WASHINGTON — After two years of deliberations, a presidential commission told a House subcommittee Wednesday what has been undoable for the past 30 years — the United States needs a new agency with the authority to dispose of nuclear waste.
Members of the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future advised the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee to put in place an eight-point strategy that it spelled out in a final report to Energy Secretary Steven Chu. Among the proposals: formation of a “new organization dedicated solely to implementing the waste management program and empowered with the authority and resources to succeed” and also “prompt efforts to develop one or more geologic disposal facilities.”
Former Indiana Rep. Lee Hamilton, co-chairman of the Blue Ribbon Commission, said changes in nuclear waste policy are long overdue. He said the United States cannot claim to be a leader in nuclear power if it cannot manage the waste.
“The Unites States has traveled nearly 25 years down the current path only to come to a point where continuing to rely on the same approach seems destined to bring further controversy, litigation, and protracted delay, and most of all not a solution,” Hamilton said.
The group also suggested a “consent-based approach” for future storage of nuclear waste as a way to avoid events similar to the 2010 cancellation of plans to store waste in Yucca Mountain, Nevada.
The Yucca Mountain site was selected by Congress in 1987 and deemed suitable for usage by the Department of Energy in 2002. However, after more reviews, the Department of Energy asked the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to remove the site’s licensing. The NRC refused. After quarreling between the NRC and Energy Department, President Obama created the commission to find a solution to long-term nuclear waste storage.
The commission recommended the “consent-based approach” to protect the rights of communities near nuclear waste facilities. Nevada had objected to the Yucca Mountain facility, but Congress overrode its objection. Even today, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., is one of the most outspoken critics to the site.
Hamilon said the “consent-based approach” would create an environment where communities might be more willing to house the facilities. Nuclear waste facilities offer incentives to communities, including jobs. For instance, subcommittee chairman John Shimkus, R-Ill., said construction at Yucca Mountain would employ 2,600 workers. He also said the Department of Energy estimates 7,000 indirect jobs could be created by the facility.
“The test of consent will be whether you can reach an agreement,” Hamilton said.
Shimkus praised the commission’s report for recommending that “control of the nuclear waste fund to be removed from the purse strings of political ideologues.”
Retired Gen. Brent Scrowcroft, co-chairman of the commission, said they did not make a recommendation on whether to open the Yucca Mountain site because America’s long-term nuclear strategy will need more than one storage facility. He said the commission members “discussed a process” that will be able to evaluate and review Yucca Mountain and other sites for nuclear waste storage. Chu told the group it was not to recommend a specific site.
“Regardless of what happens with Yucca Mountain, the U.S. inventory of spent nuclear fuel will soon exceed the amount that can be legally emplaced at this site until a second repository is in operation,” Scrowcroft said.
During questioning by Shimkus, Scrowcroft acknowledged that the report by the commission does not close the possibility of using the Yucca Mountain facility.