Blue Ribbon Commission on Nuclear Energy Misses Chance at Real Reform

Jack Spencer /

The President’s Blue Ribbon Commission (BRC) on America’s Nuclear Future released its final report late last week. It provides a thoughtful overview of how America’s nuclear waste policy has evolved since the mid-20th century, but the report’s final recommendations largely fall short.

Essentially, the commission accepted the underlying structure of America’s current system of nuclear waste management. Given this assumption, the report’s recommendations are reasonable. Unfortunately, the quagmire that has become America’s system of nuclear waste management needs more than a nip here or a tuck there. The entire system needs reform, and the BRC missed an opportunity to provide that.

On the positive side, the BRC acknowledged that the U.S. has an enduring need for a deep geologic repository and called for prompt efforts to develop it. Its recommendations for a consensus-based approach to siting new nuclear waste management facilities are well placed. Though it did not consider Yucca Mountain per Secretary of Energy Steven Chu’s request, it did acknowledge the project and put its current status in a useful context. The BRC should have, however, been bolder on Yucca by recommending that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission finish its review of the project. This could have been done without crossing the Secretary’s request and would have been justified, given the broad support voiced by stakeholders through the hearing process.

One of the BRC’s central recommendations is for Congress to create a new government entity to manage nuclear waste. It concludes that the Department of Energy (DOE), which is currently responsible for waste management, is not equipped for the task. Although DOE has unquestionably failed in its obligation to dispose of nuclear waste, simply removing it from the equation oversimplifies the problem and the solution.

Private nuclear plants produce waste, but under current law, the federal government is responsible for managing it. This removes the incentive for the nuclear utilities to have any interest in how the waste is managed, because the federal government is wholly responsible. Despite its legal obligation to remove waste—and ongoing collection of the nuclear waste fee—the government has collected zero waste.

This misalignment of incentives, responsibilities, and authorities is the problem—and the BRC suggests nothing to fix that. The nuclear industry, which is fully capable of running safe nuclear power plants, is likewise fully capable of managing its own waste and should have the responsibility to do so.

The examples the BRC uses are similar because in each case, the waste producer is responsible for waste management, whether the producer is the government or private industry. In Japan, Sweden, and Finland, the nuclear utilities—not the government—created new organizations to manage waste. In France, it is true that nuclear waste entities are government-based, but so is the majority of the French nuclear industry. The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant that the BRC report references as an example of American waste management success follows the same pattern. That facility is government-run, and it holds government defense waste. Even though the BRC held these up as examples, it seemed to miss the fact that all these producers were responsible for their own waste.

The BRC also makes major recommendations on how nuclear waste is financed.

Currently, utilities pay a set fee to the federal government for waste disposal. From a utility standpoint, waste management costs are represented by the fee. The problem is that the fee is not tethered to any specific service, but rather to a 30-year-old estimate of what politicians thought waste disposal might cost. Tying the fee to an outdated estimate rather than to the actual costs of waste management removes any incentive for the waste producer to seek better alternatives, as actual costs may be greater than the fee. Accurate pricing would provide an incentive for waste producers to seek the most economical solution and allow service providers to compete for that business.

The BRC rejects this market-based approach and instead attempts to modify the current system. Because it relies on the same basic structure, the inefficiencies it is trying to fix will eventually reemerge.

Ultimately, the BRC provides useful insights for policymakers on the history of nuclear waste management and some helpful recommendations. But to be successful, the following should be integrated into any nuclear waste management reform effort:

The BRC provided a thoughtful and accurate analysis of issues surrounding nuclear waste management in the United States. Indeed, the report should be required reading for anyone interested in the topic. However, the basic assumptions underpinning the American system of nuclear waste management need to be replaced, and the BRC falls short on that.