Forward Movement on Nuclear Waste Management

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Publication date: 
29 January 2010

“ The Administration is committed to promoting nuclear power in the United States and developing a safe, long-term solution for the management of used nuclear fuel and nuclear waste.  The work of the Blue Ribbon Commission will be invaluable to this process.” - Energy Secretary Steven Chu

At noon today Energy Secretary Steven Chu announced the appointment of a 15-member Blue Ribbon Commission that will, according to a statement, “provide advice and make recommendations on issues including alternatives for the storage, processing, and disposal of civilian and defense spent nuclear fuel and nuclear waste.”The commission will be co-chaired by former Representative Lee Hamilton and Brent Scowcroft.  An interim report is due in 18 months, and a final report “within 24 months.”

The appointment of this commission is the latest step in a decades-long search for a lasting solution to the nation’s management of nuclear waste.  In the early days of the Obama Administration Chu told Congress that the Yucca Mountain repository  “is definitely off the table,” declaring “I think we can do a better job.”  Today’s announcement starts this process.

Statements in today’s DOE release, and President Obama’s remarks in this week’s State of the Union further solidifies the Administration’s position on nuclear energy.  Last year, senators and representatives asked Chu in the early months of the Administration about its commitment to nuclear energy.  During his address before Congress and the nation on Wednesday, Obama spoke of  “building a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants in this country.”  Chu was quoted in today’s release as saying “Nuclear energy provides clean, safe, reliable power and has an important role to play as we build a low-carbon future.”  Carol Browner, Assistant to the President for Energy and Climate Change stated “As the world moves to tackle climate change and diversify our national energy portfolio, nuclear energy will play a vital role.”  The co-chairs’ positions are also clear, with Hamilton saying, “Finding an acceptable long-term solution to our used nuclear fuel and nuclear waste storage needs is vital to the economic, environmental and security interests of the United States," as is that of Scowcroft who said, “As the United States responds to climate change and moves forward with a long overdue expansion of nuclear energy, we also need to work together to find a responsible, long-term strategy to deal with the leftover fuel and nuclear waste.”

The Secretary’s views on what form this strategy might take were reported last March in an issue of FYI as follows:

“Chu told the senator that the utilization of fast neutron reactors may be able to significantly reduce the hazards associated with nuclear waste, and predicted that future waste disposition may consist of short term storage, reprocessing, and permanent storage.  Chu will convene a panel of experts to reexamine this issue during the next year. When pressed about DOE’s plans, Chu said ‘one site will not work,’ and foresees somewhat geographically dispersed short term and longer term storage sites.”

Secretary Chu appears before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee next Thursday to testify on his department’s FY 2011 budget request.  A just-released statement from the committee explained:

“[Chairman Jeff] Bingaman also is pleased with today’s announcement by the Energy Department regarding a new panel to study how to safely manage or dispose of nuclear waste –  an action called for in the Committee-reported energy bill.  Bingaman is impressed with the high quality of the membership of the Commission and believes that Lee Hamilton, a former Member of Congress and chairman of the 9-11 commission, and Brent Scowcroft, a former Air Force general and presidential advisor, are excellent bipartisan picks to lead this study group.”

Other members of the Blue Ribbon Commission are:

Mark Ayers, President, Building and Construction Trades Department, AFL-CIO 
Vicky Bailey, Former Commissioner, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission; Former IN PUC Commissioner; Former Department of Energy Assistant Secretary for Policy and International Affairs 
Albert Carnesale, Chancellor Emeritus and Professor, UCLA

Pete V. Domenici, Senior Fellow, Bipartisan Policy Center; former U.S. Senator (R-NM) 
Susan Eisenhower, President, Eisenhower Group 
Chuck Hagel, Former U.S. Senator (R-NE) 
Jonathan Lash, President, World Resources Institute 
Allison Macfarlane, Associate Professor of Environmental Science and Policy, George Mason University 
Dick Meserve, Former Chairman, Nuclear Regulatory Commission

Ernie Moniz, Professor of Physics and Cecil & Ida Green Distinguished Professor, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Per Peterson, Professor and Chair, Department of Nuclear Engineering, University of California - Berkeley

John Rowe, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Exelon Corporation

Phil Sharp, President, Resources for the Future