federal law, say by unilaterally declaring that I will not pay any federal tax on my income, they'd slam my butt in jail. So it seems that "the system" will come down hard on the little people while the bigwigs get a pass. Sounds awfully familiar, almost like "the divine right of kings"? The King does whatever he wants, but the peasants get hammered if they disobey. Well, all I can say is, the bigwigs better learn from history, especially that which shows that occasionally the peasants would get fed up enough to rise up and slaughter their oppressors.

  4. People are not reading the full report. The Blue Ribbon Commission took no position on whether, or not, the Yucca Mountain Project should be continued. Here is what the BRC executive summary says:

    "We take no position on the Administration’s request to withdraw the license application. We simply note that regardless what happens with Yucca Mountain, the U.S. inventory of spent nuclear fuel will soon exceed the amount that can be legally emplaced at this site until a second repository is in operation. So under current law, the United States will need to find a new disposal site even if Yucca Mountain goes forward. We believe the approach set forth here provides the best strategy for assuring continued progress, regardless of the fate of Yucca Mountain."

    Bloggers need to hit their reset button on their assumptions about what the BRC says on Yucca Mountain. What happens with Yucca Mountain needs to be decided by the courts and by Congress, but the U.S. nuclear waste program is unlikely to ever succeed unless the other problems that the BRC identified, such as the treatment of fee revenues, the development of centralized storage, and the creation of a new federal corporation that can do this work with a better continuity of leadership than OCRWM had (which never in its ~30 year history had a single director serve for more than 2 years).

  5. @Anonymous, 4:41 PM: If you follow the link to the full summary, I do in fact identify this point specifically: "Also left unsaid is any evaluation of the viability of Yucca Mountain as a geologic repository; such a topic was specifically identified as “beyond the scope” of the Commission’s analysis." (Note that I wasn't able to directly quote for space reasons, but I assure you that I did in fact quite clearly read that passage that you quoted.)

    The point about "hitting the reset button" is that, in spite of not touching on the specific viability of Yucca Mountain, the BRC report is highly critical of the selection process which resulted in Yucca Mountain and thus advocates a return to an initial site selection process. While this is not specifically commenting on the viability of Yucca Mountain per se, this certainly is turning back the clock on the process.

    If you feel this is still an inaccurate portrayal of the BRC's comments, I am more than eager to hear your rebuttal.

    As a further note, it is my intention to go into some of these points at greater length on this blog in a follow-up series, where I'll be less constrained for space. (The ANS Nuclear Cafe has a fairly harsh word limit...)

  6. Regardless of the process, the BRC report does not recommend that Yucca Mountain be abandoned, or retained. It just recommends that the process to site a new geologic disposal facility be started, and that the process for siting this new facility be consent based.

    If Congress decides to keep Yucca Mountain too, which Congress very well might decide, it would still be prudent for Congress to amend the NWPA to start the process to develop a second geologic disposal facility, both because the current NWPA requires a second repository, and because Yucca Mountain will continue to be plagued by dedicated state opposition and high operational costs caused by its gold-plated engineered barrier system.

  7. @Anonymous @ 2:08 AM: A fair point, and agreed on the point regarding amending the NWPA.