The Obama administration’s rhetoric on nuclear energy has been promising.  Unfortunately, actions speak louder than words and his decision to attempt to kill the waste repository program at Yucca Mountain without a workable replacement speaks volumes. Not only has the nation spent nearly $10 billion on the project, but no technical or scientific justifications were provided.  The president and his administration excuse their decision by simply stating that it is “unworkable.”

To develop a replacement program for Yucca, the President appointed the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future to analyze the current state of nuclear waste disposal and put forth recommendations for consideration by 2012.  Yet the past failure of the government to prevent the current situation raises doubt about the ability of the Commission to solve the problem effectively.  How much will legislative red tape slow the process?  And will the next administration once again prove the devastating unpredictability of politics by sending researchers scurrying in an entirely new direction?  In order to discuss the Blue Ribbon Commission and the state of the nuclear renaissance, The Heritage Foundation held two panels of nuclear experts on June 9th.

The day began with a presentation by Tim Frazier of the Blue Ribbon Commission who recognized that the current nuclear waste disposal process cannot last indefinitely.  Frazier explained, “The question is; while we handle figuring out where the new geological repository is going to be, is there a better way to handle spent nuclear fuel?” The current storage dilemma was explained in detail by Panelist John Kessler. For now, the radioactive waste is stored at various facilities owned by nuclear companies.  Each plant is equipped with a used fuel storage pool where the fuel is kept once it is used in the reactor.  As the waste undergoes its natural radioactivity cycle and the original wet storage pools fill, the used fuel is shifted from wet storage to dry storage.  However, spent fuel pools are filling up quickly. Most storage facilities were designed to hold only enough waste to allow for the finding of and planning for a geological repository.  As Kessler explained, “the industry…assumed that within five years the used fuel that was going to sit in their spent fuel pools was going to be removed and moved on to reprocessing; hence a lot of the early power plants only had the capability to store about five years of fuel.”

Frazier emphasized that, even if no new nuclear plants are constructed, the U.S. Department of Energy predicts that there will still be more than 100,000 metric tons of used nuclear fuel by 2050.

With no disposal options remaining open under the current regime, the Blue Ribbon Commission has a difficult task ahead of it.  Dan Stout, Senior Manager of Government Affairs and Fuel Projects (Tennessee Valley Authority) stated that “The biggest challenge that the Blue Ribbon Commission will face is to put in place a stable policy, the kind that will endure”.  However, can a policy that is on one hand subject to sudden political transitions, and on the other tied up in legislative complications, be created with the perfect mixture of adaptability and consistency that will allow a solution to be uncovered?

This is why Stout as well as other guests emphasized the importance of defining a process.  Regardless of technology, most panelists agreed that the greatest contribution that the Commission could make is to recommend a bureaucratic infrastructure that would allow a waste management regime to emerge that is flexible, resilient, and sustainable.

Unfortunately, putting together a proposal is not the only challenge the Blue Ribbon Commission will face.  Another concern is public receptiveness to the Commission’s plan. Iain Murray, vice president of strategy for the Competitive Enterprise Institute, who submitted comments but was unable to attend the panel, suggested that holding forums and round-table discussions would be essential in legitimizing the Commission’s proposals in the public eye.  He cited a similar situation already encountered by the British Committee on Radioactive Waste Management; “Citizens panels and school projects where previously uninformed individuals were able to learn about the issues in depth came to different conclusions about geological disposal than the so-called stakeholder groups, made up of special interest groups.  The citizens’ panels, schools projects and discussion guide users all came to strong majority views that geological disposal should form part of the overall strategy.”

When asked if the Blue Ribbon Commission had any plans to educate the public, Tim Frazier stated; “That would be a pretty tall order…It’s not in the charter that there will be any sort of education program.”  A small investment in public education could help solidify the Commission’s ultimate recommendations.

Unfortunately, public perceptions are important for public issues and it may be time to transition waste management out of the public sphere altogether. Indeed, there was a general consensus that regardless of how nuclear waste is handled, the injection of some market forces could be valuable in guiding the process.

Jack Spencer, the Nuclear Energy Policy Research Fellow at The Heritage Foundation offered a market solution based on privatization for nuclear waste management:

The basic fact of the matter is that the waste producers should have the economic interest to come up with a solution.  They also have the know-how to do it.  Yet they are not responsible for it.  That, to me, is a fundamental flaw in how we do nuclear waste today,” he stated. “We’re building business models around only 2/3 of the fuel cycle.

Panelist Gary Wolfram agreed, and indicated that with “clear rules to the game”—a consistent legal process—the free market could come up with a solution.  Putting the nuclear industry in charge of its own waste management is a step towards reaching the best balance of different disposal options.

Others, such as Dan Stout offered a different solution.  He believes that a public-private partnership in the form of a federal corporation shows promise.  Such an approach would have the benefit of alleviating the Department of Energy of its waste management responsibilities.  While not espoused by Stout one way or the other, it would also offer a good intermediate step towards full privatization.

With privatization, entrepreneurs would have a greater incentive than the Blue Ribbon Commission to quickly discover other means of waste disposal—solutions that are less costly and more efficient—because they would be rewarded directly on the basis of merit.  The quality of their discoveries would be driven by competition and could be measured through profit and loss, a market phenomenon to which the Blue Ribbon Commission would not be subjected.

Both panel sessions are available here.

Kelsey Huber is currently a member of the Young Leaders Program at the Heritage Foundation. For more information on interning at Heritage, please visit: