Cover: Choosing a New Organization for Management and Disposition of Commercial and Defense High-Level Radioactive Materials

Choosing a New Organization for Management and Disposition of Commercial and Defense High-Level Radioactive Materials

Published Jan 11, 2013

by Lynn E. Davis, Debra Knopman, Michael D. Greenberg, Laurel E. Miller, Abby Doll

with Paul S. Steinberg, Bruce R. Nardulli, Tom LaTourrette, Noreen Clancy, Zhimin Mao


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Research Questions

  1. What have been the major problems with nuclear waste management in past decades, and where does responsibility for those problems lie?
  2. What are the similarities and differences in the characteristics of federal government corporations (GOVCORP), federally chartered private corporations, and independent government agencies (IGA)?
  3. What are the critical attributes that a management and disposition organization (MDO) needs to achieve its performance goals and carry out its responsibilities?
  4. How do these attributes match with three potential organizational models for an MDO — GOVCORP, federally chartered private corporation, and IGA?

Finding ways to safely store and ultimately dispose of nuclear waste has been on the national policy agenda for decades and remains a matter of considerable debate. This volume considers the creation of a new, single-purpose organization to manage and dispose of commercial and defense high-level radioactive materials. The authors first examine three organizational models — federal government corporation, federally chartered private corporation, and independent government agency — and evaluate how well they could perform the goals and responsibilities needed in a new management and disposition organization (MDO). The authors find that a federally chartered private corporation, with its commitment to stockholders and making a profit, would be weak in public accountability and political credibility. For the other two models (a federal government corporation and independent government agency), they describe the critical steps to designing an MDO, focusing on the critical relationship of the organization to the President and Congress, its source of funding, and other organizational attributes, such as how it will engage stakeholders and be treated by federal and state regulatory agencies. The authors emphasize that the key challenge in designing a new MDO is the need to strike a balance between political accountability and flexibility.

Key Findings

Past Problems with Nuclear Waste Management

  • The organizational design of the Department of Energy's Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management contributed less to the problems than the initial Nuclear Waste Policy Act and subsequent congressional and executive branch actions involving funding and the siting of a disposal facility.
  • The failure to site and license a repository for used fuel and high-level nuclear waste, despite efforts to do so dating back to 1982, reflects a breakdown in national policy implementation, and missteps in this process have eroded public trust.

Critical Attributes for a Management and Disposition Organization (MDO) and the Design of a New MDO

  • To achieve its performance goals, an MDO should have a public interest mission; public accountability; transparent decisionmaking; political credibility and influence; insulation from political control; organizational stability; a clear mandate to decide on siting; ability to commit to incentives; technical capabilities; capabilities to manage megaprojects; and legal capacity to procure services and property.
  • These critical attributes are inherent or could be built into a federal government corporation (GOVCORP) and independent government agency (IGA) but are weaker or missing from the federally chartered private corporation model.
  • There are trade-offs between the GOVCORP and IGA models but not superiority of one model over the other. The choice between them turns on how to strike the balance between flexibility to achieve goals and public accountability.


  • In designing a new management and disposition organization (MDO), policymakers will need to answer a series of questions, starting with what influence the President should have on the activities of the MDO to ensure the public interest and future success in the siting of the facilities while allowing the MDO the flexibility to carry out its responsibilities.
  • Policymakers will also need to consider how insulated from and independent of congressional oversight the MDO should be while ensuring public accountability.
  • Striking a balance between the competing values of accountability and flexibility will be critical to the design of the new MDO.

This research was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy and was conducted in the Environment, Energy, and Economic Development Program within RAND Infrastructure, Safety, and Environment, a division of the RAND Corporation.

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