Nuclear waste panel begins work in post-Yucca era

WASHINGTON -- A blue ribbon panel of scientists and policymakers began work Thursday to chart a new strategy to manage radioactive used nuclear fuel after being told once again that it need not cast its eyes on Yucca Mountain to play a role.

Energy Secretary Steven Chu christened the Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future, and told the 13 members present that they face a broad mandate and a big job.

Regarding how nuclear fuel can be managed, stored and ultimately disposed of, Chu said, "I ask you to look deeply on all the things we know today and what we will know in the coming decades, and that should inform you in plotting a strategy forward."

Uranium fuel that has been run through nuclear reactors to generate electricity has been considered a waste product in the United States, but other nations including France, Japan and Russia recycle it for further use and Chu said emerging technologies might present other options for its use over time.

In the meantime, the nation needs to take a new look at how and where the highly radioactive material is stored, and how ultimately it should be discarded. Presently nuclear waste generated by the nation's 103 commercial reactors is kept on site, stored in pools of water and oversized above-ground canisters.

Chu reiterated there is one issue that is off the table: the controversial Yucca Mountain waste repository site in Nevada, which the Obama administration is moving to terminate at the urging of Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev.

"We are going to look to the future, and we are going to look (to) what we can do going forward," Chu said. "What I don't want the commission to be doing is looking at past history (asking), was Yucca Mountain a good decision or a bad decision; whether it can be used as a future repository.

"This is not a siting commission," Chu said. "It is not to pick spots in the United States. It is to look at all the science and technology and all the other things that would influence how we deal with the back end of the fuel cycle."

The Obama administration's move to shelve Yucca Mountain has become increasingly controversial on Capitol Hill and among a handful of states that are pressing legal challenges to the decision.

Chu declined to talk with reporters after his appearance.

The commission has been given two years to come up with recommendations, with a draft report due in 18 months.

The 15-member panel (two members did not attend the opening meeting) is headed by policy veterans Lee Hamilton, a former member of Congress, and Brent Scowcroft, a former national security adviser to President Gerald Ford and President George H.W. Bush.

"The management of waste has never been satisfactorily resolved, and as a nation we have really struggled with this issue," Hamilton said .

The audience of several hundred included a handful of people from Nevada. Among them was Bruce Breslow, executive director of the state's Agency for Nuclear Projects, officials and consultants from Nye, Lincoln and Clark counties, and former Gov. Robert List, an attorney who represents Lander, Mineral, Esmeralda and Churchill counties on nuclear waste matters.