Blue Ribbon Commission says that applies to just about everyone

UnhappyA government special study group that is looking at the future of management of spent nuclear fuel has released a summary of testimony it has heard over the past year. The staff report, which makes no recommendations, is a set of talking points about the things people have said to the commission. (28 pages, 11 Mb PDF file) ( http://tinyurl.com/brc-staff0311 )

Many in Washington, and elsewhere, who follow nuclear energy issues, have a skeptical view of the work of the Department of Energy’s Blue Ribbon Commission (BRC). The reasons include some intensely political considerations. Energy Sec. Steven Chu has been a straight man in this drama. See for instance the agency’s press release announcing the commission in January 2010 that included a list of its high-powered members.

The situation has acquired new urgency as the nation watched the situation in Fukushima, Japan, especially with the spent fuel pool at reactor #4. It may finally provoke Congress to do something, but don't hold your breath.

Carrying water for Senator Reid

Nevada Sen. Harry Reid, a Democrat and the Senate majority leader, has made it clear to President Obama the price for carrying water in Congress for Obama’s legislative initiatives is to prevent Yucca Mountain from ever opening.

So how did this work? For starters, the appointment of Gregory Jaczko, a former aide to Reid, as chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, is intended to insure the Yucca Mountain license never got reviewed for safety issues.

What the president gets in return is support in the Senate needed to push key programs crucial to political success for the White House. The deal at the NRC seemed like a small price to pay for a big result. Obama needs Reid more than ever since the Democratic majority in the Senate tool a shellacking in the mid-term election. It is still in the plus column, but it is not an absolute majority.

Since then the president has appointed three other members of the commission all of whom have decades of management experience in the nuclear industry, something that Jazcko lacks having been first an aide to the starkly anti-nuclear Rep, Edward Markey (D-Mass.) and then as one for Reid.

The addition of people who know the industry was seen by some as an attempt by the White House to make amends with the utilities regulated by the NRC. The formula is that while Reid gets his way on Yucca, the other matters before the NRC get handled by people expert in these matters.

Not in Kansas anymoreIf this sounds simplistic, consider that the political reality of Washington deals needed to get legislative business done has clashed with demands by the nuclear industry for progress on a real and pressing problem. There are times when these conflicts gave new meaning to the phase, “Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore.”

Playing for time?

The BRC is widely seen as a “punt,” or a political fig leaf, designed to buy the president time to get his initiatives through Congress. Some have cynically suggested that there might also have been hope in the White House that Sen. Reid, not always the most popular guy in Nevada, would solve the problem by losing his seat in the 2010 mid-term elections. At one time the late night TV comic line about the situation was that Sen. Reid, running against nobody in Nevada, was behind by 20% in the polls.

Fig LeavesReid disappointed the White House by winning against a fringe candidate who drove off more moderate elements of the Nevada Republican party. The only difference between the Tea Party candidate in Nevada, and another one in Delaware, is that Sharron Angle, Reid’s opponent, never mentioned anything about practicing witchcraft.

This means President Obama is stuck with Reid through the rest of this term, and at least half of the next one, assuming Obama wins re-election. However, this could be Reid’s last six-year term. That fact means the BRC, if it plans to be useful, needs to come up with recommendations that make practical sense for the nation, and not just the political whims of the moment.

Summary of what people have told the BRC so far

Ok, so what has the BRC been doing? Well, for one it organized itself into several committees who then began traveling around the country asking people what they thought about what the U.S. should do to manage spent fuel. And, they got an earful. Nobody is happy about it.

Perhaps to make the point that the federal government has finally tried the patience of the nuclear industry to the point of complete frustration, the BRC published this month a summary of all the testimony it has heard from everyone who cared to say something to it.

In an introduction, the staff report said its purpose is to, “Provide individuals and organizations who have given input an opportunity to confirm that their key messages have been heard or to highlight something that may have been missed.

Just in case you haven’t submitted anything to the BRC, there is still still time. You can make your views known by using links at the BRC website.

