America’s Nuclear Waste

With the release of its draft report on America’s nuclear waste, the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future made one thing painfully clear. We’re back at the starting gate after more than three decades of struggling over how to resolve this basically intractable problem. That said, I was pleased about a number of sensible suggestions in the report — decoupling interim storage sites from the opening of a deep-geologic repository for permanent storage, more or less passing on the topic of spent fuel reprocessing (for which there’s no money anyway), and — perhaps most of all — putting all responsibility for waste management into a new independent agency, away from the Department of Energy. If Congress picks up on the report’s recommendations, some $25 billion collected from ratepayers since 1982 would finally be used for what it was intended, namely finding a place to store nuclear waste, instead of deficit reduction and other non-waste activities. That will take some doing given the current fiscal/debt crisis — as one former DOE official told me, “Good luck!” There are many other challenges and questions that haven’t been resolved, all of which boil down to the basic question: what community in our country is willing to host radioactive waste indefinitely? The Yucca Mountain debacle demonstrated two realities — 1) the federal government can’t force a state to take unwanted nuclear waste, and 2) trying to legislatively pre-ordain scientific conclusions about site suitability doesn’t work. As I pointed out recently in the Chicago Tribune (a point picked up by smartplanet.com), the likely candidates for interim storage are existing DOE sites — particularly at Savannah River, Idaho and Hanford, Washington — none of which makes people living in those areas very happy. They are already battling to get rid of the high-level liquid and sludge wastes leftover from the nuclear weapons program and will almost surely resist any efforts to add more. So, as I said, save for the legacy of the past several decades, we are back to where we started from when the Nuclear Waste Policy Act was first passed in 1982.