Recommendations by the Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future: A Plan for Managing Spent Nuclear Fuel and High-Level Nuclear Waste

 According to the president’s Blue Ribbon Commission, “We know what we have to do, we know we have to do it, and we even know how to do it.”

As a candidate for president in 2008, Barack Obama stated that “The nuclear waste disposal efforts at Yucca Mountain have been an expensive failure and should be abandoned” (Nature, 2008). Thus it should have come as no surprise when newly elected President Obama announced his decision to terminate the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository project and initiated the development of a new plan for managing spent nuclear fuel and high-level nuclear waste.1

On January 29, 2010, the White House released a memorandum from the president to Secretary of Energy Steven Chu directing him to establish a Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future (the Commission) and to appoint its members (White House, 2010):

The Commission should conduct a comprehensive review of policies for managing the back end of the nuclear fuel cycle, including all alternatives for the storage, processing, and disposal of civilian and defense used nuclear fuel and nuclear waste. This review should include an evaluation of advanced fuel cycle technologies that would optimize energy recovery, resource utilization, and the minimization of materials derived from nuclear activities in a manner consistent with U.S. nonproliferation goals.In performing its functions, the Commission should consider a broad range of technological and policy alternatives, and should analyze the scientific, environmental, budgetary, economic, financial, and management issues, among others, surrounding each alternative it considers. Where appropriate, the Commission may also identify potential statutory changes.

The President also specified that the Commission release an interim report for public comment within 18 months and provide a final report to the Secretary of Energy within 24 months.

Coincidental with the release of the President’s memorandum, Secretary Chu announced the formation of the Commission and its membership (DOE, 2010). The co-chairs—Lee Hamilton and Brent Scowcroft—both had distinguished records of public service, were known to be successful problem solvers and effective leaders, and were respected across the political spectrum. Although neither was an expert on the back end of the nuclear fuel cycle, other members of the Commission had technical expertise in relevant academic disciplines. In addition, the Commission included former elected and appointed officials and representatives of industry, labor, and nongovernmental organizations.

Soon after Secretary Chu’s announcement, the Commission was formally established, and by January 2012, it had fulfilled its mission and delivered its final report, Report to the Secretary of Energy (hereinafter referred to as the BRC report) (BRC, 2012).2 This article is based largely on the author’s participation as a member of the Commission and draws heavily on the language of the report.

The Commission’s overarching task was to recommend a workable strategy for managing nuclear waste. Although this charge was broad in scope, it is important to note three tasks that were not included in the Commission’s purview: (1) reviewing the administration’s decision to withdraw the application for a license for construction at Yucca Mountain; (2) identifying or evaluating potential sites for nuclear waste management facilities; and (3) recommending appropriate levels of America’s future reliance on nuclear power.

The Current Situation

Clearly, past strategies for dealing with spent nuclear fuel and high-level waste have failed, and the United States has been trying to figure out what to do with these materials for more than five decades. Although 25 years have passed since the 1987 amendments to the Nuclear Waste Policy Act (NWPA) were enacted, the results have been largely controversy, litigation, and delays.

All this time, utility customers have been paying the federal government one mill (0.1 cent) per kilowatt-hour of nuclear-generated electricity to finance the government’s commitment to assume responsibility for dealing with spent nuclear fuel and high-level waste. Unfortunately, this “solution” has not materialized, nor is it anywhere in sight.

Instead, spent nuclear fuel continues to accumulate in storage pools and dry casks at reactor sites, and defense and commercial high-level waste have no place to go. Moreover, taxpayers face mounting liabilities arising from the federal government’s failure to meet its commitments regarding commercial spent fuel. As a result, confidence in the government’s ability to meet its legal obligation has all but disappeared.

America’s failure to deal with the back end of the nuclear fuel cycle has been more than expensive. It has also undermined prospects for nuclear energy and lessened our nation’s ability to lead on global issues of nuclear safety, nonproliferation, and security. In light of this situation, the Commission concluded that we urgently need a new strategy (BRC, 2012, p. vi).

