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The Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future Arrives

PH2008040201809 And that’s what they’re calling it: The Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future. Announced today during a telephone conference with Energy Secretary Steven Chu and Presidential Advisor Carol Browner, the commission’s charge is to provide recommendations for developing a safe, long-term solution to managing the nation’s used nuclear fuel.

The commission will be headed by former House member Lee Hamilton (D-Indiana) and former National Security Advisor (to Presidents Ford and George H.W. Bush) Brent Scowcroft. These men volunteer to chair the commission and show considerable devotion to public service in doing so.

The remaining 13 commission members include:

  • 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

As you can see, this is an exceptionally well-chosen group, with various political, scientific and industrial constituencies included.

Here are some interesting tidbits:

Yucca Mountain will not be considered an option. For all intents and purposes, it’s dead.

Why not Yucca Mountain? Because, said Chu, “science has advanced dramatically” in the 20 years since Yucca Mountain was chosen and a better, safer solution is preferable and now possible.

Chu made it clear, though, that this is not a siting commission – that is, if it settles around the idea of a repository, it won’t suggest where it might be located – and of course a repository may not be one of the recommendations.

The commission is charged with delivering an interim report in 18 months and a final report in two years. The chairmen said they’d like to finish sooner.

Chu does not consider the focus on nuclear energy in President Obama’s State of the Union or the founding of the commission to represent a “betrayal” of environmentalists who supported the President’s election (nor should he – Obama was muted but definite during the election that he supported nuclear energy.)

Chu noted that nuclear energy is baseload, carbon emission free energy and, compared to fusion, for example, is well understood now.

You can see the Presidential memo ordering this commission here.

We’ll have lots more to say about this in the days and weeks ahead, but we thought you’d want the initial news quickly. As they say in the trade, breaking…

Commission co-chair Lee Hamilton.


Brian Mays said…
Congressman Hamilton: "This will be a thorough, comprehensive review based on the best available science."

... unless, that is, this science happens to suggest that the long-term solution to our used nuclear fuel and nuclear waste storage is to bury it in a remote area at the edge of the Nevada Test Site, in which case, we'll use the "next best available" science. ;-)

What a joke!

How can this review be "thorough" or "comprehensive" when it already excludes possibilities before it has even begun?

I'm a bit encouraged to see Domenici and Peterson on the commission. On the other hand, I'm sorry, but not surprised, to see Macfarlane among its members. (I anticipate -- or at least hope -- that she will be involved in penning the minority opinion; she has never met a plan for spent fuel that she liked.) I'm also a little disappointed that the only CEO on the commission is the one who is on the record stating that there is no need for new nuclear power plants, mostly because of his very short-term, self-serving thinking.
Anonymous said…
How can a repository not be one of the recommendations? Even if the US were to close the fuel cycle tomorrow and reprocess every rod of power reactor SNF, there will be still be thousands of tons of defense and other HLW -- not to mention the vitrified residue from reprocessing -- that will have to go SOMEWHERE for final disposal.
Anonymous said…
very short-term, self-serving thinking.

Because John Rowe puts his company's profitability and its shareholders above new-plant industry zealots? I guess that's self-serving, strictly defined, but it's what a CEO is supposed to do.
Anonymous said…
And thus, Obama claims to support nuclear power on Wednesday while tying knots in it behind the scenes on Friday.
Brian Mays said…
Anonymous @6:15PM: I was not commenting on Rowe's ability as a CEO. Frankly, I think that he is quite good and is doing an excellent job looking after his shareholders' interests.

Nevertheless, he would not be my first choice for serving on this panel (unless I wanted to game the system for a certain negative outcome). In fact, he would be at the bottom of my list of candidates.
Anonymous said…
So are they excluding Yucca mountain specifically...or is that just part of not being a "siting commission?"

I can tell you right now that no matter how many times you reprocess fuel, you're never going to burn away all the actinides. A repository somewhere is necessary. Not to mention all the legacy waste leftover from weapons production.

So what happens when they say a repository is necessary? "The U.S. needs a repository, and although we didn't consider where such a repository should be, we can say due to the scientific advances of the last 20 years [or rather, due to a political move by Obama/Reid] that it shouldn't be at Yucca mountain."

