The Secretary of Energy’s request that the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future not consider Yucca Mountain has been debatable from the beginning. After all, America’s electricity ratepayers have already invested over $10 billion into the repository. And besides that, federal statute clearly states that Yucca Mountain will be the nation’s repository. Whether or not that is the best policy, it is the law. Ignoring this investment and federal statute seemed like bad policy from the start.
However, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission changed what seemed to be bad policy to definitive bad policy on April 6 when it announced that it will not consider the Department of Energy’s motion to withdraw its application to construct Yucca until related lawsuits, which question the legality of DOE’s motion, are settled. Given that such lawsuits could take years to resolve, ignoring Yucca in light of this development would undermine the Commission’s credibility. The fact is that the Commission could well finish its safety review and be prepared to authorize Yucca’s construction by the time the courts finish their business and if the courts decide that DOE’s motion is illegal, then any Commission recommendation that ignores Yucca would be moot.
That is not to say that the Commission was not going to consider Yucca anyway. It is made up of inquisitive professionals who clearly want to resolve a decade old problem and it is staffed by extremely intelligent and able individuals. That said, the Secretary’s charge to not consider Yucca comes with considerable weight and the Commission surely would prefer to follow his guidance. However, the NRC’s decision should provide the Commission with adequate justification to respectfully decline the Secretary’s request to ignore Yucca.
Considering Yucca, however, does not mean recommending Yucca. The Commission should first come to a conclusion about Yucca Mountain’s viability. If it determines that Yucca is not technically viable, then it should simply defend that conclusion. However, if the commission concludes that it is viable and still determines that Yucca Mountain is not fit for nuclear waste disposal, then it should also state why that site should not be part of a comprehensive national nuclear waste disposition strategy and put forth a detailed recommendation on how to disengage from the program.
On the other hand, the Commission could well conclude that Yucca is feasible and should be considered. Under this scenario, the Commission could bring high value to the debate but putting forth recommendations on how to ameliorate the underlying issues that have stifled Yucca’s progress, such as how to make Nevada a true partner in the process. One idea might be to consider making the license available to a third party, such as a private sector non-profit or even the state of Nevada. The new license holder could then negotiate a workable solution that would fully represent the interests of all parities. This process of negotiation was absent from the original decision to name Yucca the waste repository site. If no workable path forward is developed, then Yucca dies on Nevada’s terms. If an agreement could be reached, then Nevada could enjoy the many economic benefits of hosting such a facility.
By slowing the Administration’s sprint to kill Yucca Mountain, the NRC has provided all parties an opportunity to think through the best policy solution moving forward. The Blue Ribbon Commission should grasp this opportunity to provide a truly comprehensive set of recommendations. Only by considering all options will the Commission truly be able to put the best set of recommendations forward.