Furthermore, the Commission maintained that a new approach could be adopted and could be implemented successfully (BRC, 2012, p. 4). This optimism was based largely on two factors. First, proceeding down the current path would not only be increasingly time-consuming, costly, controversial, and divisive, but it would also offer little if any prospect for success. Second, experience at home and abroad has provided some concrete examples of progress in dealing with nuclear waste (e.g., successful operation of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant [WIPP], a disposal facility for transuranic defense waste in New Mexico; the selection of a site for storing spent fuel in Spain; and the selection of sites for permanent repositories in Finland and Sweden).

A New U.S. Strategy

The strategy recommended by the Commission has eight key elements (BRC, 2012, p. vii):

  1.  A new, consent–based approach to siting future nuclear waste management facilities.
  2.  A new organization dedicated solely to implementing the waste-management program and empowered with the authority and resources to succeed.
  3.  Access to the funds nuclear utility ratepayers are providing for the purpose of nuclear waste management.
  4.  Prompt efforts to develop one or more geologic disposal facilities.
  5.  Prompt efforts to develop one or more consolidated storage facilities.
  6.  Prompt efforts to prepare for the eventual large-scale transport of spent nuclear fuel and high-level waste to consolidated storage and disposal facilities when such facilities become available.
  7.  Support for continued U.S. innovation in nuclear energy technology and for workforce development.
  8.  Active U.S. leadership in international efforts to address safety, waste management, non-proliferation, and security concerns.

None of these elements will be new to those who have followed the U.S. nuclear waste program over the years. These ideas have been around for a long time but haven’t been tried, whereas the (equally) old ideas that characterize the current program have been tried and have failed.

The eight elements in the new strategy are inter-connected and, to a great extent, interdependent, and no doubt, it will take years to implement them fully. However, in light of the urgent need to deal with America’s nuclear waste, prompt action should be taken whenever possible. Some actions can be taken independently by the Executive Branch; others will require legislative action to amend the NWPA and other relevant laws. Each element of the recommended strategy is discussed in more detail below.

 A Consent-Based Approach to Siting

The first recommendation calls for the United States to adopt a new consent-based approach to siting and developing facilities for the management and disposal of nuclear waste (BRC, 2012, p. xi).3

The Commission conducted an in-depth review of siting efforts, both successful and unsuccessful, in the United States (viz., the operating WIPP facility in New Mexico, several failed attempts to site monitored retrievable storage facilities for commercial spent nuclear fuel, and the Yucca Mountain saga) and in Canada, Finland, France, Japan, Russia, Spain, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. On the basis of this review, the Commission concluded that siting processes are most likely to succeed if they have the following characteristics (BRC, 2012, pp. 47–48):

  1.  Consent-based—in the sense that affected communities have an opportunity to decide whether to accept facility siting decisions and retain significant local control.
  2.  Transparent—in the sense that all stakeholders have an opportunity to understand key decisions and engage in the process in a meaningful way.
  3.  Phased—in the sense that key decisions are revisited and modified as necessary along the way rather than being pre-determined.
  4.  Adaptive—in the sense that the process itself is flexible and produces decisions that are responsive to new information and new technical, social, or political developments.
  5.  Standards- and science-based decisions—in the sense that the public can have confidence that all facilities meet rigorous, objective, and consis-tently applied standards of safety and environmental protection.
  6.  Governed by partnership arrangements or legally enforceable agreements between the implementing organization and host states, tribes, and local communities.

Yucca Mountain has been designated by the NWPA and subsequent legislation as the site for a deep geological nuclear waste depository, subject to approval by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). In addition, Congress has specified that no more than 70,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel can be deposited in Yucca Mountain before a second repository is in operation. However, because the U.S. commercial inventory of spent nuclear fuel already exceeds 65,000 metric tons, regardless of the fate of the Yucca Mountain site, a second depository will be needed.

The first requirement to be met in siting a facility is to affirm that public health and safety and the environment will be adequately protected. In addition, experience in the United States and elsewhere has shown that beyond meeting this basic criterion, successful siting requires that “all affected units of government, including the host state or tribe, regional and local authorities, and the host community are willing to support or at least accept a facility” (BRC, 2012, p. viii).

