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Blue ribbon commission issues final report on nuclear waste

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
WISE Amsterdam

The Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future (BRC) on January 27, released its final report to the U.S. Energy Secretary, "detailing comprehensive recommendations for creating a safe, longterm solution for managing and disposing of the nation’s spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste." The report is the culmination of nearly two years of work by the commission and its subcommittees, which met more than two dozen times since March 2010, gathering testimony from experts and stakeholders.

The United States currently has more than 65,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel stored at about 75 operating and shutdown reactor sites around the country. More than 2,000 tons are being produced each year. The Department of Energy (DOE) also is storing an additional 2,500 tons of spent fuel and large volumes of high-level nuclear waste, mostly from past weapons programs, at a handful of government-owned sites.

The Blue Ribbon Commission's Final Report noted that the Obama Administration’s 2009 decision to halt work on a repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada is the latest indicator of a nuclear waste management policy that has been troubled for decades and has now reached an impasse. Allowing that impasse to continue is not an option, the report said. “The need for a new strategy is urgent, not just to address these damages and costs but because this generation has a fundamental, ethical obligation to avoid burdening future generations with the entire task of finding a safe, permanent solution for managing hazardous nuclear materials they had no part in creating,” the Commission wrote in the report’s Executive Summary.

The strategy outlined in the Commission report contains three crucial elements.

First, the Commission recommends a consent-based approach to siting future nuclear waste storage and disposal facilities, noting that trying to force such facilities on unwilling states, tribes and communities has not worked.

Second, the Commission recommends that the responsibility for the nation’s nuclear waste management program be transferred to a new organization; one that is independent of the DOE and dedicated solely to assuring the safe storage and ultimate disposal of spent nuclear waste fuel and highlevel radioactive waste.

Third, the Commission recommends changing the manner in which fees being paid into the Nuclear Waste Fund – about US$750 million a year – are treated in the federal budget to ensure they are being set aside and used as Congress initially intended.

The report also recommends immediate efforts to commence development of at least one geologic disposal facility and at least one consolidated storage facility, as well as efforts to prepare for the eventual large-scale transport of spent nuclear fuel and high-level waste from current storage sites to those facilities. The report also recommends the U.S. continue to provide support for nuclear energy innovation and workforce development, as well as strengthening its international leadership role in efforts to address safety, waste management, non-proliferation and security concerns.

This is a bit curious recommendation because only two lines further down in the official Commission's press release it is stated: "The Commission noted that it was specifically not tasked with rendering any opinion on the suitability of Yucca Mountain, proposing any specific site for a waste management facility, or offering any opinion on the role of nuclear power in the nation’s energy supply mix." (emphasis WISE)

Logically there is a lot of criticism on the Blue Ribbon Commission from the start and only two days before the publication of the final report, 88 national, regional and local environmental organizations, and more than 5,400 individuals, sent a letter to Energy Secretary Steven Chu urging him to reject the upcoming recommendation from the Commission that would encourage establishment of an “interim” radioactive waste storage dump and begin the transportation of high-level radioactive waste across the U.S. The letter was initiated by organizations representing communities around permanently closed reactor sites. The Commission's draft report cites these closed reactors, which are still storing their waste on their sites, as the reason that an “interim” storage site should be established immediately.

As the letter states, such a program runs exactly counter to the interests of these communities, “The Commission you appointed is claiming that it is acting in the interest of communities such as ours where closed nuclear power reactors are located, when in fact the Commission's recommendations are in opposition to our number one priority: isolation of radioactivity from our environment for as long as it is a hazard. Centralizing waste storage for purposes of expanded waste production or for reprocessing is contrary to this goal, and is not responsible policy.”

Below comments on some of the recommendations of the final report from Arjun Makhijani, Ph.D., President of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research (IEER).

Military waste:
"It is tragic that the Commission did not substantively address the most pressing radioactive waste contamination threats to precious water resources – for instance hundreds of times the drinking water limit at Hanford, Washington on the banks of the Columbia River. The Commission had a charter to conduct a ‘comprehensive’ review of the nuclear waste problem, including defense wastes from the nuclear bomb program. Yet, it simply said it did not have the resources to deal with all the problems and punted the nuclear weapons waste issue to Congress while focusing on commercial spent fuel at nuclear reactor sites.”

“I am even more dismayed that the Commission suggested that Congress consider the possibility of leaving the defense waste disposal in the purview of the Department of Energy (DOE). The Commission has entirely ignored the immense evidence that DOE’s plans for disposal of several types of defense waste pose much greater threats to water resources, most especially at Hanford, than from even Yucca Mountain, a poor repository site.”

