NUCLEAR WASTE:

Former Rep. Hamilton, Brent Scowcroft to lead study panel

The Obama administration today announced members of a study commission charged with finding alternatives to the planned Yucca Mountain, Nev., nuclear-waste repository.

Energy Secretary Steven Chu said the commission will review policies for managing the storage of spent nuclear fuel and waste. "These issues are solvable in a manner that will gain the confidence of the American people," he said, "and this panel will help find those solutions and build a consensus for a responsible path forward."

The 15-member panel will be co-chaired by former Rep. Lee Hamilton (D-Ind.), who served as vice chairman of the 9/11 Commission, and Brent Scowcroft, a former Air Force general and national security adviser to Presidents Ford and George H.W. Bush. Other members of the panel include former legislators; former regulators at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and Nuclear Regulatory Commission; and industry, nongovernmental organization and academic leaders.

The other panel members:

  • Mark Ayers, president of the building and construction trades department at AFL-CIO.
  • Vicky Bailey, former FERC member and former DOE assistant secretary for policy and international affairs.
  • Albert Carnesale, chancellor emeritus and professor at UCLA.
  • Former Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), a senior fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center.
  • Susan Eisenhower, president of the Eisenhower Group.
  • Former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.).
  • Jonathan Lash, president of the World Resources Institute.
  • Allison Macfarlane, environmental science and policy professor at George Mason University.
  • Dick Meserve, former chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
  • Ernie Moniz, physics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
  • Per Peterson, nuclear engineering professor and chairman at the University of California-Berkeley.
  • John Rowe, chairman and CEO of Exelon Corp.
  • Phil Sharp, president of Resources for the Future.

"We've put together a distinguished panel of nuclear experts, geologists, policymakers and regulators who will be focused on solutions rather than ideology," Chu told reporters. "The best available science will inform their work at every step."

Yucca not an option

The commission, established through executive branch authority, will prepare an interim report within 18 months and present a final report to the Energy secretary within two years, Chu said. The DOE chief will take the report to the president and Congress.

In a memo today calling for establishment of the commission, Obama said the panel "should include an evaluation of advanced fuel cycle technologies that would optimize energy recovery, resource utilization and the minimization of materials derived from nuclear activities" and consider a range of technological and policy alternatives.

"We're asking the commission to take a step back and take a broad view of what we know today and what we can expect to be learning in the coming decades rather than comment on anything else or criticize anything else," Chu said. He reiterated that the Yucca Mountain facility was not an option and would not be considered by the commission.

"The debate over Yucca Mountain is over, as the president has made clear many times," White House energy adviser Carol Browner said. "We need to be looking at alternatives."

The White House drastically cut funding for the Yucca Mountain site in its fiscal 2010 budget request and is expected to cut that amount even further in its fiscal 2011 request, which will be released Monday.

The president will likely propose to lower funding levels to about $50 million from $98 million in fiscal 2010 and $145 million in 2009. There has been some disagreement between Office of Management and Budget Director Peter Orszag and Chu about how much funding was needed to properly close the project (Greenwire, Jan. 14).

So far, there has been no decision whether to pull the DOE repository license application for Yucca Mountain from its review by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Pulling the license could expose the government to lawsuits for breach of contract for not beginning to take the waste from commercial reactors in 1998. The government has already paid millions of dollars to utilities for partial breach of contract.

Reactions

Most industry leaders and many lawmakers applauded the creation and makeup of the commission.

"It is important that we come up with responsible, alternative solutions to safely deal with nuclear waste in this country, and Yucca Mountain is not the answer," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), a foe of the Yucca Mountain project. "This panel of experts proposing other options for nuclear waste is the logical next step in that process."

Said Marvin Fertel, president and CEO of the Nuclear Energy Institute, "NEI is pleased that the Department of Energy acknowledges the federal government's statutory and contractual obligations to remove used nuclear fuel from commercial nuclear energy plants. Electric utilities and users of nuclear-generated electricity have lived up to their obligations under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, supplying $30 billion since the early 1980s for this program."

But nuclear foes expressed disappointment in the panel's makeup.

"The commission faces a huge credibility problem," said Susan Gordon, director of the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability, in a statement. "It includes no one from communities downstream and downwind of major nuclear weapons sites."

She added, "We are concerned that the commission membership includes a majority of people whose past experience is to support putting waste in someone else's backyard rather than safely managing it at the generator site."

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