Common threads

weave patternA common thread running through what the Commission has heard to date is that the nation’s inability to develop a permanent repository for highly radioactive waste reflects failures that are primarily social and political, not technical.

There are technical challenges to managing the back-end of the nuclear fuel cycle. These difficulties have been dwarfed by the challenge to come up with solutions that are perceived to be fair, equitable, safe and sustainable.

That last word “sustainable” means that enough people with a stake in the outcome see it as a reasonable solution and they don’t have the ability to upend it to obtain a better deal for their interests.

The major themes the Commission has heard to date are grouped under seven broad headings: (1) program governance and execution; (2) nuclear waste fee and Fund; (3) approach to siting; (4) reactor and fuel cycle technologies; (5) transport of used/spent fuel and high-level wastes; (6) storage of used/spent fuel and high-level wastes; and (7) disposal system for highly radioactive waste.

Program - The input received thus far reveals a deep and widespread erosion of trust in the ability of the federal government to meet obligations related to the disposal of used/spent nuclear fuel and high-level wastes.

Funding - Significant frustration exists over the disconnect between the amount of revenue being collected through the waste fee and the much lower amount of funding that has been made available through the federal budget process to be spent on the waste program for which these revenues are intended. Lawsuits abound.

Siting - Witnesses said that the process that led to the selection of the Yucca Mountain site was perceived by many as unfair, not grounded in sound science, and politically-motivated.

This is another “duh”moment, one that put Sen. Reid in motion in the first place.

Technologies – The Commission has received testimony describing a wide range of advanced reactor technologies including gas-cooled, liquid metal cooled, and water-cooled reactors and other advanced concepts. These reactor technologies are being investigated by private sector, academic and government research organizations.

Whether any of them see the light of day in terms of an NRC safety review is anybody’s guess. The agency, which is expert in light water reactor technologies, is struggling to come up to speed on how to handle the new technologies. Budget constraints at the agency may slow its progress in this area.

Transportation - The Commission has been presented a large amount of evidence indicating that the systems in place to transport nuclear materials in the United States have operated safely and without significant incident over several decades.

WIPP trupackThis isn’t entirely true as a Department of Energy Inspector General report cited two instances where the truck drivers taking nuclear waste to WIPP were arrested, while off-duty, for public intoxication. The IG also cited 14 other instances in 2007 involving heavy drinking within eight hours of a shift.

"Of the 16 incidents, two were of the greatest concern because they occurred during secure transportation missions while the Agents were in Rest Overnight Status, which occurs during extended missions where convoy vehicles are placed in a safe harbor and Agents check into local area hotels," the report said.

Even assuming there haven't been any repeat offenders, the original report is hair raising for people who don't understand the integrity of spent fuel canisters. Reports like this make local and state authorities crazy and with justification. That’s why any solution to managing spent fuel will have to satisfy most of the nation’s governors.

Storage - Many witnesses have urged that used/spent fuel from shutdown nuclear power stations be moved to centralized locations (options mentioned have included existing nuclear power plant sites, U.S. government sites, and newly-constructed storage facilities).

Others are of the view that fuel from shutdown plants should remain where it is until it can be moved to a permanent disposal facility. The NRC has said spent fuel in dry casks can be safely stored at reactors for up to 100 years.

Disposal - Witnesses from across the country, including especially many individuals from communities that are hosting shutdown reactors or DOE waste storage sites, have emphasized that the federal government has a moral and legal obligation to meet its commitments to remove used/spent fuel and high-level wastes.

And that really is the heart of it. Legalistic responses just don’t cut it with a fed up public. If Obama is about change, then this is a paradigm that needs it.

& & &

The Commission and its staff are interested in hearing from anyone who would like to provide comment on this report. The Commission will use the report and the comments received to help guide its examination of options as it develops a draft set of recommendations for the Secretary. The Commission hasn’t yet written its recommendations, thought it must do so soon as they are due in draft in July 2011.

Prior coverage