On the Blue Ribbon Commission

The Blue Ribbon Commission (BRC), authorized by President Obama, emphasized the need to develop a revamped nuclear waste disposal program. The necessity of implementing a disposal strategy was hastened by the March 2011 Fukushima disaster. However, concurrent federal actions on nuclear development have done little to support lower waste output. In fact, the Administration’s financial support of new light water reactors exacerbates waste management concerns by adding new waste streams to the existing stockpile. As a result, one wonders if the recommended waste disposal goals are viewed by the Administration as a public relations ploy rather than a genuine effort.

The 27 years of failure at Yucca Mountain (since the NWPA amendment in 1987), illustrates the substantial challenges in identifying, permitting, building and opening a singular waste storage facility. The 2048 opening date goal identified by BRC further underscores this point. The long time frame also makes the issue a challenging project to see through politically. A president, for example, will not benefit politically from driving a waste disposal effort that will not be implemented during his tenure. Conversely, due to extremely negative public perceptions of nuclear waste, a president and his party could experience significant voter backlash from even suggesting a new waste disposal facility. The empirical evidence from Yucca Mountain and the political realities of driving an aggressive disposal campaign make even a near-term, temporary site, as suggested by BRC, unlikely.

President Obama and his staff have surely gone through the same political calculus. The fact that no waste related emergencies have happened in the U.S. and that future breeder reactors could reuse existing waste, further dissuades political follow through. As such, it is not surprising to see an R and D and funding agenda that worsens the waste disposal problem. In contrast to the long time period of a waste disposal project, approving new funding and permits can curry near-term favors from the nuclear industry, utility sector, and state politicians. Supporting limited nuclear development also promotes President Obama’s ‘all of the above’ energy strategy.

In summation, the jury is still out on whether a waste disposal facility will ever be realized, but don’t expect that uncertainty to slow down nuclear R and D or permit approval under the Obama administration. — N. R.