The Department of Energy finally announced the formation of its blue-ribbon commission on nuclear waste. The commission, co-chaired by former Indiana Congressman Lee Hamilton and former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft has been charged with reviewing the nation’s nuclear waste policies and providing recommendations for moving forward.

If carried out properly, the commission could provide an historic opportunity, helping the U.S. set a new approach for managing its nuclear waste. Despite the broad support that nuclear energy currently enjoys, until the nation comes up with an economically rational and sustainable nuclear waste solution, the promise of a nuclear renaissance will not be fulfilled. To take advantage of this opportunity, the commission should:

Look at All Options for Waste Disposal, Including Geologic Storage. Unfortunately, anti-Yucca Mountain political pressure has plagued the nation’s nuclear waste disposal program nearly since its inception. Indeed, it is largely this political pressure that has brought about the need for the commission to begin with. At a minimum, if the panel deems geologic storage important, it should be permitted to say so, and if it deems Yucca the most appropriate place to do it, it should explain why. This should include specific consideration of why Yucca may or may not be feasible for reasons other than technical ones. If, however, the commission is not allowed to even look at geologic storage generally or Yucca Mountain specifically, its findings will be tainted from the beginning.

Recommend How to Specifically Resolve the Yucca Mountain Impasse. The commission should first make a technical and scientific conclusion about Yucca Mountain’s viability based on the data available. 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, including how to repay to ratepayers the $8 billion in sunk costs.

Refrain from Recommending Specific Technological Solutions. The commission’s mandate should not be to determine what technology should be employed to carry out any specific function. Nuclear operators should be responsible for these decisions, because they have the greatest interests in developing a workable solution. Ultimately, their ability to operate reactors depends on having a long-term waste management strategy. Dictating such outcomes would limit the nation’s future options, be anti-competitive, and stifle future innovation. Instead, the commission should investigate a broad range of technological solutions, the timeframes in which they could be viable, and what regulatory structures would have to be in place to support their development.

Focus on Systems, Regimes, Responsibilities, and Approaches. The commission’s primary objective should be to identify options for who should be responsible for waste management, alternative financing options, and bureaucratic reforms. These options should include:

• How to improve the current approach, in which the government retains responsibility for waste management;
• How the government and private sector might share responsibility for waste management; and
• How full responsibility for waste management could be transferred to the private sector.

For each approach, the commission should identify pros and cons, obstacles to success, and regulatory reforms that would be needed to carry out that approach. Being mandated to consider multiple options will force the commission to think about alternatives that might otherwise be ignored. It will also prevent entrenched or influential interests whose agenda might be served by one approach from taking over the process.