Friday, January 29, 2010

Chu names blue ribbon panel on spent nuclear fuel

The group has real expertise. Let’s hope they do real work and don’t hand it off to staff.

DOE logoSecretary of Energy Steven Chu announced Jan 29 a Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future. The Commission, led by Lee Hamilton and Brent Scowcroft, will provide recommendations on managing spent

nuclear fuel and fission waste products.

In its first year in office, the Obama administration decided not to proceed with the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository. This was a political decision based on pressure from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) Reid also saw to it that funding was gutted for review of the license application by the NRC.

The President needs Reid to move his major legislative initiatives through the Senate so the most expedient thing to do is punt with a favorite tool for putting a contentious issue on hold - appoint a blue ribbon commission to study the issue. By the time it reports back, Reid may be gone, a victim of the 2010 mid-term elections, or the president will have gotten what he needs from Reid, and can try to make sense out of the issue instead of being hamstrung over it.

One of the reported reasons for the delay in naming the members of the panel was that some experts simply disagreed with Obama's decision to take the Yucca Mountain site off the table. Presumably, the current members announced today do not have these reservations.

StevenChu_at_G8 The President directed Secretary Chu (left) (Whitehouse memo) to establish the commission to conduct a comprehensive review of policies for managing the back end of the nuclear fuel cycle. The commission will provide advice and make recommendations on issues including alternatives for the storage, processing, and disposal of civilian and defense spent nuclear fuel and nuclear waste.

The official statements from the White House and the Energy Dept. are full of worthy sound bites about the justification for the panel. Chu led off with this one.

“Nuclear energy provides clean, safe, reliable power and has an important role to play as we build a low-carbon future. The Administration is committed to promoting nuclear power in the United States and developing a safe, long-term solution for the management of used nuclear fuel and nuclear waste."

Carol Browner, Assistant to the President for Energy and Climate Change, said as the world moves to tackle climate change and diversify the nation's energy portfolio, nuclear energy will play a vital role.

“Today, the Obama Administration has taken an important step. With the creation of the Blue Ribbon Commission, we are bringing together leading experts from around the country to ensure a safe and sustainable nuclear energy future.”

"Finding an acceptable long-term solution to our used nuclear fuel and nuclear waste storage needs is vital to the economic, environmental and security interests of the United States," said Congressman Lee Hamilton.

"This will be a thorough, comprehensive review based on the best available science. I'm looking forward to working with the many distinguished experts on this panel to achieve a consensus on the best path forward."

“As the United States responds to climate change and moves forward with a long overdue expansion of nuclear energy, we also need to work together to find a responsible, long-term strategy to deal with the leftover fuel and nuclear waste," said General Brent Scowcroft. "

The Commission is made up of 15 members who have a range of expertise and experience in nuclear issues, including scientists, industry representatives, and respected former elected officials.

Timeframe for action

2x4 profile The Commission will produce an interim report within 18 months and a final report within 24 months. Getting it done by then, and having real substance in the recommendations, will take significant persuasion by the panel’s co-chairs. One early test of whether even the panel members take it seriously will be attendance at the first meeting. If it is full of flunkies instead of the principals, you can stop paying attention.

The timeframe for the draft report puts it at June 2011 which is nine months after the mid-term elections to be held in November 2010. Assuming the report comes in on time, it will need to make budget recommendations for the President’s FY2012 budget if it is to have near-term impact.

Some of the panel’s recommendations could take decades to work themselves out. For instance, assuming the panel addresses an R&D path forward for fast reactors, the first facilities might not be built until the mid-2020 timeframe or later.

Senate Republicans endorse the panel

U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Republican Conference, issued a statement endorsing U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu’s announcement of the formation of a Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future to provide recommendations for developing a safe, long-term solution to managing the nation’s used nuclear fuel and nuclear waste.

“This commission and the president’s endorsement of a new generation of nuclear power plants are welcome steps that will enable the United States to catch up with the rest of the world in building the most reliable way to produce cheap, carbon-free electricity.