On reprocessing and breeder reactors:
The commission acknowledges in its report that:

“…no currently available or reasonably foreseeable reactor and fuel cycle technology developments -including advances in reprocess and recycle technologies- have the potential to fundamentally alter the waste management challenge this nation confronts over at least the next several decades, if not longer.” (p. 100)

Makhijani: “The Commission did reject some reprocessing advocates’ claims by recognizing that it will not eliminate the need for a repository and that no form of reprocessing is economical today. But it left the door open for reprocessing existing spent fuel at some future date. Reprocessing spent fuel from existing reactors will multiply risks and costs. There is simply no economic or technical case for that, and the Commission was provided with ample evidence to that effect. Even if the chosen path is breeder reactors, it would be technically better and economically far superior to use the half million tons of depleted uranium that already exist, enough to fuel a U.S. reactor fleet at the present size for 5,000 years. The Commission unfortunately chose to ignore these facts.”

“To its credit the Commission did recognize that reprocessing is not an answer to the waste management problem (as indicated by quote above) and that use of plutonium fuel creates an ‘increased proliferation risk’ (p. 105) both as currently practiced in France and as it might in the future be practiced with breeder reactors.”

“Despite having been presented with ample evidence of the failure of the sodium-cooled fast neutron reactor program – US$100 billion has been spent worldwide on the technology and yet it is nowhere near commercial – the BRC is suggesting more of the same. This is unwarranted when there are so many renewable energy options that are far closer to reality and far safer.”

On spent fuel storage:
Makhijani: “The Commission used the Fukushima tragedy to punt on the question of hardened dry rather than wet storage of spent fuel at reactor sites. The National Academies had already concluded well before Fukushima that dry storage was safer; Fukushima has only made the risks of wet storage clearer. Nothing we learn from it will indicate that wet storage is safer than dry storage. Yet, the Commission, citing lessons yet to be learned from Fukushima called for yet another study instead of hardened on-site dry storage that has been urged by dozens of organizations.”

“IEER calls on the Administration and Congress to mandate that all spent fuel aged more than five years be moved to hardened dry storage on site, and the remaining spent fuel kept in low-density storage in reactor pools. Nuclear Waste Fund monies should be used for on-site hardened dry storage.”

On siting:
Makhijani: “The Commission made real progress in pointing out that the top-down approach by which Congress simply mandated characterization of a single site – Yucca Mountain, Nevada – had failed. It recommended a “consent-based” process that would give some regulatory muscle to state, local, and tribal governments. This is a far better approach, even if it is likely to be slower at the start, as the Commission pointed out. Yet the consent-based process must be preceded by a prolonged scientific effort before siting begins.”

Makhijani: “The site is only one of three elements in geologic isolation – the others are engineered barriers and repository sealing approaches. The three elements must work together. There should be at least ten years of research on this problem before site selection begins. Without that the risk of environmental injustice, in a consent-based process is substantial.”

Makhijani: “I am dismayed that the Commission saw fit to recommend that DOE have a large upfront role in both the next steps for repository program, “including R&D on geological media” (p. 118) and for the Interim Storage site before a new organization is put in place to take over the responsibility. DOE was in large part responsible for the mess the program is in now, which began well before Congress cut off the process in 1987, pointing to Yucca Mountain alone. On the one hand the Commission has cautioned against haste; on the other hand, it has encouraged haste in a really ill-advised way by recommending a continuing DOE role in critical activities better left to an independent agency.”

Voices heard, but disregarded
"Since Secretary Chu appointed the Blue Ribbon Commission in 2010, concerned citizens living in communities impacted by radioactive waste from across the United States have participated in the BRC meetings, sent comments, and supported experts to participate," said Mary Olson of the Radioactive Waste Project of Nuclear Information and Resource Service. "Our voices have been heard, but disregarded. This comes as no surprise since a majority of the Commissioners are individuals who have made, or supported the making of, the radioactive waste in question over the course of their careers. Of course they want to move it -they want to make more."

The Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future does include several members who are not directly tied to the nuclear industry, but a controlling share of the seats are held by individuals who, at one time or another, have had primary decision-making authority, or who have personally profited from commercial nuclear technology.

Sources: NIRS News, 25 January 2012 / Blue Ribbon Commission press release, 27 January 2012 / IEER response to BRC, 27 January 2012
Contact: Mary Olson at NIRS