So, right back to where things were decades ago? The only glimmer of hope is if they decide to endorse reprocessing.
Anonymous said…
It is silly to think that a group of politicians, think tankers, and college professors will have the technical knowledge to solve this sort of problem. Why isn't there anybody that actually has decades of experience working with the stuff? For example the CEO of a company APPEARS to be a good choice, but the project manager for the spent fuel program would have far more technical knowledge of the issues. Same sort of thing with the senators, they have famous names, but none of them have engineering degrees or any experience with spent fuel.
Anonymous said…
The only glimmer of hope is if they decide to endorse reprocessing.

The "Capacity Factor" blog points out that a large fraction of the commission are non-proliferation "experts," so we can assume that Obama told Chu that reprocessing was off the table before he ever selected the commission.

We can bank on an eighteen-month investigation that decides to kick the can 30 more years down the road.

Dontcha love "Science-based decision making?"
Anonymous said…
I'm a little uneasy about the selection of Ernie Moniz. He was at DOE during Clinton's reign and was a part of the organization that railroaded the High Flux Beam Reactor at Brookhaven Lab out of business. That trashed a perfectly good and amazingly productive research reactor and stabbed dozens of skilled and dedicated employees in the back. Moniz may have personally opposed the decision but when the rubber hit the road he was willing to go with the political flow rather than stand up or resign.
I prefer storing spent fuel,until it is recycled, in above ground cask at Federal repositories located in every state that produces spent fuel and nuclear waste material from commercial nuclear reactors, military facilities, and hospitals. Why discriminate only against commercial power plants when it comes to radioactive waste material?

Such Federal repositories could be easily protected by state national guard troops and could safely store the tiny amounts of residual radioactive waste for a century or two until final deposition or transmutation in the future. Since the commercial nuclear industry is already paying for spent fuel disposal, this revenue could produce jobs in practically every state in the union that produces radioactive waste material.

Its about jobs, jobs, jobs! Right!
Phil said…
I can tell you right now that no matter how many times you reprocess fuel, you're never going to burn away all the actinides. A repository somewhere is necessary. Not to mention all the legacy waste leftover from weapons production.

I may be wrong, but I think that WIPP already accomodates the legacy weapons production stuff.
Yes- today a "forever" repository for all single
pass commercial, slightly-spent light water reactor fuel is about as far away
from a good answer as possible (and so was the potential logistics with the slated
location). It's refreshing to see the
group clearly stepping beyond the Yucca Mountain debate. Smaller reactors, thorium-
including LFTR (better
addressing proliferation), breeder reactors to
extend burns, fast
, reprocessing,
are all in the mix. Deliverables
should include future state use cases, paths
forward and specific key next step recommendations.

Orlando Stevenson

Disclaimer: This information is provided “AS IS” with no warranties, and confers no rights. These comments do not represent the thoughts, intentions, plans or strategies of my employer. It is solely my opinion and subject to change.
Anonymous said…
So where does this leave the DOE in terms of following the NWPA dictates? Is that still not the law of the land? If Obama is trashing Yucca Mountain, can we get refunds on our utility payments into the waste fund? I'm guessing the government will keep collecting that to pay for "other things". Can someone at NEI comment on this? Are we in violation of the NWPA? IIRC the DOE was supposed to be "taking title" to a lot of spent fuel a long time ago? Is litigation to recover the costs of not doing so a likely outcome?
Anonymous said…
WIPP already accomodates the legacy weapons production stuff.

Wrong. Just TRU waste. Not SNF, HLW, surplus Pu, etc.
Anonymous said…
Some posters on this blog would only be satisfied if the blue ribbon commission had been the AREVA board of directors.
Anonymous said…
I still suspect that we have yet to learn the true legal implications of this fiasco. Section 119 of the NWPA outlines jurisdiction for any legal action related to the proposed repository, and gives some interesting “examples” of potential grounds, which include non-performance by the Secretary of Energy, the President, or the NRC of any of the obligations set forth in the NWPA. Insofar as Subtitle A of the NWPA explicitly directs each of these parties to perform certain actions under the law, their failure to do so would seem to render them liable to legal action.

In my view, the so-called Standard Contract, as well as the legal foundation of the Nuclear Waste Fund and the terms of the NWPA, put the nuclear industry in an obvious position of standing with respect to such legal action. This has already been demonstrated in the many district court lawsuits won by the industry, stemming from DOE’s failure to take possession of SNF in 1998 under the terms of the NWPA.

It would seem to me that DOE’s explicit admission that it will reneg on the NWPA in its entirety, as soon to be codified in the FY 2011 budget, renders it liable to legal action on many fronts, from so-called writs of mandamus and injunctions to recovery of the monies in the Nuclear Waste Fund.

