Blue-ribbon panel points the way, but little concrete action yet
The status of Barack Obama's promise to seek safe disposal of nuclear waste prompted a wide variety of reactions from the experts we contacted for this update. Some emphasized that institutional progress had been made; others noted that the nation really isn't much closer to a solution for permanent and safe storage of America's nuclear waste.
Let's sort through this complicated issue.
During the 2008 presidential campaign, Obama promised to "lead federal efforts to look for a safe, long-term disposal solution based on objective, scientific analysis. In the meantime, Obama will develop requirements to ensure that the waste stored at current reactor sites is contained using the most advanced dry-cask storage technology available. Barack Obama believes that Yucca Mountain is not an option."
As we noted in our last promise update, the federal government initially chose a permanent storage site known as Yucca Mountain in the late 1980s. But after a decades-long dispute -- including concerns about the geological safety of the site and the challenges of transporting radioactive waste over long distances -- the Obama administration canceled work on the project. At the time of the project's cancellation, Yucca Mountain had already cost the federal government $12 billion.
Politically, the project seems likely to remain canceled, with Obama's reelection and election results that enlarged the caucus under Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who is a fierce opponent of the Yucca Mountain project. But the likelihood of a resurrection isn't zero: A lawsuit to force the Obama administration to resume licensing hearings for the project is awaiting a ruling by a three-judge federal appeals court panel.
Still, the cancellation of Yucca Mountain increased the pressure on the federal government to find an alternative solution. So, to evaluate and create options for the disposal of nuclear waste, Obama created the Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future, co-chaired by former Democratic Rep. Lee Hamilton and Brent Scowcroft, the National Security Adviser to presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush.
The commission released its final report in January 2012, bracketed by strongly worded criticism of the seemingly endless conflict and paralysis that hampered government action during previous decades.
The commission's recommendations included developing multiple disposal and storage facilities with the consent of local communities; efforts to prepare for the large-scale transport of spent nuclear fuel and high-level waste to those facilities; and the creation of a new organization with the sole responsibility of operating this waste-disposal system.
The experts we interviewed agreed that the appointment of the blue-ribbon commission and the release of its final report represented a step in the right direction. However, not much has happened in the 10 months since the report was released.
The most notable development was the introduction of the Nuclear Waste Administration Act of 2012 (S. 3469) by Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M. "The bill is a serious start to a serious problem and, as it directly reflects the recommendations of the Blue Ribbon Commission, it's the path forward if there is to be any legislative action,” said Bob Deans, a spokesman for the Natural Resources Defense Council, which supports parts of the bill and argues that other portions need to be revised.
The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which Bingaman chairs, held a hearing on the bill on Sept. 12, 2012. But a new bill will have to be introduced in the new Congress, and Bingaman is retiring, so the immediate fate of the legislation is unclear.
Meanwhile, Obama also promised to "develop requirements to ensure that the waste stored at current reactor sites is contained using the most advanced dry-cask storage technology available.”
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, an independent federal agency, is reviewing the environmental impact of extended dry cask storage. This technology, according to the commission, "allows spent fuel that has already been cooled in the spent fuel pool for at least one year to be surrounded by inert gas inside a container called a cask. The casks are typically steel cylinders that are either welded or bolted closed. The steel cylinder provides a leak-tight containment of the spent fuel. Each cylinder is surrounded by additional steel, concrete, or other material to provide radiation shielding to workers and members of the public.”
Dry-cask storage isn't the only potential solution -- another is to recycle the used fuel. Recycling would produce "useful material to be reused in nuclear reactors to generate electricity,” as well as "radionuclides we could use in industry and medicine and a reduction in the overall volume that would require disposal as radioactive waste,” said John W. Poston, Sr., a nuclear engineering professor at Texas A&M University.
But dry-cask remains a much-discussed option. Earlier this year, the Energy Department put out a request for proposals for long-term studies on dry cask storage. "Dry storage technology is in the works, though not at a riveting pace,” said Steve Kerekes, a spokesman for the Nuclear Energy Institute.
The uncertainty about the path forward for storing waste increased in August 2012, when the Nuclear Regulatory Commission moved to delay final license approvals and extensions until it reviews its "waste confidence" rule. The commission's move came after a federal appeals court decision that sided with safe-energy groups who argued that the commission"s rule violated the National Environmental Policy Act by not fully taking into account the risk of fires or leaks at spent fuel pools.
"There will be major developments in the management, disposal and storage of nuclear waste in the next two years,” said Allison Fisher, outreach director for Public Citizen's Energy Program. "How the administration responds to these developments will inform whether Obama breaks his promises on waste.”
The administration has remained firm on moving away from Yucca Mountain as a solution to the nation's nuclear waste challenges, and the blue-ribbon commission it empaneled has provided a roadmap for an alternative. But concrete actions on that roadmap have not yet been taken. On balance, we rate this a Compromise.
