The highly touted Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future that President Obama assembled last year will have its first public meeting today at the Willard Hotel in Washington, D.C. The panel, co-chaired by former Rep. Lee Hamilton (D-IN) and former National Security Advisor to President George H.W. Bush Brent Scowcroft, is tasked with reviewing policy options for managing the back end of the nuclear fuel cycle, including developing a safe, long-term solution to the nuclear waste problem.
What to think of the panel? The 15-person commission is comprised of a good mix of scientists, politicos and think tankers. Five of the members are science Ph.D.’s (including Per Peterson of Berkeley, who is considered by some to be the best in the field), which is pretty good as far as these things go. Too many Washington luminaries and it stops being serious; too many scientists and no one will listen. It might be easy to dismiss the participation of a perennial blue ribbonite like Lee Hamilton, but he’s reportedly been fairly proactive in staking out a broad mandate for the panel, urging the president to give the commission wide latitude on what to look into. His engagement is a good sign.
But the most significant thing about the panel is who organized it: Barack Obama. Throughout his first year-plus in office, he has proven to be serious about leading a comprehensive transformation of America’s archaic and damaging energy policies. While his support for nuclear energy has turned off some allies in the environmental community, it also shows that he knows that that U.S. can’t reduce its dependence on fossil fuels and meet rising energy demand without a significantly expanded role for nuclear. He’s lifting a three-decade old taboo on nuclear power and laying the groundwork for a revival of a domestic civilian nuclear power industry. And it’s not a moment too soon, as China rushes ahead with plans for as many as 400 nuclear plants.
Obama’s push for nuclear is also further evidence of the radical pragmatism that has marked his determination to tackle the nation’s biggest public problems. The question now is whether Republicans, many of whom have clamored loudly for a greater emphasis on nuclear energy, are willing to find common ground with Democrats, or continue their “flat earth” obstructionism on climate change and clean energy.
Obama’s blue ribbon panel has 18 months to conduct its work and issue its recommendations. Their work will be closely watched by those in the nuclear energy community. As the debate over nuclear power heats up, the problem of what to do about waste will need to be addressed. In the coming weeks, PPI will be issuing its own recommendations. Stay tuned.