Nuclear commission outlines new strategies for managing radioactive waste

August 3, 2011
By: Sarah Yang, Media Relations

Seven people in hard hats in an underground cavern.
Seven members of the Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future visited the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Southern New Mexico. Shown above are (left to right) Per Peterson, UC Berkeley chair of nuclear engineering; Pete Domenici, former U.S. Senator (R-NM); Gen. Brent Scrowcroft, former national security advisor; Vicky Bailey, former FERC commissioner; Phil Sharp, former congressman and president of Resources for the Future; Mark Ayers, president of the Building & Construction Trades Department, AFL-CIO; and Allison Macfarlane, associate professor of environmental science and policy at George Mason University.

The Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future has released a draft report that recommends significant changes to the U.S. strategy for managing the country’s growing stockpile of spent fuel and high-level nuclear waste.

“America’s nuclear waste management program is at an impasse,” says the July 29 report. “The Obama Administration’s decision to halt work on a repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada is but the latest indicator of a policy that has been troubled for decades and has now all but completely broken down.”

Per Peterson, UC Berkeley professor and chair of nuclear engineering, is one of 15 members of the commission, which was formed in 2010 by Energy Secretary Steven Chu at the request of President Obama after plans to store nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain were halted.

Some of the key recommendations outlined in the report are:

  • Shift the responsibility to oversee the building and operation of nuclear waste disposal facilities from the Department of Energy, which no longer inspires public confidence, to a new congressionally chartered federal corporation.
  • Quickly build at least one new permanent disposal site other than Yucca Mountain.
  • Redirect the $25 billion designated for Yucca Mountain to fund the management of nuclear waste now housed at over 60 different sites throughout the country.
  • Give local communities, but not states, the power to veto a proposed facility in the selection process.

“The amount of spent fuel in this country is approaching the legal limit for how much could be put into Yucca Mountain, even if it were developed, so we need to start the search for a new repository promptly, as well as facilities for consolidated storage,” said Peterson.

The 15-member panel was co-chaired by Lee Hamilton, former Democratic congressman and co-chair of the 9/11 Commission, and Brent Scowcroft, a former national security adviser to Presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush. The commission was tasked with reviewing U.S. policy on managing nuclear waste, and recommending a new plan.

Peterson noted that one of the most immediate actions that can be taken is to start placing the nuclear waste fund fees collected by utilities into protected escrow accounts, something the executive branch of the government has the power to do.

“The fees, which amount to more than $750 million per year, now go to the U.S. Treasury and are regularly tapped by Congress to offset deficit spending,” said Peterson. “It’s painful for the government to wean itself from these funds, but the federal government is contractually obligated to use that money to pay for nuclear waste disposal. Using the fees to offset deficit spending is transferring a big liability to future generations.”