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, 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.

2 Responses to “America’s Nuclear Waste”

  1. mike  on August 7th, 2011

    I doubt that making it a more political issue between federal institutions and institutions of particular states or even single communities can be seen as a good approach. My impression is, that this was a rather relevant reason why in Germany highly radioactive waste, especially liquid one, was stored under completely inappropriate conditions. One place I got hints about was a simple industrial hall where it had to be stirred mechanically to avoid overheating within a closed area of a nuclear research center. The other one is more well known, Asse II, an old salt mine. Initially it was intended for investigating fitness of such places for storing nuclear waste. Using the mine in this was limited to experimental purpose and extent should have been limited to that purpose. Meanwhile, a couple of tons more have been found to rot down in it with a risk of parts of the mine collapsing possibly affecting drinking water reservoirs and further damages.
    I would recommend telling as many people as possible what its all about with nuclear waste and base decisions on best fitness concerning nuclear and geological requirements. Procedures for reaching conclusions and decisions should be as open and transperent as possible disregarding any concerns of businesses or military institutions since they will only obscure and distract from critical issues. Although Germany doesn’t have relevant nuclear installations for its armed forces (apart from what’s here under NATO control), ping-pong with information and responsibilities between different levels and institutions of administration, government – federal and country-level -, businesses and some research complexes suffices to keep critical facts away from public debate so that they actually can’t know what they’re voting for. It’s an example for the case, that you don’t need military institutions having interests for creating a huge and costly mess. Public institutions and politicians in their usual game of throwing sand cakes at each other, peppered with obscure notions from *experts*, suffices completely. Democracy is a means of social control to guard interests of all members of society … but the longer it’s established the more people should ask who’s controlling whom. At the same time people should remember that its about interests AND decisions requiring compromises, so they should care about compromises being made in a reasonable way. With such risks at stake as with nuclear energy and waste disposal, it’s not a good place neither for ideology, nor for perfectly concentric orbiting the local clock tower (or minarett if present). That people have become used to being exposed to such risks as for example in Hanford doesn’t appear a good basis of decision either. Especially since that place was selected at a time when they had scarcely enough experience for developing awareness of risks and consequences of nuclear technology at a strategic and industrial scale.

  2. Stephanie Cooke  on August 10th, 2011

    In theory this issue should be decided on the basis of (honest and non-politically inspired) scientific information with much transparency, open debate and a willingness to compromise. The experience to date shows that in most countries with nuclear programs this is highly unlikely. Beyond that, compromise seems particularly difficult to entertain where health and safety are potentially at stake. The problem with nuclear energy, whether for military or civilian use, is that it is completely uncompromising in the face of natural disasters and human mistakes. One can only hope to be living well away from the disaster zone and the radioactive plume, but even then there are no guarantees.

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