EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Nuclear power will remain an important source of electricity in the U.S. More than 100 reactors are operating in U.S. now, and applications are pending for 33 more. Outside the U.S. 337 reactors are in business, with another 150 expected by 2020. President Obama strongly supports nuclear power. There will be 153 million metric tons of high level nuclear waste in the U.S. by 2055, up from 70,000 metric tons in 2009. The Yucca Mountain deep geologic repository for high level nuclear waste is in limbo. A Blue Ribbon Advisory Commission to Energy Secretary Steven Chu will take a new look at policies for high level nuclear waste. The result might be a recommendation for continued dry cask storage now, and perhaps salt domes later.
But The Yucca Mountain tussle is not over yet. A panel of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission recently upheld a legal quest to keep the Department of Energy’s Yucca Mountain licensing application alive, although D.O.E. at the president’s direction seeks to withdraw it. The preliminary ruling is that only Congress has authority to rescind the application. Some experts posit that the Energy Department must rebuild public trust around high level nuclear waste disposal. This view is credible, given long-standing mismanagement of the clean-up at Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington state, and the decades-long Yucca Mountain imbroglio. In devising a new path forward, Secretary Chu’s Blue Ribbon Commission and Congressional decision-makers should ensure effectiveness, cost and risk assessments of various policy alternatives are coherently conveyed to the stakeholders, and that a public participation process is designed to draw on the aggregated perspectives of constituencies far broader than those most intimately and loudly engaged.