Monday, February 1, 2010

Nuclear Waste:

A Look at the New Panel and its Mission

It is no longer news that the Department of Energy has finally named the long-awaited blue-ribbon commission to evaluate policy options for a safe, long-term solution to managing America's used nuclear fuel and nuclear waste.

Still, I think it would be useful to look more carefully at the makeup of the panel and their marching orders and to speculate on what this might mean for the outcome of their deliberations.

First, let's look at the panel. Three facts are noteworthy:

The 15-member panel is heavily dominated by people with high-level political experience in Washington. It includes former Members of Congress and former senior-level appointees in a number of government agencies. While some of the committee members have technical backgrounds, this is not primarily a technical committee. This membership reflects a fact that many of us have been stating for years--the problem is not a technical problem, it is a political one. This is a very appropriate membership for such a committee.

The panel is thoroughly bipartisan. The co-chairs, former Congressman Lee Hamilton and former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft, represent the two political parties. The other members likewise represent both parties. They include two former Republican Senators (Pete Domenici and Chuck Hagel) and several political appointees--Vicky Bailey on the Republican side, and Dick Meserve and Ernie Moniz on the Democratic side.

The panel members bring a broad range of experience to the Commission. The members not named above include: Albert Carnesale, who brings a background as an international negotiator; John Rowe, who represents the utilities; Mark Ayers, who represents the trade unions; Jonathan Lash and Phil Sharp, who represent two major think-tanks on resource issues; Per Peterson and Allison Macfarlane, who are both recognized experts for their research in nuclear waste and other issues; and last, but certainly not least, Susan Eisenhower, who has earned an outstanding reputation for her work on nuclear and other issues.

Now let's look at the mission of this group. They are charged by Secretary Chu "to conduct a comprehensive review of policies for managing the back end of the nuclear fuel cycle. The Commission will 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."

I have italicized some words that I believe are particularly important. They are to recommend policies, not particular sites. They are to review alternatives. According to comments by high-level officials made in conjunction with the release of the commission's membership, these alternatives will include such options as temporary storage and reprocessing in addition to permanent disposal.

The commission is to produce a draft report in 18 months, and to complete its work in 2 years.

While we cannot know how they will choose to approach their very difficult task, I can only imagine that the past US experience will weigh heavily into the discussion, as will the experiences, positive and negative, in other countries in recent years. Although the commission is not charged with selecting sites, it may be able to distill some guidance from the current understandings of different geologic formations and their stability over very long time periods.

Many people have been looking forward for a long time to the naming of the commission. Now that they have been named, we will look forward to hearing of the progress of their deliberations. The fact that they have been charged to look broadly at all policy alternatives is one very positive sign. The outstanding credentials of the commission members are another.

Of course, their work is only the first step toward developing and implementing a new national policy for managing our used nuclear wastes. After their recommendations are tendered, it will be up to the government to return to the very difficult task of site selection. This process is likely to take a long time. However, the commission's role in establishing a policy foundation for the future decision-making process may well prove to be the most crucial step.

We can only wish the commission success in tackling the very important issues they face.


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