After several years of treading water, there has been significant movement on nuclear waste management, though when it comes to the Obama Administration’s plans, the movement isn’t in the right direction.

Speaking at the Bipartisan Policy Center, Department of Energy (DOE) Secretary Ernest Moniz again confirmed the Administration’s commitment to its “Strategy for the Management and Disposal of Used Nuclear Fuel and High-level Radioactive Waste,” a policy paper the Administration proposed as a long-term plan for nuclear waste management. This is in spite of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act’s established plan for a permanent repository at Yucca Mountain. According to Moniz, the Administration will move forward with a plan to solicit one or more sites from states for pilot interim storage and full-scale nuclear waste disposal. According to Moniz, the Administration has no authority to execute its plan beyond this without congressional direction.

Moniz also announced that the DOE would be pursuing a “parallel track” to manage defense nuclear waste separately from waste produced by commercial reactors, which supply roughly 19 percent of the nation’s electricity. The announcement was accompanied by a memorandum by President Obama citing the very law that he has consistently ignored in abandoning Yucca Mountain as the source of his authority to separate defense and commercial waste. Under current law, the DOE is responsible for managing both commercial and defense waste. Both announcements continue to move the nation further away from a viable, long-term nuclear waste management system.

The Administration’s plan carries with it the same basic problems as when it was first proposed: Building interim storage facilities only solves the government’s immediate problem. Moving waste off commercial reactor sites, as the government promised to do by 1998, stems the cost to the government of further delays and liability, which Moniz priced at $4 billion already and projected at $23 billion over the next 50 years in settlements with nuclear power plants. But it sets back the clock on the permanent repository that the nation needs. Under the current system, a DOE interim storage plan ignores and detracts from the plan already established and well underway at Yucca Mountain, which has been deemed technologically safe by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Further, dealing with defense waste separately from commercial waste again dilutes the government’s incentive for any real reform. As long as the federal government is responsible for nuclear waste, defense and commercial waste management should be treated together, as anything less than comingling the two allows the government to continue kicking the commercial cask further down the road. If the Administration wanted to separate defense and commercial waste management, the appropriate way to do so would have been to give utilities control of waste management decisions.

Most important, the Administration’s strategy does nothing to fix the fundamental problems with nuclear waste management. It merely gives the impression of progress while taking away from the ability to create a long-term solutions.

Hints at Fixing the Problem

Moniz’s reasoning for separating defense waste from commercial waste hinted at what the problem and solution could be to nuclear waste management. Moniz reasoned that defense waste should be treated separately in part because:

  • There have been significant scheduling and licensing delays in establishing a federal repository at Yucca Mountain, which have driven costs up significantly; and
  • Separating defense and commercial waste would create greater flexibility for managing defense waste, allowing different management pathways for different types of spent defense nuclear fuel, some of which is less radioactive and lends itself to simpler disposal options.

The problem with that approach now is that federal responsibility for management and disposal of all nuclear waste—even waste created from commercial activities—has turned business and engineering questions into a political quagmire. The consequence has been costs to ratepayers and taxpayers that have amounted to no management service from the government to date. The answer would be to allow for a diversity of management solutions for producers of nuclear waste. Instead of choosing specific management solutions and working backward as Moniz proposed for defense waste, the government should be looking to create an environment that allows for diverse management solutions to be created and offered. The keys to such a system are:

  • Properly aligning responsibilities and authorities.Those who benefit from waste production (utilities, medical industry, U.S. government, etc.) should also responsible for managing the waste that they produce.
  • Providing policy and regulatory certainty. Waste producers must be allowed to carry out safe waste management operations in a predictable, fair, and efficient regulatory and policy environment.
  • Connecting prices paid to services provided. Connecting fees paid to services actually rendered will provide critical data to waste producers and service suppliers that will bring innovation, efficiency, and rationality to the system.
  • Allowing for competition. Waste producers must be free to purchase waste management services from multiple suppliers.

The beginnings of such a robust system can be seen in the Waste Control Specialists’ announced intentions to pursue a permit to manage waste as a private company. Pursued along with Yucca Mountain, Waste Control Specialists offers pieces currently missing from the system like a meaningful price attached to a delivered service. Moniz described this option of privately offered management as “creative” and worth a “serious look.”

The notion that politicians and bureaucrats can centrally plan something as complicated as nuclear waste management is as outdated as Moniz thinks the Cold War policy of comingling commercial and defense waste is. Outside of high-level nuclear waste management, the commercial nuclear industry has experienced success thanks to the private sector and international marketplace. It’s time to let it bring that same success to nuclear waste management.