Opinion

The US nuclear waste issue – solved

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

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President-elect Barack Obama supports nuclear power to increase US energy independence and fight global warming – but only if a path to safe nuclear waste disposal is opened. Fortunately, there is a two-step plan that can open that path and lead to an effective waste solution within eight years. And it embraces citizen consent.

In 1987, Congress cut off comparative site evaluations and closed all discussion of permanent nuclear waste locations except Yucca Mountain, in Nevada. It taxed nuclear utilities to pay for it, racking up $26 billion to date.

The Energy Department did what Congress required: It studied Yucca and recently submitted an application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to approve site construction.

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However, few informed observers believe that the facility can be completed without the cooperation of Nevada, which is dead set against it. Critics perceive the site as too risky and as a threat to tourism. On top of that, Nevadans seem to feel that the federal government is unfairly pushing the facility on the state. Decades of complex administrative delays and judicial battles loom.

So, half a century after we started generating nuclear power, used nuclear fuel continues to accumulate at more than 100 temporary storage facilities near nuclear power plants. It's a daily reminder of the unfulfilled federal promise to own and begin moving the material by 1998.

Much of the problem stems from an anachronistic policy enacted in 1982. The policy essentially stipulated that used fuel should be disposed of in a geologic repository as soon as one becomes available. But, if used fuel is allowed to sit in safe storage for 90 years, much of the heat and radioactivity decays away. This reduces the size, complexity, and cost of underground disposal. It also buys time. During the cool-down period, used fuel could be transformed from waste into a major source of energy if we can satisfy the tough engineering, cost, and security challenges involved in reprocessing it.

To reverse the current outdated policy, we need to set up four regional used-fuel storage facilities to act as transfer stations. These would provide geographic equity and allow relocation of the backlog of used fuel to locations where it can be stored safely, securely, and efficiently for up to 90 years before reprocessing or permanent disposal. This can be done with existing revenue and provides the time to implement the second part of the plan: developing and demonstrating an acceptable approach for permanent geologic disposal.

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.

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.

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