After basic siting criteria have been developed, the organization responsible for site selection should seek expressions of interest from a number of communities that might have suitable environments for the kind of facility under discussion. As the process moves forward, all stakeholders—states, tribes, local communities, nongovernmental organizations, and citizens—must be engaged meaningfully, and funds should be provided to enable such engagement.

In addition, incentives should be provided to encourage affected states, tribes, and local governments to host a nuclear waste facility. Such incentives might take the form of direct financial payments, local preferences in hiring and purchasing by the facility, infrastructure improvements, and so forth.

As the final selection approaches, it would be desirable for the responsible organization and the host jurisdictions to enter into partnership arrangements or other legally binding, court-enforceable agreements to ensure that all commitments concerning the development and subsequent operation of the facility are fully understood by all parties and will be upheld (BRC, 2012, p. 56).

The Commission recognizes that implementation of the recommended consent-based process would take more time than a top-down process but believes that the flexibility of the new process and the public trust it would engender would increase the likelihood of success. The Commission estimates it would take on the order of 15 to 20 years for site identification, characterization, and licensing for a deep geologic depository and 5 to 10 years for the siting and development of a consolidated storage facility (BRC, 2012, p. 55).

Establishment of a Single-Purpose Organization

The second central recommendation of the BRC calls for the establishment of a new, single-purpose, independent organization dedicated solely to implementing the nation’s nuclear waste management program.

A new organization focused exclusively on the safe, secure management and ultimate disposal of high-level nuclear waste could concentrate on this objective in a way that a large, multipurpose agency, such as the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), cannot. Also, given the discouraging history of attempts by DOE and its predecessor agencies to deal with the nuclear waste problem, establishment of a new agency would signal a clear break with the past and would offer the best chance of regaining the trust and confidence of the public and major stakeholders.

To succeed, the new organization must have a structure and governance system suited to the task, as well as appropriate authorities and resources. The Commission recognizes that an appropriate structure could take any of a number of forms, provided that it has the attributes, independence, and resources to carry out its mission. Of the possible forms, the Commission is inclined to favor a federal corporation chartered by Congress, because it would “(a) be less susceptible to political micromanagement, (b) have more flexibility to respond to changes in external conditions, and (c) have a greater ability to manage costs and schedules” (BRC, 2012, pp. 61–62).

For example, the federal corporation might have a board of directors consisting of 11 members: 10 appointed by the president, with the advice and consent of the Senate, and a board-appointed CEO of the organization. The board would provide management and fiduciary oversight and operational direction. A separate advisory group, reflecting a wider range of perspectives, would provide advice to the corporation and the board.

The new entity must be both independent and accountable—always a delicate balancing act. Independent regulatory agencies, such as NRC, the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Department of Transportation, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, would apply the same safety, health, and environmental regulations to the new federal corporation as they would apply to a private organization. To ensure that Congress and the American people can be confident that the federal corporation is acting responsibly and using public resources wisely and appropriately, Congress would pass legislation defining the mission, structure, responsibilities, and powers of the organization.

Notable by its absence from the Commission’s considerations of safe, secure management and ultimate disposal of high-level nuclear waste is the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel. This deliberate omission reflects the Commission’s view that “no currently available or reasonably foreseeable reactor and fuel cycle technology developments—including advances in reprocessing and recycling technologies—have the potential to fundamentally alter the waste management challenges the nation confronts over at least the next several decades, if not longer” (BRC, 2012, p. 101). Based on this view, the Commission concluded that “it would be premature for the United States to commit, as a matter of policy, to ‘closing’ the nuclear fuel cycle given the large uncertainties that exist about the merits and commercial viability of different fuel cycle and technology options” (BRC, 2012, pp. xi–xii).

Ensuring Access to Funds

The Commission’s third central recommendation is that the new organization should have access to “the revenues generated by the nuclear waste fee and the balance in the NWF [Nuclear Waste Fund]… when needed and in the amounts needed to implement the program” (BRC, 2012, p. 70).

