THE leaking tanks at Hanford are yet another reminder of the inability of the United States to properly dispose of its most dangerous nuclear waste. The legacy includes some 100 million gallons of defense waste from the nuclear-weapons program and 70,000 tons (and growing) of spent nuclear fuel from commercial reactors. Hanford has the lion’s share of the defense waste, with enough liquid waste to fill the tanker cars of a train 26 miles long.
The plan to eventually solidify Hanford’s waste would allow for the highly radioactive part to be buried in a geologic repository. But none exists.
After decades of work and more than $15 billion, President Obama pulled the plug on the nation’s only proposed repository for the nation’s most dangerous waste, commonly referred to as high-level waste, at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. The decision was blatant political payoff to U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
It’s time to take a new approach to finding a place to store the nation’s high-level nuclear waste, and it must meaningfully involve the states.
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Meanwhile, the 8,600-page license application for a Yucca Mountain repository languishes in political and legal limbo. In a standoff with the U.S. Court of Appeals, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission claims lack of funds to review the application.
Last year, the Obama administration announced a new plan for what to do with the spent fuel and its high-level defense waste now scattered across 121 sites in 39 states. Start over with a “consent-based approach,” seeking interim storage sites in the short term and building a permanent repository by 2048.
In other words, instead of the federal government’s “don’t ask, just tell policy,” look for willing communities. But will it work?
The volunteer approach has been tried several times for an interim storage site. A few communities and Native American tribes stepped forward. In each case, the state shut it down.
Then there’s Nye County, Nev., home of Yucca Mountain. When the administration first announced the consent-based plan, Nye County officials notified former U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu of their consent to host the proposed repository at Yucca Mountain. Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval quickly informed Secretary Chu that the state will never consent to a repository.
The well-known problem of NIMBY, or Not in My Backyard, is clearly at play in finding a suitable repository site, yet the more intractable problem is NIMS, Not in My State. With the power to regulate lands, highways and water, states can be formidable opponents. Despite this, the new consent-based plan barely mentions the role of states.
States need a strong role in the decision-making process if they are to assume the high-level nuclear-waste burden for the entire country. Moreover, the entire state must see the benefits that hosting a repository would bring, including new research facilities, improved highways and new sources of revenue.
The success of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico, the world’s only deep repository for long-lived (but less radioactive) nuclear waste, provides a case in point. The state lobbied for and was eventually given a substantive role in decision making and large improvements were made to the state highway system to facilitate safe transport of the waste. An independent technical oversight group that looked out for the public’s interest was another key element to help address issues of fear and mistrust.
A similar process at Yucca Mountain or a new site that involves the states could mean progressing from the current stalemate to the safer storage of our planet’s most dangerous substances.
Meanwhile, in direct contradiction to the new consent-based approach, federal officials said Wednesday the government plans to ship 3 million gallons of radioactive waste from Washington state to New Mexico. New Mexico officials responded that accepting high-level waste from Hanford would require strong justification and public input.
There are also lessons to be learned from Yucca Mountain. The United States is the only country in the world to have set a firm deadline, Jan. 31, 1998, for opening a repository for its high-level nuclear waste, and is among the few countries to rely so heavily on a single site. Both of these factors led to the perception that meeting deadlines was more important than thoughtful deliberation.
Yucca Mountain has a volunteer community, and possibly a suitable site. Yet, Nevada has a legitimate concern that it was singled out through backroom political maneuvering. With so much invested, Yucca Mountain should remain an option, as others are sought. The tactics must change, however, with an open-ended dialogue addressing Nevadans’ concerns and focusing on the benefits the entire state will reap.
There are no guarantees of a successful outcome and this will be neither an easy nor short-term solution, but neither will be finding another site. Any repository site requires decades of study to judge its suitability for long-term waste isolation.
As a result, there’s the immense challenge of staying the course over multiple administrations with a complex and politically sensitive program.
As the ongoing legal battles over Yucca Mountain play out, one thing is clear — trying to solve our nuclear-waste dilemma, while continuing to ignore the power of Not in My State opposition, is just setting us up for the next failure. In such a case, Hanford’s high-level waste could be stranded for a long, long time to come.
William Alley, left, oversaw the U.S. Geological Survey studies of Yucca Mountain from 2002 to 2010. He and Rosemarie Alley are the authors of “Too Hot to Touch: The Problem of High-Level Nuclear Waste.”