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.