For almost three decades, nuclear utilities have been paying a nuclear waste fee into the NWF, which is intended solely to cover the cost of disposing of commercial nuclear waste. Cumulative receipts thus far exceed $19 billion, and the amount is growing by about $750 million per year. With accumulated interest, the NWF balance is now about $27 billion. (In contrast, the costs of disposing of defense nuclear wastes are paid for by taxpayers through direct appropriations from the U.S. Treasury.)

A series of decisions by the Executive Branch and congressional actions has made the annual fee revenues and the unspent balance in the NWF effectively unavailable to the civilian nuclear waste program. Instead, contrary to the original intent of Congress, waste management needs have had to compete for limited discretionary funds with other DOE priorities in the appropriations process. The Commission concludes that (1) the nuclear waste funding mechanism must be allowed to work as originally intended so that funding for the waste program is no longer subject to unrelated federal budget constraints, and (2) the new waste management organization should be entrusted with greater autonomy and control of its budget over multiple-year periods (BRC, 2012, p. 74).

Accordingly, the Commission recommends: (1) that the administration modify the nuclear waste fee collection process so that utilities pay only an amount equal to actual appropriations from the NWF each year, with the remainder retained by the utilities in approved trust funds to be available to meet future needs; (2) that the administration and Congress change the budgetary treatment of the fee receipts so they can directly offset appropriations for the waste program; and (3) that in the longer term, Congress transfer the unspent balance in the NWF to the new waste management organization (BRC, 2012, pp. 74–75).

Delay in implementing a U.S. nuclear waste management program has also been very costly in other ways. Because of the government’s failure to meet its obligation to remove spent fuel from reactor sites, affected utilities have incurred unanticipated costs for on-site storage. They and DOE have been engaged since 1998 in litigation over how much the government (i.e., taxpayers) must pay in damages. Final judgments and settlements to date have cost about $2 billion; estimated total damages through 2020 are about $20.8 billion; and the estimated annual increase for each year beyond 2020 is on the order of $500 million (BRC, 2012, p. 80).

Timely Development of Geologic Disposal Facilities

The fourth central recommendation is that the United States undertake an integrated nuclear waste management program that leads to the timely development of one or more permanent deep geological facilities for the safe disposal of spent fuel and high-level nuclear waste (BRC, 2012, p. 27).

Safety, responsibility to future generations, and cost all argue for prompt efforts to develop one or more deep geologic repositories, which is the only known responsible way of managing nuclear materials that are unlikely to be re-used, including many forms of spent fuel and defense and commercial reprocessing wastes. This conclusion has been reached by every expert panel in the United States that has addressed the issue and by every other country pursuing a nuclear waste management program. The reprocessing and recycling of commercial spent fuel would not alter this conclusion, because all reprocessing or recycling options generate waste streams that require permanent disposal. Therefore, even if reprocessing and recycling were adopted, permanent disposal almost surely will be necessary for some portion of the commercial spent fuel inventory.

Based on its review, the Commission expresses confidence that many geologic formations and sites in the United States would be technically suitable for a repository. In addition, it recommends further research and development to help resolve some of the uncertainties associated with deep borehole disposal (BRC, 2012, p. 30).

Timely Development of Consolidated Storage Facilities

In the fifth central recommendation, the Commission calls: (a) for the United States to “establish a program that leads to the timely development of one or more consolidated storage facilities”; and (b) for “vigorous, ongoing efforts by industry and by the appropriate regulatory authorities to ensure that all near-term forms of storage meet high standards of safety and security for the multiple-decade-long periods they are likely to be in use” (BRC, 2012, p. 32).

The horrific accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant on March 11, 2011 (about midway through the BRC’s efforts) called America’s attention to the thousands of tons of spent fuel currently stored at reactor sites across the country and to the fact that we do not have any place else to put it.

Storage of spent fuel for some period of time after it has been removed from the reactor is unavoidable. In the early days of the nuclear enterprise, it was assumed that the storage period would last no longer than a decade, or possibly two, after which the spent fuel would be shipped off for reprocessing or disposal. Neither has happened. Spent fuel is, and will continue to be, stored at reactor sites in much larger quantities and for much longer periods of time than had been anticipated.

