Feds On Nuclear Energy: “Open to All Options” Except Yucca Mountain

Two years: That’s how long a new “blue ribbon” commission assembled by the Department of Energy has to finalize a report that will look at a path forward for nuclear energy in the U.S. power supply. Created under an executive order from President Obama, the 15-person commission announced today plans to “conduct a comprehensive review of policies for managing the back end of the nuclear fuel cycle.”

In other words, the group is charged with tackling the controversial question of how to deal with nuclear fuel and waste in a safe and environmentally responsible way — delivering an interim report with recommendations within 18 months and a final report six months later. That report is meant to include advice on how to store, process and dispose of nuclear fuel and waste from both nuclear and civilian use. Former Congressman Lee Hamilton, who served as Vice Chairman of the 9/11 Commission and will co-chair the nuclear commission, said in a call with reporters today his team will be “open to all options,” whether “interim or permanent.”

Hamilton, along with co-chair and National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft and 13 commission members, will report to Secretary Chu, who will then report findings to Congress. Members of the Obama administration and the new commission emphasized today that while the group plans to approach its work “without any preconceived notions,” one plan is off the table: Yucca Mountain — the long-planned (and delayed) nuclear waste storage facility in Nevada that finally bit the dust in Obama’s budget last year. “Science has advanced dramatically,” since the site was selected some 20 years ago, said Hamilton. So now, said White House climate advisor Carol Browner, “It’s time to move on.”

In addition, Chu underscored that the commission is not looking for the next Yucca. “This isn’t about picking another site. As my boss would say, let me be perfectly clear: This is not a siting commission.”

Today’s announcement comes on the heels of President Obama giving a nod to nuclear energy in his State of the Union speech Wednesday, calling for the buildout of a new generation of nuclear as part of an effort to establish leadership in “the clean energy economy.” Asked about relations with environmental groups who have advocated against nuclear energy and might feel betrayed by today’s move, Chu replied, “I regard myself as an environmentalist,” and described nuclear power plants as a necessary part of the energy mix and the national response to climate change.

Growing support for nuclear energy in the U.S. has hinged on three key arguments in recent years: It offers a carbon-free alternative to coal; a domestic alternative to petroleum; and a supposedly cheaper, more reliable alternative to renewable sources like wind and solar. But while nuclear power plants have relatively low operating costs once they’re paid off, new facilities are hugely expensive. According to an analysis from Climate Progress last year, existing nuclear power plant technology can generate electricity at no less than $0.25 to $0.30 per kilowatt-hour for the first year of operation.

That’s significantly higher than today’s average utility rate (about $0.10 per kilowatt-hour for all sectors and $0.11 for the residential sector in 2009). It’s also many times the estimated per-kilowatt-hour cost of efficiency-boosting measures, and more than some generation costs for existing renewable energy technologies. Chu declined to discuss financing for the technology in today’s call.

Scientists and professors from several universities, including UCLA, UC Berkeley, MIT, and George Mason University, hold four seats on the commission. The DOE has also tapped current and former leaders from World Resources Institute (an environmental think tank), the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the labor organization AFL-CIO and the country’s largest nuclear utility, Exelon (s EXC).