Committee releases draft recommendations on safe nuclear waste disposal

Barbara Sullinger/Staff
A federal commission on safe disposal of nuclear waste, which includes campus professor Per Peterson, above, issued a comprehensive report of recommendations.

After over a year and a half of research and discussion, a federal commission on safe nuclear waste disposal — which includes a UC Berkeley nuclear engineering professor — has released comprehensive draft report recommendations.

The draft report was released on July 29 and addresses issues ranging from de-prioritizing the nuclear waste disposal facility at Yucca Mountain in Nevada to establishing a congressionally chartered federal corporation to replace the role of the Department of Energy in nuclear waste disposal.

As a member of the commission and co-chair of its subcommittee regarding reactor and fuel cycle technology, Per Peterson, campus professor of nuclear engineering and department chair, helped draw up some of the specific policy recommendations that appeared in the draft report.

The listed recommendations include rerouting the $25 billion in funds for the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste repository project to the other 60 waste disposal sites around the country.

The draft report also proposes transitioning oversight of nuclear waste disposal from the Department of Energy to a congressionally chartered federal corporation due to a loss of “public confidence” in the DOE. Sustained opposition from the state of Nevada regarding the Yucca Mountain project that was canceled in 2009 — among other reasons — was behind the proposal, Peterson said.

“From the day that the down selection to a single state occurred, the Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management never had a single director who lasted more than two years,” Peterson said. “They spent more than half of the last 30 years or so with an acting director … there’s no continuity of leadership.”

Regarding the commission’s findings, UC Berkeley physics professor Robert Jacobsen said they have thus far been great but that more activity in the future would be even better.

“I think they have been thinking very hard about new approaches to a problem we have had, and I think that’s great,” Jacobsen said. “And I think their basic approach is good. I would just love to see them end up more proactive.”

On the topic of a federally chartered organization to deal with nuclear waste disposal across the country and how it pertains to administrative efficiency, Jacobsen also sees opportunity.

“Having that organization is a good thing … they just need to say ‘solve this problem — it’s your reason for existing,’” Jacobsen said. “They are going to have to find a very proactive strategy that finds places to put disposal facilities. They should have some sense of urgency on this.”

Another proposal in the draft recommendation is to give the power of vetoing nuclear disposal facility locations to local municipalities, as opposed to counties and states.

The thought behind the proposal, Peterson said, is that the problems associated with a lack of public support for a disposal facility are eliminated if communities are given the power to veto.

“What we found … is that without local community support, it is impossible to move any project of this type forward,” Peterson said. “And in particular, having an informed local community … is helpful. One needs to make sure that at the county and state levels, there are also appropriate types of oversight that provide confidence that the facilities will be operated safely.”