If the president’s budget, as rumored, also increases loan guarantees for new nuclear plants, that would be a third significant step. This will help put our country on a course toward a low-cost, clean-energy future and move us away from a national windmill policy that has been the energy equivalent of going to war in sailboats.”

The president’s proposed budget for FY2011 is expected to include an increase in the currently authorized level of loan guarantees for nuclear power from $18.5 to $54 billion. These loan guarantees would enable utilities to lower the cost of financing and cost the taxpayer little to nothing when the loans are paid back.

Alexander has been a strong advocate of increasing the nation's use of nuclear energy. Last year he proposed building 100 new reactors in the next two decades to slow the growth of greenhouse gases.

Panel member bios

Lee Hamilton, Co-Chair

Lee Hamilton represented Indiana's 9th congressional district from January 1965-January 1999. During his time in Congress, Hamilton served as the ranking member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, and chaired the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. He is currently president and director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and director of The Center on Congress at Indiana University.

He is a member of the President's Intelligence Advisory Board and the President's Homeland Security Advisory Council. Previously, Hamilton served as Vice Chairman of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (the 9/11 Commission).

Brent Scowcroft, Co-Chair

Brent Scowcroft is President of The Scowcroft Group, an international business advisory firm. He has served as the National Security Advisor to both Presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush. From 1982 to 1989, he was Vice Chairman of Kissinger Associates, Inc., an international consulting firm.

Scowcroft served in the military for 29 years, and concluded at the rank of Lieutenant General following service as the Deputy National Security Advisor. Out of uniform, he continued in a public policy capacity by serving on the President's Advisory Committee on Arms Control, the Commission on Strategic Forces, and the President's Special Review Board, also known as the Tower Commission.

Mark Ayers, President, Building and Construction Trades Department, AFL-CIO

Vicky Bailey, Former Commissioner, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission;
Former IN PUC Commissioner; Former Department of Energy Assistant Secretary for Policy and International Affairs

Albert Carnesale, Chancellor Emeritus and Professor, UCLA

Pete V. Domenici, Senior Fellow, Bipartisan Policy Center; former U.S. Senator (R-NM)

Susan Eisenhower, President, Eisenhower Group

Chuck Hagel, Former U.S. Senator (R-NE)

Jonathan Lash, President, World Resources Institute

Allison Macfarlane, Associate Professor of Environmental Science and Policy, George Mason University

Dick Meserve, Former Chairman, Nuclear Regulatory Commission

Ernie Moniz, Professor of Physics and Cecil & Ida Green Distinguished Professor, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Per Peterson, Professor and Chair, Department of Nuclear Engineering, University of California – Berkeley

John Rowe, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Exelon Corporation

Phil Sharp, President, Resources for the Future

# # #


Anonymous said...

So basically a panel of people with no technical knowledge of the issue?

These sort of issues need to be solved by people who have worked in the field for decades, not politicians, think tankers and college professors

Paul said...

I can't agree with the previous poster. There are several very competent and highly respected scientists and technical policy leaders on the BRC. In my career I have had the opportunity to interact with most of the people in this group. While their basic knowledge and understanding of issues may vary, I think all understand the importance of the charter. More importantly, from my point of view, I am pretty confident that if there is an effort to skew or distort findings, these people are not afraid to shout it out.

Marcel F. Williams said...

I think this is good news. Yucca is a terrible solution, IMO, because it sends out the wrong message that spent fuel is waste instead of an excellent source of nuclear fuel.

Personally, I prefer storing spent fuel,until it is recycled in above ground cask at Federal repositories located in every state that produces spent fuel and nuclear waste material from commercial nuclear reactors and military facilities. Such Federal repositories could be easily protected and could safely store the tiny amounts of residual radioactive waste for a century or two until final deposition or transmutation in the future.

Anonymous said...

I agree only it does not have to be in every state. shipping spent fuel across state lines would be a small cost in such storage sites.