Nuclear revival's fate in hands of Obama's panel

There's a lot to like about the president's new blue ribbon panel on nuclear wastes, and plenty of reason to worry.

The absence of a permanent solution for the nation's growing stockpile of spent reactor fuel has hobbled the nuclear industry for decades.

We're worried that the decision to abandon plans to bury spent reactor fuel beneath Yucca Mountain in Nevada and reopen the waste debate will turn out to be an excuse for more decades of delay.

We're especially concerned that President Obama has barred the nuclear waste panel from considering Yucca Mountain as an option.

The Nevada site was determined to be the best alternative after years of political wrangling and scientific debate. It doesn't make sense to take any option -- especially one so thoroughly vetted -- off the table before the panel even meets.

The political implications of Obama's decision are clear enough, however. When Yucca Mountain's staunchest opponents include Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., it's impossible not to a suspect a political motive.

But as worried as we are about the potential of a renewed debate over the waste issue choking the life out of any nuclear revival, we're also buoyed by the president's rhetoric.

He's been talking sense about nuclear power, even highlighting the technology's potential during the State of the Union address.

The president's memorandum on Friday to Energy Secretary Steven Chu was heartening to nuclear power's supporters.

"Expanding our nation's capacity to generate clean nuclear energy is crucial to our ability to combat climate change, enhance energy security and increase economic prosperity," Obama wrote.

"An important part of a sound, comprehensive, and long-term domestic nuclear energy strategy is a well-considered policy for managing used nuclear fuel and other aspects of the back end of the nuclear fuel cycle. Yet the nation's approach, developed more than 20 years ago ... has not proven effective," Obama continued.

"Fortunately, over the past two decades scientists and engineers in our country and abroad have learned a great deal about effective strategies for managing nuclear material. My administration is committed to using this advanced knowledge to meet the government's obligation to dispose of our nation's used nuclear material."

The memorandum directs Chu to appoint a blue ribbon commission to review nuclear waste policies, including an evaluation of advanced fuel cycle technologies that would reprocess materials for use as new reactor fuel.

The decision to bury nuclear wastes in an underground repository rather than recycle the material was based on fears that reprocessing technology would lead to more countries developing nuclear arsenals.

As energy policy, the ban on recycling never made sense.

The blue ribbon commission is supposed to issue an interim report in 18 months and final recommendations in two years. It will be worth the wait if the exercise leads to a more rational approach to nuclear energy.

The 15-member panel will be led by former Rep. Lee Hamilton and former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft, the Energy Department announced Friday.

These two have credibility to spare, though not in the specialized field of nuclear waste.

But the effort to find a permanent solution for the nation's growing stockpile of spent reactor fuel has never been solely, or even primarily, a technical debate. Appointing some policy experts to lead the panel may prove key to its success.

Scowcroft served as national security adviser under Presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush. Hamilton was vice chairman of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (the 9/11 Commission).

Their expertise in national security issues will help ensure that the nation's plans for nuclear waste include adequate safeguards against the spread of nuclear weapons.

Other members of the Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future include former Sens. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., and Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., former DOE officials, and representatives from the nuclear industry, labor unions, environmental groups and universities.

It's a high-profile commission, and the directive outlined in Obama's memorandum sounds like a blueprint for creating a rational nuclear policy for the nation.

Those are good signs, but it's not enough to eliminate our fears that politics and emotions will continue to dominate the nuclear debate.

The whole world wins if the panel identifies ways to safely harnesses this abundant source of clean power.