Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future Issues a Final Report

On January 26, the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future delivered its final report to the U.S. secretary of energy. The commission was formed at the request of President Barack Obama two years ago after he announced that his administration would no longer pursue the Yucca Mountain, Nevada, nuclear waste site. Led by former U.S. representative Lee Hamilton and former U.S. national security adviser Brent Scowcroft, the 15-member commission examined various aspects of the nation’s spent fuel policy, such as repository siting and management systems, technology options, transportation, and storage.

The report calls for a range of reforms to the existing repository siting and management system and emphasizes the importance of U.S. leadership in nuclear energy technology and in global nuclear safety and security. The report’s key recommendations are that the United States needs to move forward with the siting of a permanent nuclear waste repository based on consent by “affected units of government—the host states, tribes, and local communities”; that the waste repository process should be managed by a federally chartered corporation; and that this new entity should take charge of the Nuclear Waste Fund. Additionally, the report urges the development of an interim storage site, as well as resumption of the site selection process for a permanent repository.

The commission deferred judgment on whether the United States should reverse its position on reprocessing, “given the large uncertainties that exist about the merits and commercial viability of different fuel cycles and technology options,” and it stressed the fact that reprocessing/recycling still generates waste and, therefore, that the closed fuel cycle does not preclude the need for a permanent disposal solution.

Because of the lack of a permanent repository site, nuclear waste is now being stored at commercial nuclear power plant sites. While onsite storage of waste does not currently pose a significant risk, the absence of a clear, consistent, and long-term solution to waste management could be a significant liability to the role of nuclear energy in the nation’s energy mix. To electric utilities and investors, the programmatic uncertainty and policy fluctuation constitute financial liabilities, adding unwarranted risk to making investments in nuclear power generation facilities.

The nuclear industry faces a number of challenges today, the most daunting of which are the large up-front capital investments and the uncertainties of the permitting process. The availability of large volumes of relatively inexpensive natural gas has exacerbated the commercial challenges facing new and, in some cases, existing nuclear power plants. The lack of resolution of the waste issue further compounds these challenges.

Even without further growth in the nuclear industry, the United States will still have to deal with the radioactive waste that has resulted from several decades of nuclear power generation. Today, there are 104 commercial reactors in operation in the United States, supplying about 20 percent of the nation’s electricity.

The country’s first attempt to manage the growing stockpile of nuclear waste came in 1982 when Congress passed the Nuclear Waste Policy Act (NWPA) to establish an explicit statutory basis for the Department of Energy (DOE) to dispose of highly radioactive nuclear waste. According to the NWPA, DOE is required to take control of spent nuclear fuel from commercial nuclear power plants, collect a fee from nuclear power providers (the Nuclear Waste Fund), and transport the waste to a permanent geologic repository or an interim storage facility before permanent disposal. In 1987, Yucca Mountain, Nevada, was designated as the sole candidate site for the repository.

In ensuing years, DOE performed detailed site characterization studies at Yucca Mountain and issued a formal finding of suitability for the site in 2002. To date, approximately $13.5 billion have been spent on this project. In 2008, DOE submitted a license application for a high-level waste repository to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. However, President Obama decided that Yucca Mountain was not a viable option for the permanent storage of nuclear waste and terminated funding for the Yucca Mountain project in his budget request. For example, the administration’s FY2010 funding request—as appropriated by Congress—precluded continued work on design and development of the repository. Meanwhile, the Nuclear Waste Fund has thus far collected roughly $25 billion.

By its charter, the Blue Ribbon Commission did not examine the suitability of Yucca Mountain as a permanent repository, nor did it propose alternate sites. Instead, its report suggested ways to move the process forward for selecting and managing a permanent repository. Many of its recommendations will require congressional action for implementation. Because of the highly charged political environment this year, little legislative progress on implementing the commission’s recommendations can be expected. In fact, the debate on Yucca Mountain continues on Capitol Hill and may take precedence over establishing a process to identify a new repository.

Creation of a permanent geological repository is a national program that requires a long-term commitment by all levels of government. Repository sites must be selected with political acceptance from local populations and their representatives, but this acceptance needs to withstand the fluctuating political dynamics at local, regional, and national levels over a long time horizon—at least 100 years or several generations of host community residents and elected officials.

Nuclear energy comes with great benefits, as well as somber challenges like safety and nonproliferation risks. There exist many reasons to support or oppose nuclear energy; it should not however be a political quagmire that precludes future generations from enjoying the economic and environmental benefits of nuclear energy.

Jane Nakano is a fellow, and David Pumphrey the deputy director, of the Energy and National Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Commentaries are produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2012 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Jane Nakano
Senior Fellow, Energy Security and Climate Change Program
David Pumphrey
Senior Associate (Non-resident), Energy Security and Climate Change Program