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Environment

Radioactive Waste Commission Selected

Nuclear Energy: Blue Ribbon panel given 18-months to set fate of radioactive waste

by Jeff Johnson
January 29, 2010

Energy Secretary Steven Chu has selected a 15-member panel that will determine the future of nuclear waste. The need for a waste commission has been discussed for nearly a year—ever since President Barack Obama formally announced the death of Yucca Mountain, the intended repository for U.S. high-level civilian and military radioactive waste.

The commission's members, which Chu announced on Jan. 29, are all nuclear advocates and include a mix of nuclear weapons nonproliferation experts, academics, former members of Congress and previous Administrations, a trade unionist, energy and utility officials, and an environmentalist.

Their goal is to have a report written in 18 months and finalized in 24 months, although commission members said they hope they can speed this up. The report is to provide a road map and recommendations for developing a safe, long-term solution to manage the nation's high-level radioactive waste. The recommendations are to include alternatives for storage, possible waste reprocessing, as well as disposal of civilian and defense spent fuel and waste.

During the 2008 presidential campaign, Obama expressed his displeasure with Yucca Mountain, and in an appearance before the Senate in March 2009, Chu formally announced its cancellation and his intention to create a blue-ribbon panel to examine the waste issue(C&EN, March 23, 2009, page 35). Chu stressed that much had changed in the 25 years since Yucca Mountain was selected and site-specific investigations began. At that time, he optimistically said the commission's report would be completed by year's end.

At the Jan. 29 briefing, Chu and Carol Browner, assistant to the President for energy and climate change, stressed the importance of nuclear power to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Echoing Obama's nuclear support, voiced in his State of the Union Address earlier in the week (C&EN Latest News, Jan. 28) Browner said, "As the world moves to tackle climate change and diversify our national energy portfolio, nuclear energy will play a vital role. With the creation of the blue-ribbon commission, we are bringing together leading experts from around the country to ensure a safe and sustainable nuclear energy future."

Most environmental groups who have opposed nuclear energy were silent on Obama's nuclear statements. However some antinuclear groups, such as Beyond Nuclear, accused Obama of "bidding farewell to the environmental movement" in his support for nuclear energy.

In response, Chu said he regards himself as an environmentalist and said, "Nuclear power has a role to play in energy development, and I believe we can solve environmental concerns to ensure it is safe and clean, including the back-end of the nuclear fuel cycle. It has a role to play going into the future."

Chu also stressed that the new commission "was not a siting commission. It is not about picking another spot for a nuclear waste repository. Instead it is to develop a strategy to address waste."

Yucca Mountain will not be considered, said Lee Hamilton, the commission's cochair and a former U.S. congressional representative and director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The other cochair is Brent Scowcroft, president of the Scowcroft Group, an international business advisory firm, and former national security adviser to Presidents Gerald Ford and George H. W. Bush.

Other committee members include Mark Ayers, president of the Building & Construction Trades Department at AFL-CIO; Vicky Bailey, former commissioner of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission; Albert Carnesale, chancellor emeritus and professor at the University of California, Los Angeles; Pete V. Domenici, former U.S. senator (R-NM); Susan Eisenhower, president of the Eisenhower Group; Chuck Hagel, former U.S. senator (R-Neb.); Jonathan Lash, president of the World Resources Institute; Allison Macfarlane, associate professor of environmental science and policy at George Mason University; Richard Meserve, former chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission; Ernie Moniz, professor of physics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Per Peterson, professor and chair of nuclear engineering department at the University of California, Berkeley; John Rowe, chairman of Exelon Corporation; and Phil Sharp, president of Resources for the Future.

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