About 75 percent of spent fuel is stored in pools, and 25 percent is stored in dry casks. Fortunately, experience in the United States indicates that storage either at or away from sites where the waste was generated can be implemented safely and cost effectively. Nevertheless, ensuring safe and secure storage for the decades-long periods now contemplated “will require continued public and private efforts… to conduct rigorous research and oversight and continuously incorporate lessons learned from new developments or events” (BRC, 2012, p. 34).

In the Commission’s view, we need consolidated spent fuel storage facilities, which would: (1) facilitate the removal of “stranded” spent fuel from the sites of shutdown reactors; (2) enable the federal government to begin meeting its waste-acceptance obligations independent of the schedule for operating a permanent reposi-tory; (3) provide flexibility in responding to lessons learned from Fukushima and other events; (4) provide the flexibility needed to support an adaptive, phased approach to repository development; and (5) offer opportunities for cost-effective R&D on, and experience with, spent fuel handling and storage (BRC, 2012, pp. 35–39). For these reasons, and because progress in consolidated storage could be crucial to the success of a revitalized nuclear waste program, the Commission urges prompt efforts to develop consolidated storage facilities.

Transport of Spent Nuclear Fuel and High-Level Waste

The Commission’s sixth recommendation calls for “prompt efforts to prepare for the eventual large-scale transport of spent nuclear fuel and high-level waste to consolidated storage and disposal facilities when such facilities become available” (BRC, 2012, p. vii).

Current standards and regulations governing the transport of spent nuclear fuel and high-level waste have, in the view of the Commission, “functioned well,” and the safety record has been “excellent” (BRC, 2012, p. 81). But the familiar caveat regarding financial investment, that past performance is no guarantee of future success, also applies to the future transport of nuclear materials, especially because the number of shipments will increase markedly when consolidated storage facilities and disposal facilities become operational. And these greater transport demands are likely to heighten public concerns about safety, security, and environmental impact.

Although existing standards and regulations have served admirably, changes will be needed to address new challenges. For example, the NRC has not yet granted a license for the transport of the higher burnup fuels that are now commonly discharged from reactors. In addition, spent fuel that may have degraded after extended storage may present new obstacles to safe transport.

Experience with transportation issues associated with WIPP and other nuclear facilities shows that planning, development, and production of specialized equipment, training, and other preparations for nuclear transport involve many different parties and take a substantial amount of time. Hence the Commission’s call for prompt efforts to prepare to meet future transport needs. State, tribal, and local officials should be extensively involved in these preparations and should be provided with the resources necessary to meet their responsibilities in this area.

Support for Innovation and Workforce Development

The Commission’s seventh recommendation calls for “support for continued U.S. innovation in nuclear energy and for workforce development” (BRC, 2012, p. vii).

A forward-looking strategy for managing the back end of the nuclear fuel cycle must look beyond current technologies. The Commission “puts a premium on creating and preserving options that could be employed by future generations to respond to the particular circumstances they face. RD&D [research, development, and demonstration] is key to maximizing those options” (BRC, 2012, p. 99).

Based on its review of “the most authoritative available information on advanced reactor and fuel cycle technologies,” the Commission came to the following conclusion (BRC, 2012, pp.100, 101):

We concluded that while new reactor and fuel cycle technologies may hold promise for achieving substantial benefits in terms of broadly held safety, economic, environmental, and energy security goals and therefore merit continued public and private R&D investment, no currently available or reasonably foreseeable reactor and fuel cycle technology developments—including advances in reprocessing and recycling technologies—have the potential to fundamentally alter the waste management challenge this nation confronts over at least the next several decades, if not longer.

and

As a group we concluded that it is premature at this point for the United States to commit irreversibly to any particular fuel cycle as a matter of government policy…

Even if the United States chooses at some point to close the nuclear fuel cycle, the need for consolidated storage and deep geologic disposal will remain.

