THE VINE JANUARY 21, 2010
Early last year, the Obama administration effectively canceled longstanding plans for a nuclear waste site at Yucca Mountain. That decision wasn't exactly a surprise: On the campaign trail, Obama had promised Nevadans that he'd shutter the unpopular project (there are perks to being an electoral swing state, after all), and, of course, the current Senate majority leader hails from Nevada. But with Yucca dead, where will all the nuclear waste go?
In March, Energy Secretary Steven Chu said that he'd set up one of those ubiquitous blue-ribbon commissions to set a new course for the country's waste policy. But months later, it still hasn't materialized. And no one's sure why, though one possibility I've heard is that Chu's bogged down by the Federal Advisory Committee Act, which requires a wide variety of different viewpoints on any of these panels. Chu might simply be trying to figure out how to create a commission that isn't just destined for deadlock—not an easy task, given how contentious the waste issue is.
But the slow pace has now given rise to Republican suspicions that the administration is just trying to slow-walk nuclear power—that, even though Obama and Carol Browner and all the rest say that nuclear energy will be part of our low-carbon future, they're secretly trying to stifle all progress. To add to those fears, a Defense Daily report this week uncovered memos suggesting that OMB was trying to prevent the Energy Department from pouring R&D into next-generation fast-breeder reactors or licensing smaller-scale "modular" reactors. (In theory, you could use fast reactors to burn recycled nuclear fuel and reduce—or, possibly, eliminate—the need for storing waste in some Yucca-like geological site.)
Anyway, at a Senate energy hearing this morning, Chu spent most of his time getting grilled by Republicans on this very subject. With regards to the OMB memos, Chu told Alaska's Lisa Murkowski that they conveyed "only a slice of a snippet of a conversation" about research priorities, and that he was still very much committed to research for next-generation reactors. But when Murkowski and Tennessee's Bob Corker pressed Chu on the waste commission, he became a lot more vague, saying that he was moving as fast as possible, that these things are complicated, that he didn't want to say why it was taking so long. That's... probably not going to allay their suspicions.
(Flickr photo credit: PNNL)