How do you solve a problem like nuclear waste? How do you hold a moonbeam in your hand? We’ll leave it for the von Trapp family to solve the latter, but as to the first question, President Obama has entrusted a group of nuclear insiders to find answers for the United States. Their official name is the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future and they’ve got a big task ahead.
“We were asked to examine how one handles the used fuel that results from nuclear power reactors in the United States,” says Richard Meserve, a former chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and current member of the Blue Ribbon Commission (BRC). “We don’t have a complete system for being able to handle all that material now.”
The U.S. has been struggling with its legacy of nuclear waste for decades and a recent report from Need to Know examined the dilemma. By law, the Department of Energy (DOE) is obligated to dispose of the hazardous radioactive material, but political and scientific debates have stymied resolution. “There was a promise that was made by the federal government to remove this material,” says Meserve. “And the federal government as yet has not been able to fulfill its commitment.”
In the meantime, utility customers who get their electricity from nuclear power plants are shouldering extra costs for on-site waste storage. And it’s not just those ratepayers shelling out: To date, nuclear power companies across the country have filed more than 70 lawsuits against the federal government for breach of contract and, in many cases, they’re winning. So far, the U.S. government owes $2 billion in judgments and settlements and the Department of Energy estimates that number could reach over $13 billion by 2021. Payouts come from the U.S. Treasury’s Judgment Fund – money supplied by taxpayers.
It’s a problem with no clear end in sight. In February, President Obama declared, “To meet our growing energy needs and prevent the worst consequences of climate change, we’ll need to increase our supply of nuclear power. It’s that simple.” In the same speech, he announced more than $8 billion in loan guarantees to build two new nuclear reactors at a power plant in Georgia. If constructed, they’ll be the first in nearly three decades.
But the budget that included that $8 billion nuclear kickstart also took money off the table for Yucca Mountain, the Nevada site of a proposed nuclear waste dump. So, with some $10 billion spent on Yucca and (hopefully) some lessons learned, the country is back to the drawing board in terms of solutions. The Obama administration is banking on Richard Meserve and his BRC colleagues — including former National Security Advisor Gen. Brent Scowcroft and Lee Hamiltion, of the 9/11 Commission — to resolve the waste issue before a new generation of nuclear power plants exacerbates the problem further.
The BRC won’t release their draft report until next year and neither the commissioners nor the Department of Energy are giving a sneak peek at their final recommendations. But culled from meeting transcripts and an interview with Richard Meserve, Need to Know outlines some key issues the panel is considering.