Waste No-Confidence Was Antinuclear Action

The Nuclear Energy Institute is celebrating its victory for consumers, having convinced the DC Circuit Court and the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit Court to set the nuclear waste fee to zero until the federal government implements a new plan for used nuclear fuel. That victory will save each of the people who obtain a portion of their electricity from nuclear power plants one tenth of one cent for each kilowatt hour they consume.

If all of the electricity at my house was produced by nuclear reactors, that hard-fought victory would save me about $1.50 each month. If the power source for my house was like the national average of 20% nuclear, my savings would be 30 cents per month.

My first reaction to the announcement was that there are more important battles that could have been fought against the antinuclear movement with the resources invested in the legal battle against the nuclear waste fee.

However, perhaps I’m being too pessimistic. Maybe the successful legal action to reset the nuclear waste fee to zero will be the spur that gets Congress and the Administration moving to develop a workable plan for reusing nuclear fuel and disposing of the residues that are unusable waste. Even though the savings to an individual like me are tiny, the federal treasury gets nicked for a $750 million per year cash flow reduction.

Dale Klein, the former Chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, gave a talk at the Washington, DC local ANS section about his last speech at the annual Regulatory Information Conference (RIC). Dr. Klein gave that RIC speech four years ago on the occasion of his departure from the Commission.

His talk focused on four key concerns:

  • Modernizing the NRC and providing adequate technology to enable talented people
  • Increasing the NRC’s participation with the international nuclear community
  • The Administration’s handling of used nuclear fuel policy and the Yucca Mountain project
  • The Waste [No]-Confidence Rule

Klein’s talk should be read in its entirety. Here is an important quote:

Now we come to my third point, and the low point in US nuclear policy. I am of course speaking about spent fuel and the Yucca Mountain license application. I said then that my view of Obama Administration’s handling of this was “unfortunate”.

When you are a sitting Commissioner, the term “unfortunate” is about as strong as your legal counsel let you use. But what I also said was, “I would have preferred the White House to plainly say that it was implementing a policy change. The President has the right and the responsibility to set policy, and clearly an issue of national importance and complexity such as this needs to be periodically revisited. However, in my opinion, the Administration’s stated rationale for changing course does not seem to rest on factual findings and thus does not bolster the credibility of our government to handle this matter competently.”

Clearly, the Federal courts felt the same way. I do not know of another instance in the history of the United States that a Court has had to issue a Writ of Mandamus for an independent regulatory body to do their job. I repeat it “does not bolster the credibility of our government to handle this matter competently.”
(Italics in original.)

Dr. Klein talked about the tight relationship between having a national plan for used fuel disposal and the Waste Confidence rule that the NRC had issued. He described the importance of that rule for continuing to issue nuclear plant operating licenses and extensions. He explained how the courts had no choice but to overturn Waste Confidence when the Department of Energy and the NRC halted all progress on the only used fuel plan that the nation had.

Aside: Alluding to the parliamentary system of government, I like to label that court decision as the Waste No-Confidence decision. End Aside.

Dr. Klein described how forming a “Blue Ribbon Commission” was a poor substitute for having a plan, especially since there has been no follow-through on the well-intentioned set of recommendations that the Commission provided.

…the Blue Ribbon Commission (BRC) on America’s Nuclear Future did recognize the linkage between the NWPA, Waste Confidence, and the future of nuclear power in this country. But in my view, they marginalized the consequences of failure. Rather, I believe that the BRC members actually believed that the Administration would act on their recommendations, including proposed legislative actions. That has yet to happen and I doubt it will.
(Emphasis added.)

(Note: Dr. Klein also pointed out that the Blue Ribbon Commission’s web site has been removed from the web and its contents consigned to the CyberCemetery at the University of North Texas. The search engine there appears to be on the fritz, so I browsed until I found the BRC site so you would not have to.)

In my opinion, Dr. Klein, though being candid, is still is too much of a gentleman and a loyal soldier. Actions indicate that there are people in the current Administration, perhaps all the way to the President, who have no intention of enabling nuclear energy to compete against natural gas, coal, oil, wind, solar, or biofuel energy sources. They are doing everything in their power, even sneaky things, to undermine its survivability and to make it look as expensive and as uncertain as possible.

Seen through distrustful lenses, there is little doubt that “they” knew exactly what they were doing when they declared that Yucca Mountain was “unworkable” and reset the clock on the used nuclear fuel plan to 1977. That is the year that Jimmy Carter declared that the previously existing plan — which was to recycle the used fuel to extract the potentially valuable materials — was unworkable, though I think he used a different word.

It’s past time to strongly resist nuclear energy opponents in order to protect our children and grandchildren.

When it comes to a plan for used nuclear fuel, we should do the nuclear energy deniers one better and rest the clock a bit earlier. I recommend shooting for 1964, fifty years ago.

That was a time when “everyone” knew that used nuclear fuel was too valuable to be only slightly consumed and then permanently buried deep underground. It was also a time when there was little or no resistance to using nuclear energy and when GE started a bandwagon market for new nuclear power plants by announcing an extraordinarily good price for Oyster Creek as a “turn-key” power station.

It was a time when the primary forces resisting nuclear energy development were lobbyists from the National Coal Association and the National Coal Policy Conference. (Balogh, Brian, Chain Reaction, Cambridge University Press, 1991. p. 207-208)

We need to vigorously pursue advanced nuclear energy systems, including already licensed or soon-to-be-licensed evolutionarily safe large reactors and innovative smaller reactors.

We should aim for an overall nuclear energy system that enables us to reduce material and labor inputs, reuse valuable materials and knowledge, and recycle those materials whose use has changed their capabilities enough so that they need more substantial treatment.

Compared to 1964, we have an important advantage. Unlike then, we have proven through full scale tests that we know how to protect the public in the case of accidents in both large and small power plants.

Fifty years ago, most nuclear plant designers were pretty sure about their ability to safely build and operate moderately-sized light water reactors. However, there was enough uncertainty about the untested nature of substantially larger plants that nuclear energy insiders like George Weil and Alvin Weinberg, with their admirable questioning attitudes, asked some reasonable questions that could not be confidently answered. The uncertain nature of the responses gave the opposition an opening large enough to enter with an anti-Corvair activist as a wedge.

Hindsight should be 20-20, but the clarity works best if you look hard at history, accurately evaluate the available lessons and apply them to current and future decision making.

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