Friday May 13 was the date of the last Blue Ribbon Commission hearing on Nuclear Waste. A recurring theme for the six hour marathon meeting was that technical issues are processed far too slowly by the NRC. The NRC has been delaying their announcements about conclusions drawn from the Fukushima events for two months. The delays affect progress and affect decisions regarding nuclear energy projects. Their procedures for investigating the risks or the promise of innovations take months or years to reach their conclusions and even then reveal a lack of understanding of the actual risks and seem to measure their decisions based on the temperature of the general fever of doubt by the public.
The kinds of conclusions suggested by the BRC from documents available on the BRC website make very pessimistic predictions. They conclude that it will be decades before reprocessing is practical. They still proceed as if the Oak Ridge National Laboratory studies on Molten Salt Reactors never happened.
Another overwhelming recurring theme was that transportation of nuclear waste is the biggest issue about finding permanent or interim storage. The fears reveal a lack of understanding the dangers involved. The whole manner of these proceedings is frustrating. Presentations are given and most of the commissioners admit to being far too unqualified to judge and then when the questions are asked at the end of each presentation or when the public comments are made no attempt is made to bring clarity to technical issues.
Per Peterson, one of the only highly technically qualified people on the BRC, raised the point about the need for more qualified technical staff as did some of the other commissioners in their own way. The chairman Lee Hamilton at one point put the NRC on the spot by insisting on some reassurance after 60 days of investigating the Fukushima incident that something useful be brought forth or perhaps saying that there is no useful conclusions to apply to America’s nuclear power plants. The word “tentative” kept coming up to refer to the fact that information has not been easy to come by regarding the Fukushima reactors and the fuel storage.
The shocking reality to me that seems so obvious is that these guys are in over their head. When the pressure for answers is on and the answers are so scarce there is an obvious need for really knowledgeable people to investigate the situation.
What do bureaucratic organizations do when they lack expertise? They dictate policy. Even Per Peterson’s presentation was given from a policy point of view.
Perhaps the biggest problem with forming a commission or a regulatory agency is that a lot of the times that they are needed the staff are able to handle the technical challenges. Nuclear energy has specific needs and just like when an emergency calls for “a doctor in the house” so does forming a committee about nuclear, let that be several, not just spotted here and there among senior bureaucrats.