• The Heritage Network
    • Resize:
    • A
    • A
    • A
  • Donate
  • Blue Ribbon Commission on Nuclear Energy Misses Chance at Real Reform

    The President’s Blue Ribbon Commission (BRC) on America’s Nuclear Future released its final report late last week. It provides a thoughtful overview of how America’s nuclear waste policy has evolved since the mid-20th century, but the report’s final recommendations largely fall short.

    Essentially, the commission accepted the underlying structure of America’s current system of nuclear waste management. Given this assumption, the report’s recommendations are reasonable. Unfortunately, the quagmire that has become America’s system of nuclear waste management needs more than a nip here or a tuck there. The entire system needs reform, and the BRC missed an opportunity to provide that.

    On the positive side, the BRC acknowledged that the U.S. has an enduring need for a deep geologic repository and called for prompt efforts to develop it. Its recommendations for a consensus-based approach to siting new nuclear waste management facilities are well placed. Though it did not consider Yucca Mountain per Secretary of Energy Steven Chu’s request, it did acknowledge the project and put its current status in a useful context. The BRC should have, however, been bolder on Yucca by recommending that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission finish its review of the project. This could have been done without crossing the Secretary’s request and would have been justified, given the broad support voiced by stakeholders through the hearing process.

    One of the BRC’s central recommendations is for Congress to create a new government entity to manage nuclear waste. It concludes that the Department of Energy (DOE), which is currently responsible for waste management, is not equipped for the task. Although DOE has unquestionably failed in its obligation to dispose of nuclear waste, simply removing it from the equation oversimplifies the problem and the solution.

    Private nuclear plants produce waste, but under current law, the federal government is responsible for managing it. This removes the incentive for the nuclear utilities to have any interest in how the waste is managed, because the federal government is wholly responsible. Despite its legal obligation to remove waste—and ongoing collection of the nuclear waste fee—the government has collected zero waste.

    This misalignment of incentives, responsibilities, and authorities is the problem—and the BRC suggests nothing to fix that. The nuclear industry, which is fully capable of running safe nuclear power plants, is likewise fully capable of managing its own waste and should have the responsibility to do so.

    The examples the BRC uses are similar because in each case, the waste producer is responsible for waste management, whether the producer is the government or private industry. In Japan, Sweden, and Finland, the nuclear utilities—not the government—created new organizations to manage waste. In France, it is true that nuclear waste entities are government-based, but so is the majority of the French nuclear industry. The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant that the BRC report references as an example of American waste management success follows the same pattern. That facility is government-run, and it holds government defense waste. Even though the BRC held these up as examples, it seemed to miss the fact that all these producers were responsible for their own waste.

    The BRC also makes major recommendations on how nuclear waste is financed.

    Currently, utilities pay a set fee to the federal government for waste disposal. From a utility standpoint, waste management costs are represented by the fee. The problem is that the fee is not tethered to any specific service, but rather to a 30-year-old estimate of what politicians thought waste disposal might cost. Tying the fee to an outdated estimate rather than to the actual costs of waste management removes any incentive for the waste producer to seek better alternatives, as actual costs may be greater than the fee. Accurate pricing would provide an incentive for waste producers to seek the most economical solution and allow service providers to compete for that business.

    The BRC rejects this market-based approach and instead attempts to modify the current system. Because it relies on the same basic structure, the inefficiencies it is trying to fix will eventually reemerge.

    Ultimately, the BRC provides useful insights for policymakers on the history of nuclear waste management and some helpful recommendations. But to be successful, the following should be integrated into any nuclear waste management reform effort:

    • Transfer responsibility for waste management to waste producers. Evidence demonstrates that the key to a successful waste management policy is for producers to be responsible for their own waste.
    • Repeal the nuclear waste fee. The Nuclear Waste Policy Act clearly states that utilities are responsible for the full cost of waste management, regardless of when those services are rendered or who provides them. However, this government fee is not tied to any real costs or even services, since the government is not collecting waste. Utilities should not be forced to pay for something they are not receiving.
    • Limit the scope of any new government entity. Such an entity’s scope should be limited to siting and permitting a new geologic repository and possibly providing nuclear waste management services, as long as waste producers can seek other options.
    • Provide nuclear waste management choice and security. A primary concern for many waste producers with taking on the responsibility of waste management is that adequate services will not be available. One way around this is to obligate a new government entity to provide services but allow private entities to offer them as well. This would give utilities the security of having at least one service provider while allowing competition.
    • Allow market-based pricing for waste management services. Market-based pricing will promote competition, innovation, and price reductions as consumers seek economical options for waste management and companies compete for that business.
    • Insist that the NRC finish its review of the Yucca Mountain application. Finishing the application will provide critical data that would be applicable for future repository work and would allow Yucca to move forward quickly, should Nevada compete for the repository under the process recommended by the BRC.

