Office of Congressional Relations
nuclear dry storage tanks, photo courtesy of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission

Options for an Organization to Manage and Dispose of Spent Nuclear Fuel and High-level Radioactive Waste

Nuclear power provides just under 20 percent of the electricity generated in the United States. Yet, for more than 30 years, construction and operation of new nuclear power plants came to a virtual halt, and only in the past two years has construction resumed on a few reactors.

One of the major impediments has been the decades-long impasse over how to deal with spent nuclear fuel and defense high-level radioactive waste. Despite 1982 legislation requiring that the federal government take title to spent fuel from commercial plant operators by 1998, the government has been unable to do so in the absence of a permanent geologic repository.

Regardless of whether more nuclear plants are built, the nation must agree upon a solution to the spent-nuclear fuel problem that meets safety and environmental standards.

In early 2012, the Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future outlined a comprehensive strategy "for managing the back end of the nuclear fuel cycle" and while open to other possibilities called for the establishment of a federally chartered government corporation to manage and dispose of high-level radioactive materials.

The Obama administration today outlined a comprehensive strategy to manage and dispose of spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste. While agreeing that a new organization is needed, it concluded "that there are several viable organizational models." Congress will need to work with the Obama administration to determine the best governance form for the new organization.

According to a RAND Corporation report issued today, the two most promising models for the new organization are a federal government corporation or an independent government agency.

  • Both models can achieve the critical attributes of accountability, transparent decisionmaking, insulation from political control, and organizational stability. The RAND study determined that a third organizational model--a federally chartered private corporation--was a less desirable option because of its commitment to stockholders and profit, which could result in weakened public accountability and poor political credibility.

The RAND study aims to help policymakers design the characteristics of a new MDO (management and disposition organization) by defining a series of steps to determine the relationship between the organization and the President and Congress, as well as its funding source and relationship to stakeholders.

The report can be viewed online at www.rand.org/pubs/monographs/MG1230.

The authors came to the following conclusions:

  • The president can have a direct role through an independent government agency or a largely indirect role through a federal government corporation. A direct relationship ensures that the public interest is taken into account in all operations of a MDO, including materials siting and transportation, while an indirect relationship insulates the activities of the MDO from the turnover of administrations and allows for flexibility in siting negotiations and contracting and procurement operations.
  • Independent of which organizational model is chosen, Congress will have an oversight role with regard to the new MDO. Congress will need to decide, for example, whether or not the Senate will have a role in confirming the MDO leadership and which congressional committees will have oversight jurisdiction of the organization.
  • Policymakers will need to determine how a new MDO is to be financed, whether through annual congressional appropriations, through fees, or both.
  • The new MDO will have multiple stakeholders, including utility companies, states, local communities, nongovernmental organizations, the Department of Defense and Department of Energy, and other federal agencies. Policymakers will need to determine whether these stakeholders will be represented within the MDO itself or through different coordination and consultation mechanisms.

Additionally, the report describes the historical examples of the Tennessee Valley Authority (a federal government corporation) and the Bonneville Power Administration (an independent government agency) as possible models for an MDO.

If you have any questions about the report, would like to receive a hard copy, or would like to speak to one of the report's co-authors, please either email me at Matthew_Dicker@rand.org or call me at (703) 413-1100 ext. 5320.

Best,

Matthew Dicker
Legislative Analyst
RAND Corporation
1200 South Hayes Street
Arlington, VA 22202-5050
Office: (703) 413-1100 x5320
www.rand.org/congress.html

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