Blue Ribbon Commission on America"s Nuclear Future, final report, January 2012
Greenwire, "Industry, activists gird for fallout from waste debate," Aug. 10, 2012
Las Vegas Review Journal, "Election hasn't changed Yucca Mountain's future," Nov. 11, 2012
Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Dry Cask Storage (web page), accessed Nov. 21, 2012
Public Citizen, "Principles for Safeguarding Nuclear Waste at Reactors," accessed Nov. 21, 2012
Email interview with Bob Deans, associate director of communications for the Natural Resources Defense Council, Nov. 19, 2012
Email interview with John W. Poston, Sr., a nuclear engineering professor at Texas A&M University, Nov. 19, 2012
Email interview with Steve Kerekes, senior director of media relations for the Nuclear Energy Institute, Nov. 19, 2012
Email interview with Allison Fisher, outreach director for Public Citizen's Energy Program, Nov. 19, 2012
Email interview with Matthew Bunn, associate professor of public policy at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government, Oct. 25, 2012
Yucca Mountain removed from equation
In March 2010 the Department of Energy informed the Nuclear Regulatory Commission -- the nation's independent nuclear regulatory body -- of its decision to withdraw the federal government's application to store nuclear waste deep underground at Yucca Mountain, Nev. Although the Obama administration had largely stripped funding from the project, unless it withdrew the application, another administration could restart the process.
Yucca Mountain is located about 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas. It was chosen in the late 1980s as a possible storage site for waste material from nuclear power plants. Currently the Nuclear Waste Management Act of 1982 generally mandates that such waste be stored on the same site as the power plant that created it. There are 75,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel stored in temporary sites around the country. A recurring fear by environmentalists is that such radioactive material could contaminate groundwater. Proponents of the Yucca Mountain facility feel that this danger would be mitigated given Nevada's desert environment and geologic features.
In 2008, the U.S. Department of Energy under the Bush administration sought a license to store the waste at Yucca Mountain. Since then, the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste disposal site has been tied up in legal wranglings and never utilized, due to opposition from environmental groups and Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev. In addition, the Energy Department now contends that fissures in Yucca Mountain could fill the caves with water at some point in the future, leading to contamination.
Although the Energy Department asked to be let out of the agreement, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has yet to make a decision in this regard. In late July, the states of Washington and South Carolina sued the commission to force it to make a ruling on the Obama administration's decision to withdraw the Yucca Mountain application. Depending upon the outcome, Energy Secretary Steven Chu stated that the department may be compelled to reopen the Yucca Mountain facility.
A report by the U.S. Government Accountability Organization concluded that the Obama administration's decision to shut down the Yucca Mountain project was a policy-oriented, rather than a scientific, decision. The administration's decision to shutter the project could possibly cost billions in taxpayer dollars as the federal government endeavors to search for another suitable disposal site. At the time of the project's cancellation, Yucca Mountain had already cost the federal government $12 billion.
To evaluate and create options for the disposal of nuclear waste, President Obama created the Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future. In July 2011, the commission issued a scathing draft report of the federal government's lackluster efforts at nuclear waste disposal. Among the commission's recommendations was creating a new federal corporation that would be tasked with finding adequate disposal sites. This recommendation, along with several others, are currently in the public comment phase until October 2011. Chu will receive the final recommendations in January 2012.
There can be no doubt that the Obama administration has significant logistical, legal and financial hurdles to overcome before achieve its goal of safe nuclear disposal. The commission's conclusions, although quite critical, may spur the administration to take a more proactive stance. The promise ultimately hinges on what happens with the Yucca Mountain site. If the government cannot withdraw from the application, then the possibility of Yucca Mountain becoming a nuclear waste storage site cannot be discounted. We rate this promise as In the Works pending a final decision on Yucca Mountain.
Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future Draft Report to the Secretary of Energy, July 29, 2011.
U.S. Department of Energy press release, March 3, 2010.
The New York Times, "GAO: Death of Yucca Mountain Caused by Political Maneuvering,” March 10, 2011.
The Christian Science Monitor, "How to store nuclear waste? Panel slams US and urges new approach,” July 29, 2011.
The Hill, "Lawsuit seeks decision on Yucca Mountain nuke waste dump,” July 29, 2011.
Las Vegas Review-Journal, "Energy Secretary: Yucca mountain could restart,” March 16, 2011.
The Christian Science Monitor, "The nuclear waste problem: Where to put it?” March 22, 2010.
The Christian Science Monitor, "Nuclear waste storage in limbo as Obama axes Yucca Mountain funds,” February 1, 2010.
Money to close Yucca Mountain
During the campaign, Barack Obama took a stand against the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository. That boosted his appeal in Nevada, where the facility is located. Most residents -- particularly Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader -- are opposed to it.
The U.S. Department of Energy had been considering Yucca Mountain as a possible site for long-term disposal of nuclear waste since 1987. In 2002, George W. Bush signed a law that began construction. But during the 2008 campaign, Obama said there were still outstanding questions about whether nuclear waste can safely be stored there.
Obama's opposition to Yucca Mountain is included in Promise No. 474, which says that he will "lead federal efforts to look for a safe, long-term disposal solution based on objective, scientific analysis. In the meantime, Obama will develop requirements to ensure that the waste stored at current reactor sites is contained using the most advanced dry-cask storage technology available. Barack Obama believes that Yucca Mountain is not an option."
On October 28, 2009, President Obama signed into law the $33.5 billion spending bill to fund government energy and water programs for the 2010 fiscal year. Part of the spending bill is a provision to close down the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository.
Obama acknowledged that there's still a long way to go before the government finds the best option for nuclear waste disposal. Shutting down the Yucca Mountain project, however, is a start. We rate this In the Works.
FACTBOX: Obama signs energy, water spending bill into law
, Oct. 29, 2009
Reuters, Obama budget seeks end to Yucca nuclear waste dump , May 7, 2009
CBS News, Senate Passes Bill to Close Yucca Mountain , July 30, 2009
Las Vegas Sun, Yucca Mountain , Accessed Nov. 4, 2009
Obama/Biden Campaign Document, Barack Obama's Plan to Make America a Global Energy Leader , Accessed Nov. 5, 2009