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“Reset” of America’s Nuclear Waste Management Program: Summary of First Meeting

“Reset” of America’s Nuclear Waste Management Program:

A Critical Discussion of U.S. Strategy and Policy

 

- Summary of 1st Meeting -

February 17 – 18, 2015

The “Reset” initiative engages technical experts, government officials and members of the public in a series of focused discussions on the U.S. Waste Management Strategy and Policy.  The meetings are organized by an international Steering Committee. The project is funded by the Freeman-Spogli Institute for International Studies and the Precourt Institute for Energy at Stanford.  The meetings are hosted by the Center for International Security and Cooperation.

The U.S. nuclear waste management program now faces a series of significant issues that must be resolved before there is any confidence that the nuclear waste at the back-end of the nuclear fuel cycle can be safely stored, transported and placed in a geological repository for final disposal. After more than thirty years of effort, there is now no clear way forward for the selection, characterization and development of a geologic repository for spent nuclear fuel required (SNF) and high-level nuclear waste (HLW). In 2010, the Obama Administration attempted to withdraw the license application for the Yucca Mountain site in Nevada.  In 2013, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission was ordered by a federal court to continue the license application review as long as funding was available. Because those funds were limited and no new money has been appropriated since 2010, the Yucca Mountain Project is now caught in a political limbo between proponents and opponents.  Even if that project should move forward, it has become clear to most parties that important changes will need to be made in the U.S. strategy.

Many of these critical issues and required changes in U.S. law and policy have been identified by the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future in a 2012 final report, but no legislative action has been taken.

The U.S. program cannot move forward without new legislation that would replace or amend the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982. The success of any new legislation will depend on the extent to which critical issues are recognized and effectively dealt with.

New legislation must be informed by a thorough understanding of the history of the U.S. nuclear waste program, as well as the scientific, technical, social and policy challenges required to “Reset” the U.S. program. At present, technical and policy issues have been overwhelmed by a partisan political process.

As a first step, and in order to inform future legislation, the “Reset” meetings provide a forum for the discussion of the critical issues that must be addressed in order for the U.S. program to move forward.

CRITICAL ISSUES

In a first meeting in February, 2015, the Steering Committee identified these critical issues, each of which will be the subject of a separate meeting:

  • The creation of a new waste management organization: Although recommended by the Blue Ribbon Commission, there has been only limited discussion of the structure, characteristics and funding of such a new organization. The committee identified two very different topics that should be addressed: i.) the structure or anatomy of the organization; ii.) the behavior or physiology of the organization.  The second is seldom discussed, but the topic is critical to success (e.g., what are the values of such an organization; how does it learn; and how does it interact and communicate within its political and technical sphere while maintaining credible constructive interactions with the affected public).  This issue was the subject of the meeting in September, 2015.
  • Definition of a consent-based process for siting nuclear facilities: Although the Blue Ribbon Commission, and now DOE, often refer to the need for a consent-based process, there is little discussion of what this means and how such a process might be designed. A consent-based process requires the blending of social and technical criteria in the selection, characterization, and development of a geologic repository, but there has been no effort to design a technically-based, legal process that is compatible with the needs of a community, the states, and the federal government. Simple questions remain unanswered, such as: What constitutes consent? How does a community or state give informed-consent? When and how can a community withdraw consent? Can a consent-based siting process succeed in the United States? This issue will be the subject of a meeting in March, 2016. 
  • Integrated analysis of the entire waste generating system: The value of a “total system analysis,” from the point of waste generation to its final disposal, is generally recognized.  However, such an evaluation has not been carried out in terms of the analysis of risk, the development of incentives, or the development of a consistent regulatory framework. In fact, there are many disconnects in the U.S. approach. For example, the nuclear utilities can make locally rational decisions about the storage of their SNF that have the effect of complicating its final disposal. This will be the subject of a meeting in May, 2016.
  • Regulations and risk evaluation methodologies: The present regulatory framework for a geologic repository in the U.S., unlike other nations, requires the quantitative calculation of risk out to hundreds of thousands of years. Is such an approach necessary or even possible? Does such an approach instill pubic confidence or skepticism? What are the alternative approaches adopted abroad? The revision of the regulations and standards may open the way to a more straightforward siting process for nuclear facilities and generate greater public acceptance.
  • Where are the risks with present U.S. policy: The steering committee determined that in order to develop a compelling case for a new U.S. policy, it is necessary to understand the risks of continued delay of the U.S. waste program.  Many of these risks are of great interest to the affected public: What are the risks of continued storage of spent nuclear fuel at reactor sites? What are the risks associated with the transportation of spent nuclear fuel, first to an interim storage site and then to a geologic repository. Does consolidated storage prior to geologic disposal reduce the over all risk?

Each of these issues has a generally unappreciated level of complexity.  The discussion of each issue requires input across the broadest range of disciplines – science, engineering, social science, political science and the law.  The discussions also importantly benefit from the participation of concerned members of the public, state governments, national laboratories, and universities, as well as members of the executive and legislative branches of government. The purpose of the Reset meetings is to provide a forum for discussion from a wide range of perspectives.

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