    The BRC provided a thoughtful and accurate analysis of issues surrounding nuclear waste management in the United States. Indeed, the report should be required reading for anyone interested in the topic. However, the basic assumptions underpinning the American system of nuclear waste management need to be replaced, and the BRC falls short on that.

    Posted in Featured [slideshow_deploy]

    13 Responses to Blue Ribbon Commission on Nuclear Energy Misses Chance at Real Reform

    1. MarcJeric says:

      It is a crime of extreme ignorance to call the Yucca Mountain Spent Fuel Repository “a nuclear waste dump”, as our politicians here in Nevada call it.
      We Nevadans should take proud possession of that spent fuel, and then do the following:
      1)Build a spent fuel reprocessing plant close to Yucca Mountain, similar to the Clinch River Plant that was killed in the late 1970’s by Carter’s anti-nuclear zealots, and that will
      2)Produce electric power, say 1,200 MW for the Nevada’s homes and industries;
      3)Reduce those 75,000 tons of spent fuel down to some 100 tons of real nuclear waste that could be disposed easily by a rocket to Mars;
      4)Produce new nuclear fuel for the 115 existing nuclear power plants, plus another 100 new ones all over the country, while
      5)Producing ZERO “greenhouse gasses” – thus satisfying the proponents of the global warming hoax;
      6)Charge the rest of the country about $1,000 per pound of that existing and future “nuclear waste”, and distribute the money to all Nevada residents in the form of dividends; (cont.)

      • Jim Kress says:

        Send the 100 tons to the SUN. You don't have to fight the gravity well and you won't pollute a future human colonization site.

      • Atomikrabbit says:

        Marc, I agree with most of your comments except:
        “3) Reduce those 75,000 tons of spent fuel down to some 100 tons of real nuclear waste that could be disposed easily by a rocket to Mars”

        There is no need for such a drastic and costly solution – the small amount of non-fissionable material that is left have short half-lives that would render them harmless in a few score years, and about as harmlessly radioactive as uranium ore within a few hundred.

        Some of them might even be useful in medical, radiography, or food sterilization uses if extracted. See Kirk Sorensen’s Google Tech Talk – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rv-mFSoZOkE

    2. MarcJeric says:

      7)Accept all new used-up nuclear fuel from the existing nuclear power plants by charging them another $1,000 per pound transported to the Yucca Mountain industrial complex;
      8)Eliminate the need for any new uranium mines;
      9)Bring cooling and potable water by a Canadian pipeline – the huge amounts of useless water that now flows north into the polar seas; that would solve as well the need for water by the increasing population of Nevada;
      10)Attract hundreds of high-tech new companies that would come to Nevada, thus increasing professional core of highly paid employees;
      11)Eliminate eventually any need for any more of coal-oil-gas fired standard electric power plants; and, finally
      12)Provide highly paid jobs for several thousands of highly qualified and highly paid professional jobs and construction workers for Nevada. (cont.)

    3. MarcJeric says:

      It is high time for our ignorant and irresponsible politicians, supported by our ignorant press, to stop their criminal propaganda aimed toward the ignorant and uninformed public. Instead, the press should engage in a serious effort to educate the Nevada residents as to the incredible riches being made accessible to them in this 21st century.

      As for the safety on nuclear power plants that weighs on the minds of many uninformed members of the public and of our politicians, one should mention the following facts regarding the nuclear equipment failures and accidents: (cont.)

    4. MarcJeric says:

      1)The gigantic earthquake and tsunami in Japan destroyed the Fukushima plant there, without resulting in any cases of radiation victims;
      2)The Three Mile Island equipment failure was the result of ignorant plant operators, which failure destroyed the plant without hurting a fly – within the plant or outside of it; and
      3)The Chernobyl nuclear accident was a result of the Soviet operators’ ignorance about the design that was stolen by Soviet spies (Rosenberg couple, executed for treason); the overheated nuclear core caused by low power level produced a steam explosion that spread nuclear core into the atmosphere. It was not a “nuclear fuel accident” – it was a steam explosion. That particular design was rejected by our Atomic Energy Commission in the early 1950’s, exactly due to that design insufficiency; only two designs out of 15 proposed were accepted by the AEC – one for the Hansford Reservation in the Washington State, and another for the Savannah River Site in South Carolina.

    5. MarcJeric says:

      Those reactors have had zero failures in close to 60 years of operation. Also, the Chernobyl plant is only one of 14 such dual-use plants – electric power plus nuclear bomb materials – that still operate across the territories of the former USSR. (cont.)

