Rand: New agency or federal corporation could manage nuclear waste

Yucca Mountain failure left Energy Dept. in search of ideas
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A new independent federal agency or government corporation would offer the most promise as a means to dispose of nuclear waste at a site like Yucca Mountain, the Rand Corp. says.

After the government abandoned plans to store nuclear waste at Nevada's Yucca Mountain, an Energy Department commission recommended that the department's Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management be replaced. The Energy Department then asked Rand to look at different organizational models for an entity whose sole purpose would be to manage nuclear waste.

Rand's report (.pdf) back says the design of the Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management contributed far less to the Yucca Mountain failure than did the actions of Congress. Particularly to blame, the report says, was Congress' mandate that Yucca Mountain be the only site up for consideration, despite Nevada's objections.

"It is difficult to imagine that any organization could have successfully executed the program," the report says.

Still, Rand considered three options: an independent agency, a government corporation or a private corporation.

The report casts the most doubt on the idea of a private corporation.

For one thing, it would be hard to square a public-interest mission with a private corporation's need to earn a profit. A private corporation would also lack political influence, congressional oversight and an independent inspector general.

Congress could write features like those into its charter, but the flexibility of a private corporation is a core aspect of its utility.

The choice between a government corporation and an independent agency includes several key tradeoffs.

A government corporation would be more flexible and autonomous than an agency. It would also be insulated from politics and the turnover that new administrations bring.

Because an agency would report directly to the president, it would have more political credibility and could advocate directly for the public interest. It could also take part in federal interagency efforts.

No matter its type, the organization would need to be accountable, transparent and apolitical, Rand says. It would also need to have enough influence to find a community willing to host nuclear waste.

For more:
- download the report, "Choosing a New Organization for Management and Disposition of Commercial and Defense High-Level Radioactive Materials" (.pdf)

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