President Obama spoke about a renewed push for nuclear-based energy solutions in his SOTU speech, and Friday DOE Secretary Chu announced the appointment of the “Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future.” The misnamed commission is supposed to provide “advice and make recommendations on issues including alternatives for the storage, processing, and disposal of civilian and defense spent nuclear fuel and nuclear waste.” I say misnamed because finding a solution to used fuel and waste is a big problem – but not the only big problem with the nation’s “Nuclear Future.”
To be sure, I am glad that the administration is acting quickly on its promise. But based on the commission’s makeup, I think the Obama/DOE strategy to a large extent is misdirected. The commission is being co-chaired by former Congressman Lee Hamilton and former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft. Other commissioners include some good people from science and academia, but it also has a lot of others who are there for window dressing.
I do get that such commissions have to be bipartisan and cover a range of science-policy/government-industry representatives. Also, I get that there are security aspects to both the inputs and wastes from reactors. But having both chairs be individuals closely tied with national security seems to me to send an odd and misguided message.
For a new generation of nuclear power facilities to be built, the biggest hurdle will be (and has been) a wide range of public fears. A recent Gallup poll showed that while support is growing, it is very tentative: 59% of Americans support nuclear power, but only 27% support it strongly. Support is also very divided by political affiliation and gender. And, despite all of the discusses over the past few years about finding new energy solutions, support for nuclear power has barely inched up from 2005 (54%). And, 63% say they oppose building a new nuclear facility in their area. In other words, the support for a nuclear resurgence could be easily shaken.
To move forward, besides a waste strategy, the administration is going to have to answer two other glaring questions for the public: Do we have the improved technology this time around? and Do we have an effective regulatory system in place given that some of the private operators proved to be unreliable or untrustworthy?
From a science and technology point of view, there are some promising developments, such as fast reactors, that need to be examined. If it turns out they are worthwhile, they need to be explained to the public by people that know what they are talking about, not government mouthpieces or PR staff. Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear that new commission is going to be going in that direction.
Besides Hamilton and Scowcroft, the commission has 13 other members (and you can probably tell who knows anything in particular about domestic nuclear energy generation and who doesn’t):
- Mark Ayers, President, Building and Construction Trades Department, AFL-CIO
- Vicky Bailey, ex-FERC commissioner and ex-DOE Assistant Secretary for Policy and International Affairs
- Albert Carnesale, Chancellor Emeritus and professor, UCLA
- Pete V. Domenici, Bipartisan Policy Center; former U.S. Senator
- Susan Eisenhower, head of Eisenhower Group
- Chuck Hagel, former U.S. Senator
- Jonathan Lash, head of World Resources Institute
- Allison Macfarlane, associate professor of environmental science and policy, George Mason University
- Dick Meserve, ex-NRC commissioner
- Ernie Moniz, professor of physics at MIT
- Per Peterson, chair of department of nuclear engineering, University of California, Berkeley
- John Rowe, head of Exelon Corporation
- Phil Sharp, head of Resources for the Future
The commission will produce an interim report within 18 months and a final report within 24 months.