I don’t know if NEI, as the nuclear industry’s representative, would ever pursue such action. But I suspect that they have grounds to do so; the legal history in this sad affair suggests as much. For me personally, I would urge NEI to file suit immediately, simply as a matter of principle. After all, the industry has lived up to its end of the bargain, as evidenced by the $23 billion currently in the NWF.

It might be a stretch, but one also wonders whether ratepayers who contributed this money would be eligible to participate in class-action suits against the industry for essentially charging them a fee for services never rendered. Seems hypothetically feasible, from a legal standpoint, as in other cases where consumers are wrongfully charged for services they never receive. As a potential target of such action, it would seem to be in the industry’s interest to preemptively recover what it can from the government, which has instigated what will soon become a full breach of contract, as opposed to the already decided partial breaches for failure to take possession of SNF.
Brian Mays said…
Actually, AREVA says that it "supports the Department of Energy's efforts to move forward with the development of this program."
Anonymous said…
24 months just to get a final report out? I am not optimistic about this at all. This is a group of talking-heads-of-the-moment appointed by Democrats. How can this possibly be fair or objective. All the while, the spent fuel pads are growing, growing, and more growing. Perfect example of paralysis by analysis. Where's the leadership?
Anonymous said…
I continue to be amazed at the passive response of the nuclear utilities to the clear intent of this administration from day one to violate the NWPA, as amended. How much clearer can it be than to submit a budget containing $0 for OCRWM in 2011? Without a clear threat to retrieve damages uless the DOE fulfills its legal obligation to pursue a license, the administration has run roughshod over the meek and bewildered utilities. Are Obama's promises of a new generation of nuclear power plants enough to keep the utilities' lawyers from protecting the ratepayers? Release the legal dogs, enforce the law, and retrieve the ratepayer's money.
uvdiv said…
I continue to be amazed at the passive response of the nuclear utilities to the clear intent of this administration from day one to violate the NWPA, as amended. How much clearer can it be than to submit a budget containing $0 for OCRWM in 2011? Without a clear threat to retrieve damages uless the DOE fulfills its legal obligation to pursue a license, the administration has run roughshod over the meek and bewildered utilities.

Then you must not be following the news. There are at least 72 lawsuits about this, altogether seeking $50 billion in damages. The backlash is so huge, Obama is literally hiring more lawyers.

DOJ Wants More Lawyers For Nuclear-Waste Litigation
Anonymous said…
There are at least 72 lawsuits about this

A bit misleading. The "this" of these lawsuits is the historical failure of DOE, through several administrations of BOTH parties, to take title/possession of SNF from nuclear utilities. NOT Obama's zeroing out of YMP. If there's already a lawsuit on that, specifically, please post particulars. Thanks.
Brian Mays said…
Well, look at it this way. After the additional lawyers arrive, the "nuclear waste" won't seem so bad by comparison.
Anonymous said…
I would think there would be criminal liability as well for violation of federal law. I thought the purpose of and the provisions within the NWPA were to direct the President, the DOE Secretary, and other DOE personnel to be actively developing a waste repository for high-level nuclear waste. By trashing YM, they are not doing this. Forming yet another study group is not fulfilling the obligations of the NWPA. I wonder who would be responsible for bringing criminal charges? If it's the DOJ then nothing will happen. Obama's DOJ is the biggest bunch of criminals around.
Anonymous said…
I would think there would be criminal liability as well for violation of federal law.

I'm guessing you're not a lawyer.
Anonymous said…
Obama's DOJ is the biggest bunch of criminals around.

Ashcroft, Gonzalez, Bush, Cheney and Rove used DOJ to justify elimination of habeus corpus and torturing people. Rove also used DOJ systematically to implement a nationwide system of political largesse, stemming from control of prosecutorial appointments.

Want to amend your claim?
Anonymous said…
Not at all. The bums and scumbags we have in there now make Bush's people look like pikers when it comes to sleaze and corruption.

No, I'm not a lawyer, but I know right from wrong. I guess that's why I'm not a lawyer.
David Bradish said…
The bums and scumbags we have in there now make Bush's people look like pikers when it comes to sleaze and corruption.

Try to keep in mind that this is a blog about nuclear, thx.
Anonymous said…
Not to mention it's a bald assertion. What have they done at DOJ than the travesties I mentioned in my post yesterday?

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