In the near term, RD&D could lead to improvements in the safety and performance of light-water reactors and associated fuel cycle activities. In the longer term, “game-changing” innovations (e.g., small modular reactors, high-temperature reactors, and fast-spectrum reactors) might lead to very large benefits. In conjunction with these RD&D activities, the Commission supports expansion of the NRC’s efforts to develop a regulatory framework for advanced nuclear energy systems and to lower barriers to commercial investment (BRC, 2012, pp. 106–108).

To ensure that an appropriately educated and trained nuclear workforce is available in the future, the Commission recommends “expanded federal, joint labor-management and university-based support for advanced science, technology, engineering, and mathematics training to develop the skilled workforce needed to support an effective waste management program as well as a viable domestic nuclear industry” (BRC, 2012, p. 108).

Active International Leadership

The Commission’s eighth key recommendation calls for “[A]ctive U.S. leadership in international efforts to address safety, waste management, non-proliferation, and security concerns” (BRC, 2012, p. vii).

Nuclear safety is a global concern. A nuclear accident anywhere affects nuclear programs everywhere. Thus, our nation’s ability to maintain or expand its nuclear power enterprise will depend to a large extent on safety performance in other countries, some of which may need help to achieve high safety standards. Consequently, the Commission recommends that “the United States work with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and other interested nations to launch a major inter-national effort . . . to enable the safe application of nuclear waste in all countries that pursue this technology” (BRC, 2012, p. 111).

Minimizing the proliferation of nuclear weapons is a longstanding, principal American goal. In support of this goal, the Commission urges continued U.S. support for the IAEA’s work on physical security and safeguards technologies and, in the longer term, support for the use of multinational nuclear fuel cycle facilities under comprehensive IAEA safeguards (BRC, 2012, p. 114). In addition, the Commission encourages U.S. acceptance of spent fuel from foreign commercial reactors in cases where the president chooses to authorize such action for national security reasons (BRC, 2012, p. 115).

The Commission recognizes that “the United States cannot exercise effective leadership on issues related to the back end of the fuel cycle so long as its own program is in disarray; effective domestic policies are needed to support America’s international agenda” (BRC, 2012, p. xiv).

Conclusion

Despite the dismal overall record of the U.S. nuclear waste program, the Commission believes that success can be achieved. Experience in the United States and abroad has shown that suitable sites for nuclear facilities can be found and can be accepted by relevant stakeholders and that the funds required for the development and operation of an effective nuclear waste program have been, are being, and will continue to be collected.

The Commission sees reasons to believe that implementation of its recommended strategy will lead to success: “We know what we have to do, we know we have to do it, and we even know how to do it.” Whether that optimism is justified will be known only “if we start, which is what we urge the Administration and Congress to do, without further delay” (BRC, 2012, p. xv).

References

BRC (Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future). 2012. Report to the Secretary of Energy. Available online at http://brc.gov/sites/default/files/documents/brc_finalreport_jan2012.pdf.

DOE (U.S. Department of Energy). 2010. Secretary Chu Announces Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future. Press Release, January 29, 2010. Washington, D.C.: DOE. Available online at http://www.ne.doe.gov/newsroom/2010PRs/nePR012910.html.

Nature. 2008. U.S. election: questioning the candidates. Nature 455: 446–449. Available online at http://www.nature.com/news/2008/080903/full/455446a.html.

White House. 2010. Presidential Memorandum—Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future. Office of the Press Secretary, The White House, January 29, 2010. Available online at http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/presidential-memorandum-blue-ribbon-commission-americas-nuclear-future.


FOOTNOTES

 1 The courts will ultimately decide whether or not the president has the authority to terminate the project.

2 This is the Commission’s final report. Reports of BRC subcommittees on reactor and fuel-cycle technology, transportation and storage, and disposal, as well as related materials are available on the Commission’s website at www.brc.gov.

3 The BRC differentiates between “storage” and “disposal” in the following way: “disposal” refers to permanent disposal; “storage” refers to storage for an interim period prior to disposal or other disposition.

About the Author: Albert Carnesale is Chancellor Emeritus and professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, and an NAE member.