Issue of the week: Preparing today for tomorrow’s nuclear power

A detailed report released in January from the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future has gotten us focused on nuclear energy, an important piece of our national energy strategy. Like all sources of power, nuclear brings a unique set of benefits and challenges. But nuclear power also has a lot in common with other fuel sources. For one thing, it cannot be expected to be the sole source of all of our country’s future fuel needs, but it can play a vital role in an inclusive “all of the above” energy policy. And, like all fuel sources – from natural gas to solar energy – ensuring sufficient supply tomorrow requires investment and planning today.

One of the ongoing challenges facing the nuclear industry is the expense of managing nuclear waste.  Decades ago, the federal government assumed responsibility for long-term management of the waste and began charging utilities and their consumers fees dedicated to the Nuclear Waste Fund – now a $27 billion account. But, years of political impasse have prevented a real solution from moving forward, leaving ratepayers to bare the expenses of onsite waste management all while continuing to pay $750 million in the more or less idled Nuclear Waste Fund. As the report highlights, the decision of the Obama Administration to halt work on a Yucca Mountain storage site in Nevada was a major setback for long-term management, but also stresses that policy makers have for decades failed to reach a sound solution for safely managing nuclear waste. “The United 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,” the report says.

It is worth stressing here, that U.S. demand for nuclear power is continuing to grow, even as efforts to devise a federal waste management system have stalled. The Commission’s report strongly suggests that the government’s longstanding failure to address what they call, “the back end of the nuclear fuel cycle,” does not mean that utilities cannot safely manage the waste on site, but rather a failure to develop consolidated, safe storage and disposal sites will mean escalating expenses for utilities in the future. The Commission outlines a set of very detailed recommendations, including the development of one or more interim storage facilities, a viable waste-management plan that could be available within five to ten years since a long-term disposal facility – such as Yucca Mountain – will not be ready for decades. Even better for consumers, the report recommends allowing access to monies in the Nuclear Waste Fund to pay for interim storage and provide relief to utilities and ratepayers who have paid billions of dollars for onsite storage.  The Commission also recommends the establishment of a corporate-style organization charged with overseeing this process and managing access to the Fund. By removing layers of bureaucracy and shielding this organization for political infighting, hopefully we can move forward with a reasonable, timely resolution. Finally, it recommends that the United States take a leadership role in international safety, waste management, non-proliferation and other security concerns, something we can all support.

CEA supports these recommendations. In all our work toward achieving a sound national energy strategy, we are repeatedly reminded that we have to plan today to meet tomorrow’s demand. Often that means drilling exploratory wells, building renewable energy transmission technology, or investing in technology that will let us access fuel located in deepwater or shale rock. When it comes to nuclear power, it’s clear that future growth will depend on finding a safe, affordable system for storing nuclear waste. It’s a problem that requires our attention today.