Nuclear Waste Policy at the Crossroads

Robert R. Loux

There is growing recognition throughout the country that the U.S. Department of Energy's program to locate a high-level radioactive waste repository at Nevada's Yucca Mountain is, if not already dead on arrival, expiring rapidly. Not only have recent revelations by Los Alamos and Savannah River scientists about potential explosive criticality at the site cast a long shadow over the feasibility of the project, but numerous technical defects continue to come to light in a steady procession. These include the potential for earthquakes, volcanic disturbance, rapid groundwater movement, and reviewed evidence of hydrothermal activity at the site. Even Secretary O'Leary has acknowledged, in testimony to Congress, that, at best, there is only a 50/50 chance that Yucca Mountain can be licensed under NRC regulations. And that was before the recent revelations about possible criticality.

The question now is, where do we go from here? After 13 years and billions of dollars, DOE is back at square one in terms of a viable solution to the problem of spent fuel and high-level waste. Ironically, one of the principal reasons for the current state of affairs is the history of policy decisions and legislation over the years that have exacerbated the problems of the federal program rather than fixing them. New legislation being considered by the 104th Congress, such as the Johnston bill in the Senate (S 167) and the Upton/Townes bill in the House (H 1020) will simply continue and reinforce the same failed approach to nuclear waste management.

Should legislation such as Senator Johnston's or Representative Upton's be enacted, the nation would be opting for a continuation of past approaches. More funds would be channeled to DOE without addressing the fundamental programmatic and management incompetence that has brought the current program to its knees. Big government would continue to attempt to strong arm an unwilling state, this time to accept an interim storage facility for spent fuel that, in reality, will become permanent storage by default - and without any assessment of the wisdom of such an approach or the suitability of the site being chosen. There will be as yet undetermined impacts to 43 states as a result of waste transportation. Perhaps most ominously, the proposed legislation would take away all incentive to finally establish a permanent repository or other permanent solution to the problem of radioactive waste, leaving the nation with a depleted Nuclear Waste Fund and no motivation or ability to move beyond temporary, inadequate remedies.

The alternative to this 'more-of-the-same' mentality is to take advantage of the experience gained over the past 13 years and use it to carve out a new approach that can succeed in ultimately solving the waste problem. To do this will require a paradigm shift in the way Congress and the nuclear industry have historically approached this issue. The issue is not a choice between shutting down the nation's nuclear plants or forcing some state to accept waste storage. The fact is, there is no crisis that requires precipitous and ill-considered action. However, we could well create a crisis of significant proportions for future generations by ill-conceived decisions we make now about waste storage and disposal.

What is needed at this juncture is not another rush to judgment and quick, political "fix," but a careful, considered and honest reassessment of the current program and an analysis of the policy options for dealing with the problem over the long term. On-site dry cask storage offers a viable option for buying the time for this reappraisal. Not only is at-reactor storage technically feasible, it is also economical and provides the greatest flexibility for maximizing alternatives for waste management in the future. Utility companies are already moving to dry storage as a way to deal with the failure of the federal program. And the Nuclear Regulator Commission has deemed at-reactor dry storage a safe and acceptable alternative for 100 years or more.

The argument that utilities, in order to implement dry storage on a large scale, would, in effect, be paying twice for waste management - once through ratepayer contributions to the Nuclear Waste Fund and again through utility financed investments in dry storage facilities - is disingenuous at best given the fact that at least one piece of legislation currently awaiting congressional action (introduced by Nevada Senator Richard Bryan) would provide utilities with a dollar for dollar credit against the Nuclear Waste Fund for costs incurred in developing at-reactor dry storage.

The nation needs to pause, reassess its policies and approaches, and allow time for new thinking and perhaps new technology to open new avenues for problem solving. This will not happen under proposed legislation calling for forced interim storage at Yucca Mountain and continuation of failed approaches to high-level waste management. Attempting to "solve" current problems with the program by injecting more and more politics and less and less reason and science can only make the situation worse. There is, indeed, a lesson for nuclear waste policy makers in the adage, "A nation that fails to learn from its past is condemned forever to repeat it."

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