Examining Different Forms of Organizations for Managing and Disposing of Spent Nuclear Fuel and High-Level Radioactive Waste

For Release

January 11, 2013

A federal government corporation and an independent government agency are the two most promising models for a new organization to manage and dispose of spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste in the United States, according to a new RAND Corporation report.

Both models can achieve the critical attributes of accountability, transparent decisionmaking, insulation from political control, a public interest mission and organizational stability. A third organizational model—a federally chartered private corporation—is not a good option because its commitment to stockholders and profit could result in weakened public accountability and poor political credibility, according to the study.

In 2010, Secretary of Energy Steven Chu established the Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future following a decision by President Obama to withdraw the Department of Energy's license application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for a proposed repository at Yucca Mountain, Nev., for spent nuclear fuel and other high-level radioactive waste. The Blue Ribbon Commission conducted "a comprehensive review of policies for managing the back end of the nuclear fuel cycle, recommended a new strategy," and issued its final report in February 2012.

Views differ about the most appropriate organizational model. While noting that there are other possibilities, the Blue Ribbon Commission recommended a federal government corporation. A bipartisan group of senators in 2012 called for the establishment of an independent government agency. The Obama administration has just released its "Strategy for the Management and Disposal 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 that can possess the critical attributes."

RAND, a nonprofit research institution, was selected by the Department of Energy to conduct an analysis of alternative organizational models and develop a decision framework that would assist policymakers in deliberations about how best to shape a new organization.

"Most importantly, policymakers will need to determine the relationships between the new organization and the president and Congress, how it will be funded, and the role of stakeholders and other organizations," said Lynn Davis, a senior political scientist at RAND and one of the study's co-authors.

The president can have a direct role through an independent government agency, or a largely indirect role through a federal government corporation, researchers say. A direct relationship ensures that the public interest is taken into account in all management and disposal organization operations, including materials siting and transportation. An indirect relationship insulates the activities of the organization from the turnover of administrations and allows for flexibility in siting negotiations, and contracting and procurement operations.

Congress will have an oversight role for the new organization, and policymakers will need to determine if the Senate will confirm its leadership, and which congressional committees will have oversight jurisdiction.

Policymakers also will need to determine if a new management and disposal organization is to be financed through annual congressional appropriations, through a dedicated fund or both. For example, NASA, an independent government agency, receives annual appropriations; the Tennessee Valley Authority (a government corporation) has a dedicated funding stream; the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (an independent government agency) and Amtrak (a government corporation) have dedicated funding streams and annual appropriations.

The new organization will have multiple stakeholders, including utility companies, states, local communities, nongovernmental organizations, and the Department of Defense and Department of Energy. Policymakers will need to determine if these interests will be represented within the organization or through different coordination and consultation mechanisms.

"Policymakers will need to strike the important balance between the competing values of accountability and flexibility that are required in creating a new organization," said Debra Knopman, a co-author and RAND vice president and director of RAND Justice, Infrastructure, and Environment.

Researchers caution that the success of the new organization will be influenced by many factors, and the organizational form is only one of these factors as changes in national priorities and the political environment will affect outcomes.

The report, "Choosing a New Organization for Management and Disposition of Commercial and Defense High-Level Radioactive Materials," can be found at www.rand.org.

The research was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy and was conducted in the Environment, Energy, and Economic Development Program within RAND Justice, Infrastructure, and Environment. JIE provides insights and solutions to public- and private-sector decisionmakers across numerous domains, including criminal and civil justice; public safety; environmental and natural resources policy; energy, transportation, communications, and other infrastructure; and homeland security.

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