The Obama administration's 2011 budget proposal gives its distinctive endorsement to a revival of American nuclear power.
"We are working hard to restart the American nuclear power industry," Energy Secretary Steven Chu said yesterday, calling it a key part of the nation's response to the climate threat.
As reported last week, the administration wants to triple the size of the Energy Department's loan guarantee program to $54 billion, which could support the construction of seven to 10 new reactors, Chu said, if their designs are approved and the developers raise their share of the capital. The first two conditional loan guarantee awards should be made soon, the department says.
The loan guarantee projects should demonstrate whether new reactors can be built on time and on budget, Chu said. After that, the industry should be able to expand without major federal support, he added yesterday. That position promises to provoke debate with the nuclear industry and congressional supporters, who are seeking long-running federal support for new reactors.
The 2011 budget also denies funding for the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository in Nevada, and Chu said the administration will withdraw the facility's license application at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission over the next month.
The Yucca Mountain decision formalizes the position that President Obama took in the 2008 presidential campaign for Nevada's primary. It means that a growing volume of used reactor fuel assemblies will have to be stored for decades at some 60 reactor sites, as they are now, until new nuclear fuel cycle technologies and policies are developed that can win Congress' support.
It also means that the federal government will pile up continuing heavy financial obligations to nuclear plant operators, since the government will remain in violation of its legal requirement to take spent fuel off the operators' hands, under the 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act.
Blue Ribbon Commission will not pick waste sites
The Blue Ribbon Commission on nuclear waste policy, which Chu named last week, will not take up the politically charged question of where spent fuel ultimately might be stored, the secretary said. "It is not a siting commission," he said. Yucca Mountain is the only permanent storage option approved by Congress.
Chu noted that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has approved long-term, on-site fuel storage in water pools or in "dry cask" containers as a safe alternative to permanent central storage in a repository. "NRC has stipulated that the waste in dry cask storage will be safe for half a century, so that means there's time to take a deep breath -- and we know a lot more than we did in 1982 -- to really look at this dispassionately," Chu said.
Spent fuel assemblies are stored initially in water pools at the reactor sites for at least five years as the heat from nuclear reactions begins to dissipate. After that, assemblies can be placed in a closed cylinder, which is enclosed in an outer cask of metal or concrete, and kept at reactor sites.
Jim Warren, executive director of NC Warn, is part of a group of activists who have pressed the NRC to order utilities to move much more of the spent fuel from pools to dry cask storage and tighten security over spent fuel storage in other ways.
"It should be one of the top priorities for the commission, if not the top priority," Warren said. "It is a clear and present danger at more than 60 [reactor] facilities around the country. The potential for an accident in a pool is very, very low, but the probability of some act of malice is impossible to calculate."
The administration had been vetting names for the Blue Ribbon Commission for months, but it moved quickly last week to announce the 15 commission members in advance of the 2011 budget's release with action on the Yucca Mountain site.
Search for a way to shrink wastes
The commission is chaired by Lee Hamilton, a former Democratic House member from Indiana who is president of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington and was vice chairman of the 9/11 Commission, and Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser to presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush.
Chu declined yesterday to spell out the commission's charter.
"I'm not going to prejudge what the commission is going to look at," he said. In earlier interviews, Chu and Deputy Energy Secretary Dan Poneman described the commission's task as a wide-ranging review of new reactor technologies that could achieve a more complete "burn" of nuclear fuel, reducing the physical volume and high-level radioactive toxicity of the spent fuel assemblies, as well as investigating fuel cycle approaches that could reduce the risk of nuclear weapons proliferation.
"I would expect this Blue Ribbon Commission to take a broad look at how the pieces fit together and really look at it from all dimensions," Poneman said last month.
Some experts close to the issue say the commission faces a difficult dichotomy in choosing its long- and short-term policy targets.
On the one hand, Chu and senior DOE officials say there is plenty of time to develop new reprocessing or recycling strategies from an economic or a spent fuel storage perspective. A comprehensive nuclear fuel cycle study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, due to be released in several months, will make the same point, participants say.
Charles Ferguson of the Council on Foreign Relations agreed, in testimony to a congressional committee last June. "Time is on the side of the United States," he said. "There is no need to rush toward development and deployment of recycling of spent nuclear fuel." Currently, those approaches are far more expensive than the "once-through" fuel cycle approach in the United States, assuming mined uranium prices do not escalate.
Big questions about proliferation on the table
Nuclear power currently provides 20 percent of the nation's electricity, constituting by far the largest source of power without greenhouse gas emissions. Some of the key technology questions about possible new fuel cycles cannot be rushed, said Charles Forsberg, executive director of the MIT study. The effects of radiation on potential new fuel container materials must be studied over time, for example.
On the other hand, the 30-year-old U.S. policy position against reprocessing has not worked, other experts say, and on this front, time may be running out. Forsberg noted in a 2008 report that 33 countries have nuclear reactors and 40 countries are interested in constructing them. The commission may have to consider how much time and leverage the United States has to create new international non-proliferation agreements. Can the United States lead international efforts to keep countries with small nuclear programs from reprocessing, or promote reprocessing methods that are less risky?
These and many other questions should be on the table, Forsberg said. "What it comes down to is that people haven't looked at the fuel cycle for 30 years in the United States. There are lots of options, but it's too early to know which ones are going to be winners."
It is possible that some fuel cycle approaches could increase eventual public acceptance of permanent nuclear waste storage, Forsberg said, and this is an important area for study, too.
"There are no silver bullets in this game. Virtually all fuel cycles require some kind of repository. The size, scope and characteristics may vary, but there are long-lived components that you can't burn out. Bottom line, you have to build a repository," Forsberg said.
"The administration is right in recognizing that the Yucca Mountain Project represents a failed approach to the disposal of high level nuclear waste and spent nuclear fuel -- the third such failure in the past 50 years," said Tom Cochran, senior scientist for the nuclear program of the Natural Resources Defense Council, in a statement last week.
"To avoid the mistakes of the past, the Blue Ribbon Commission will need to identify more effective, open and transparent processes for selecting new candidate geological repository sites and licensing criteria that protect the health and the environment of future generations," Cochran said.
Chu expressed his hopes yesterday that the commission can succeed. "I deeply believe that the waste material, the spent fuel materials, these are solvable problems. They are solvable scientifically. And quite frankly -- call me wildly optimistic -- I think they're solvable politically."