    6. Jim Kress says:

      Good article. Why wasn't Thorium based reactor technology considered by the "Commission"? It would eliminate a myriad of the issues we currently are trying to address.

      "One of the BRC’s central recommendations is for Congress to create a new government entity to manage nuclear waste. It concludes that the Department of Energy (DOE), which is currently responsible for waste management, is not equipped for the task. Although DOE has unquestionably failed in its obligation to dispose of nuclear waste, simply removing it from the equation oversimplifies the problem and the solution."

      Why would any other or new government bureaucracy be any better than the DOE. This just represents a "lets make cushy government jobs for our retirement" effort on the part of the commissars. Privatize it and hold the private companies accountable, legally and economically.

    7. Thomas Morgan says:

      No discussion of Thorium? Implementing LFTRs would have a huge impact and they didn't even mention it. Sounds like the commission is enslaved to current business models and too fearful of ruffling feathers to be effective.

    8. GaryA says:

      This article states: "Transfer responsibility for waste management to waste producers." That might be reasonable if the producers actually owned the waste. The Atomic Energy Act prohibits private ownership of fissile material. Although utilities use the fuel, it is actually owned by the federal government. And the waste is similarly owned by the federal government. The government has to step up and take care of this mess that it owns.

    9. Atomikrabbit says:

      Fortunes are made when paradigms change. The unquestioned cliché that this material is “waste” needs to be challenged.

      The fact is, there remains vast amounts of energy in this once-used LWR fuel. The decay heat being given off by the 3% of the material that are fission products is reliable and predictable to a fraction of a calorie per gram. In fact it is so reliable that no one knows how to turn it off. This “problem” is in fact a solution to any process that can utilize a constant source of low-grade heat over a period of several centuries. Get the fear-mongerers out of the way and send in the engineers.

    10. Atomikrabbit says:

      The remaining 97%, consisting of fissionable uranium or transuranic isotopes, is capable of producing massive amounts of energy in Generation IV fast-neutron spectrum reactors. There is enough fissionable material already mined, processed, and refined already on US soil to supply the country with electric power for more than a century if it is utilized properly, and not just buried in a ludicrously expensive desert tomb.

      It has been estimated that the value of electricity that could be generated from this “waste”, if utilized in a Gen IV reactor, would be $30 Trillion: http://bravenewclimate.com/about/faq

      If Nevadans are smart, they will not only charge a hefty fee for accepting the “waste”, but will insist on taking title to it, thereby positioning themselves as the Saudi Arabia of Gen IV atomic fuel.

    11. Bill W says:

      . Industry “experts” only definition of nuclear reactors are uranium fueled, Pressurized Boiling Water Reactors (BWR). This is a fine example of silo thinking. Hefland’s comment about “a thousand Hiroshima’s is a shining example of fear mongering idiocy . Completely ignored are the new Small Modular Reactors and more importantly Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors (LFTR). LFTR technology has been around for forty years and has none of the safety issues of uranium fueled BWR's.

      LFTR ‘s use molten salt coolant and are the safest, most cost-effective solution to near term and future energy needs. The fuel salt does not burn in air or water, produce hydrogen or use pressurized steam so a Fukushima style plant explosion is impossible and it’s physically impossible for a LFTR to meltdown.
      From American Scientist, july-august 2010:
      "Thorium is abundant, produces far less toxic fission products than uranium and may soon compete with coal for cost per kilowatt-hour. ..Molten salts trap fission products chemically, and react slowly or not at all in air… A molten core is meltdown-proof, so the worst possible accident would be a leak. In this case, the fuel salt can be safely drained into passively cooled storage. "

      LFTR ‘s can recycle nuclear waste from uranium reactors and there is enough thorium in the U.S. to power us into the 23rd century.

    Comments are subject to approval and moderation. We remind everyone that The Heritage Foundation promotes a civil society where ideas and debate flourish. Please be respectful of each other and the subjects of any criticism. While we may not always agree on policy, we should all agree that being appropriately informed is everyone's intention visiting this site. Profanity, lewdness, personal attacks, and other forms of incivility will not be tolerated. Please keep your thoughts brief and avoid ALL CAPS. While we respect your first amendment rights, we are obligated to our readers to maintain these standards. Thanks for joining the conversation.

    Big Government Is NOT the Answer

    Your tax dollars are being spent on programs that we really don't need.

    I Agree I Disagree ×

    Get Heritage In Your Inbox — FREE!

    Heritage Foundation e-mails keep you updated on the ongoing policy battles in Washington and around the country.

    ×