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The US nuclear waste issue – solved

Nuclear energy is a must. Disposal is within our reach.

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The key to making interim storage work is to make informed consent, equity, and fair compensation the basis for temporary storage. One possibility is to use a "reverse auction" to enable prospective host communities to win regional support for the sites: Under the president's leadership, the federal government would allot, say, a billion dollars, and request bids from interested communities detailing how they would spend it to address the local impacts of and statewide concerns about the proposed facility. Large-tract federal sites would be especially attractive.

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If such compensation is combined with a program that includes local representatives in facility oversight, and that accurately informs citizens of the safety systems and the crucial national interests served, many communities and states are likely to welcome these facilities.

At the same time, the US needs to continue locating permanent disposal sites that the nation will eventually need. The search should be modified to ensure that the facilities are both safe and welcomed by the host community and state.

And then there's the safety question. The best way to gain public acceptance of a repository is to design it with multiple layers of protection, adopted through a deliberate, step-by-step process that uses pilot projects to test out the designs as the facility evolves. The standards we adopt should be protective, achievable, and credible. Once again, potential hosts must be convinced that all decisions about repository implementation will be fully transparent and made with their concurrence. The eventual success of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad, N.M., which handles military radioactive waste was achieved in this fashion.

If Nevada decides it wants some part in this process, the current Yucca Mountain license application could be amended since there will be time for pilot demonstration steps, appropriate compensation, more flexible transportation options, etc.

A new independent federal commission should handle the overall siting process and a public corporation (akin to the Tennessee Valley Authority) designed specifically for operating new facilities.

For national, economic, and environmental security reasons, it is now time for presidential leadership to embrace informed consent, fairer burden sharing, and appropriate compensation to meet this critical national energy need.

David S. Kosson and Charles W. Powers are professors of civil and environmental engineering at Vanderbilt University. They focus on development of multidisciplinary solutions to nuclear waste management issues.