Congressional Hearings on Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future

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Publication date: 
10 February 2012
Number: 
18

Members  of Congress who hoped that the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future  would offer sure-fire recommendations enabling the U.S. to move ahead on a  permanent solution to the disposal of nuclear waste were surely disappointed in  what commission members advised at recent hearings.  Any solution is likely to take decades and  billions of dollars to implement, and remains highly uncertain in having a  successful outcome.

“President  Reagan signed the [1982] Nuclear Waste Policy Act into law and praised the  bipartisan cooperation, resolve, and good sense that made it possible.  Those traits deserted us in 1987.  Bowing to public opposition and budget  constraints, Congress short-circuited the siting process and focused all of our  efforts on Yucca Mountain.  That has now  proved to have been a mistake.”  So said Senator  Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) at a hearing of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources  Committee earlier this month, one of three hearings on the commission’s report   that was released on January 26.  Hearings  were also held by the House Subcommittee on Environment and the Economy and the  House Science, Space, and Technology Committee. 

Committee  Chairman Bingaman, Ranking Member Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and their Senate  colleagues held a thoughtful two-hour hearing that was free of the rancor that has  characterized previous debate about the proposed Yucca Mountain  repository.  Testifying were the  commission’s co-chairs, Lee Hamilton and Brent Scowcroft and the committee’s  former chairman Pete Domenici.  Murkowski  spoke for all as she described her frustrations that thirty years and  approximately $10 billion have not resulted in solution to the disposal of the  nation’s civilian nuclear waste.   Compounding the problem is mounting financial liability because of the  government’s failure to take possession of this waste.  The government has paid $2 billion in damages  with the expectation that it could increase to $13 to $15 billion (with some  industry observers predicting it could be considerably higher.)  Murkowski predicted that the administration’s  decision to terminate the Yucca Mountain project would probably be reviewed by  a court, and that in any event it is highly unlikely that the government would  start to take possession of the waste by 2021. 

Hamilton  shared the senators’ frustrations.  He  told the senators that the Nuclear Waste Policy Act “simply hasn’t worked.”  He said that the committee members were  unanimous in their approval of the report, adding “we are confident that we can  turn this record around.”  Hamilton and Scowcroft  briefly outlined the commission’s recommendations for a truly integrated waste  management system.

A  central finding is the need for a consent-based approach to the siting of a  shorter-term waste storage site(s), and permanent geological repositories, an  approach used in in Spain, Finland, Sweden and other countries.  Notably, it was also successfully used in the  establishment of the nation’s defense nuclear waste facility, the Waste  Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad NM.   Other recommendations include a significant change  in the manner in which a mandated nuclear waste fee is used, the establishment  of a new congressionally-chartered entity whose sole mission would be the  handling of the nation’s spent nuclear fuel, the establishment of one of more  short term storage (as opposed to disposal) facilities, and the immediate  initiation of planning for large-scale waste transportation.  The commission found that the “scientifically  preferred approach” is the construction of one or more deep geological disposal  facilities.

In  concluding his remarks, Scowcroft told the committee that there is wide  agreement about the outlines of a solution. “Simply  put, we know what we have to do, we know we have to do it, we even know how to  do it,” he said.  It is possible to  identify and develop suitable deep geological repositories.  “The  core difficulty remains what it has always been: finding a way to site these  inherently controversial facilities and to conduct a waste management program  in a manner that allows all stakeholders, especially those host communities,  states, tribes to conclude that their interests have been adequately protected  and their well-being enhanced – not merely sacrificed or over-ridden by the  interests of the country as a whole.”

Domenici’s  remarks echoed those of the co-chairmen.   He stressed the need for a consent-based approach to the construction of  nuclear waste facilities, stressing that by taking this approach “we will not  have the Yucca fight.”  Of note, he said  that Carlsbad and near-by Hobbs NM were developing a strategy for another facility  to be built next to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant.  Indicative of the commission’s contention  that a consent-based approach is necessary is a fact sheet   from the Carlsbad Department of Development stating “Active community support  has been a key to WIPP success,” adding “The Carlsbad Department of Development  . . . supports the Blue Ribbon Panel process to recommend to Congress  alternatives for managing high-level waste.”

The  witnesses warned that a solution to short-term nuclear waste storage will take  at least five years, with fifteen to twenty years needed to develop a geologic  repository.  Transportation is a thorny problem  with many communities wary if not opposed to the transportation of spent  nuclear fuel (although Scowcroft said there have been 10,000 shipments to the  Carlsbad plant.)   Distrust of the  federal government is high, with Hamilton saying “we heard that 150 times” at  different meetings.

“Obviously  you have to have good science,” Hamilton said.   Also needed, the witnesses testified, was a consensus within Congress to  enact authorization bills, and action by the Obama Administration to implement  the commission’s recommendations.  Said  Bingaman, “The Blue Ribbon Commission has provided us with a roadmap for  putting the program back on track, but it will obviously once again take  bipartisan cooperation, resolve and good sense on our part to act upon its  recommendations.”

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