The Blue Ribbon Commission calls for interim storage and finding a new geologic repository, but nixes reprocessing as a near term strategy

peach pieA council of wise men and women is Washington is almost always called a “Blue Ribbon Commission,” which may make its members feel like a slice of prize peach pie at the county fair.

This one, appointed by Department of Energy Secretary Steven Chu, has the unenviable job of making a silk pursue out of Nevada Senator Harry Reid’s adamant opposition to opening the Yucca Mountain site.

For his part, President Obama, who needs Reid to do heavy legislative lifting in the Senate, and support in Nevada for the 2012 election, has purposely shown all the signs of having a tin ear when comes to the spent fuel issue.

The report uses sharply worded language to describe the current situation with its ongoing political and economic costs. One senses impatience that perhaps the BRC could have done more with its charter.

The Blue Ribbon Commission’s draft report released today contains little that could not be written on the day of its first meeting in January 2010. The draft report calls for several well understood actions. These are useful recommendations. Most of this work could be accomplished in the next five-to-ten years.

  • Set up interim storage at one or more locations, any place but Yucca mountain. Charter an off-the-books federal corporation, funded by waste fees, to pay for management of spent fuel.
  • Find a deep geological site to put the stuff.
  • Conduct R&D on reprocessing and fast reactors.
  • Do the work consistent with the nation’s nonproliferation objectives.

More kicking the can down the road

spent fuel canistersThe BRC noted that it sees “no unmanageable safety or security risks associated with current methods of storage” in the U.S. This is the essence of the charge the BRC has kicked the can down the road leaving nuclear utilities holding the bag, so to speak, with wet and dry at reactor storage of spent fuel.

The situation could remain unchanged for decades or longer. Spent fuel can be moved to dry cask storage after cooling off for about five years. The dry casks have expected lifetimes of up to 150 years.

The BRC is full of very smart people, and not just in the technical realm. The BRC is chaired by former Democratic congressman Lee Hamilton and Brent Scowcroft, the national security advisor to President George H.W. Bush. The other 13 members are also very smart which is why you wind up scratching you head. Aside from from obvious process steps for site selection, and organizational work to get the waste fund and people to manage it out of DOE, we’re still pretty much where we were when they started work.

The numbers they are dealing remain rather astonishing including payment of $25 billion into the waste fund, and over 60,000 tons of spent fuel with another 2,000 tons being added every year to the national inventory. In addition to the 104 operating reactors, spent fuel is stored at dry casks at another 10 reactors that were closed in prior years.

While the BRC’s recommendations are relatively noncontroversial, especially in terms of site selection process, acceptance in Congress could be a rough trip. House republicans have repeatedly attacked the Obama administration over the delay in the NRC’s review of the license application for Yucca mountain. The White House position is that interim and final storage is OK for any place that accepts the sites as long as they’re not in Nevada.

Missing the boat on reprocessing

Reprocessing is a nonstarter with the BRC. However, it seems to be recommending creation of a perpetual R&D sandbox for advanced reactor technologies and reprocessing methods. This is a significant blind spot as more than three dozen reactors globally now run on MOX fuel. Even former NRC Chairman Dale Klein told the AAAS last February reprocessing has promise. Did the BRC even talk to him?

A more innovative approach would have been to assess some of the available technology roadmaps and licensing challenges of building a 800 tonne/year facility as a first step toward a significant investment in reprocessing as a change to the way we deal with spent fuel.

The BRC will accept comments through October and submit a final report in January 2012.