With the Obama Administration’s decision to defund the Yucca Mountain nuclear- waste repository, many industry observers wonder what the next step for permanent disposal of spent nuclear fuel will be. Many are keeping a watchful eye on the president’s Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future, which Obama established in January 2010 to develop recommendations to guide future policies for nuclear waste.

The 15-member commission or its subcommittees have met several times this year, and the full commission plans to meet on Nov. 15 in Washington, D.C. The group is expected to release a preliminary report in spring 2011.

“It’s certainly [going to be] a starting point for whatever happens,” says Rod McCullum, director of the Nuclear Energy Institute’s used-fuel program. McCullum notes that the lack of a permanent repository for nuclear waste has not slowed new nuclear projects from moving forward. “The current projects are dependent on the financial and economic environment and the pace of energy demand,” he says.

John Garrick, chairman of the Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board, which advises the Dept. of Energy on technical issues relating to nuclear-waste disposal, says, “I think they’ll go more in the direction of policy than in terms of the science of waste management,” he says.

The commission may recommend the Nuclear Waste Policy Act be amended or new legislation be drafted to replace it, Garrick says. That statute established procedures for selecting and developing sites for deep geological storage of nuclear waste. It was amended in 1987 to require the DOE to consider Yucca Mountain as the first permanent repository in the U.S.

Garrick says the review board is planning to write a report of its own, which will be released before the end of this year. He says the lessons learned by engineers and scientists at Yucca Mountain are too valuable to be lost and could be useful for the next repository, if one gains approval. The report will look not only at developments at Yucca Mountain but also at repositories worldwide, including those in Sweden and Finland.

“Some of it is very site-specific, [but] a lot of things are rather basic—and that’s what we’re trying to preserve,” Garrick says. “The board believes [that], whatever policy is adopted, there will still be a need for a deep repository.”

Christopher Paine, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s nuclear program, warned a nuclear panel subcommittee on Oct. 12 that they should not neglect nuclear technology’s broader societal and environmental impacts. He said nuclear technologies are an option, but they are less preferable than renewable power.

Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future
Established: January 2010 by President Obama
Number of Members: 15
First Report Expected: Spring 2011
Mandate: To conduct a comprehensive review of policies for managing the back end of the nuclear-fuel cycle, including all alternatives for the storage, processing and disposal of civilian and defense used nuclear fuel, high-level waste and materials derived from nuclear activities.
Source: DOE, Industry Sources