Awaiting Final Disposal: The Politics of Waste

Thu, 12/15/2011

(Washington, DC) - We are looking at a document of process, not solution.  This is perhaps the most clarifying statement on the upcoming report to congress by the Blue Ribbon Commission for America’s Nuclear Future (BRC).  Whether you appreciate these efforts or denounce their lack of defined scientific solutions, the BRC evaluation has to begin with this concession.  The BRC report is a recommendation.  It is the outline of a process for deciding what to do with not only our nuclear waste, but in such an intent-riddled title, our nuclear future. 

As KYNF explained in our previous BRC article, this is a complex situation that demands our attention on both a local and national level.  Whether you wish to view it from the vantage of environmentalism, energy, your backyard, or your tax dollars – it demands your personal attention.  This is not just for sake of education and awareness, rather, it is because this BRC recommendation means absolutely nothing until your elected officials take serious action on it.  So get that pen or keyboard ready, and remind your government representatives that something needs to be done.

As previously described, the spent nuclear fuel (SNF) crisis is several decades in the making.  Whether you view it as a storage catastrophe or a reprocessing opportunity, it cannot be denied that it is currently an environmental and safety crisis.  Through multiple political maneuvers and policy changes over the past several decades, we have managed to amass more commercial SNF than the failed national repository at Yucca Mountain was permitted to store.  Yucca took decades to establish, and as it now appears, we will continue to accumulate SNF scattered between dozens of utilities around the country for decades more.

The BRC was created to establish a strategy for managing the nuclear fuel cycle.  The proposed strategy describes a process for siting and developing storage and disposal facilities for SNF and high level waste (HLW).   More specifically, the process needed to avoid all the local and national political and organizational mistakes made since the Nuclear Waste Policy Act (NWPA).  The following key points comprise the report:

  1. An approach to siting and developing nuclear waste management and disposal facilities in the United States that is adaptive, staged, consent-based, transparent, and standards- and science-based.
  2. A new single-purpose organization to develop and implement a focused, integrated program for the transportation, storage, and disposal of nuclear waste in the United States.
  3. Assured access by the nuclear waste management program to the balance in the Nuclear Waste Fund (NWF) and to the revenues generated by annual nuclear waste fee payments.
  4. Prompt efforts to develop, as expeditiously as possible, one or more permanent deep geological facilities for the safe disposal of SNF and HLW.
  5. Prompt efforts to develop, as expeditiously as possible, one or more consolidated interim storage facilities as part of an integrated, comprehensive plan for managing the back end of the nuclear fuel cycle.
  6. Stable, long-term support for research, development, and the demonstration on advanced reactor and fuel cycle technologies that have the potential to offer substantial benefits relative to currently available technologies.
  7. International leadership to address global non-proliferation concerns and improve the safety and security of nuclear facilities and materials worldwide.

Critics have been quite vocal in their analysis of these key parameters.  Primarily, the contention has been made that the report itself is merely providing breathing room for the political arena.  The report has been labeled by many as a stall tactic, going so far as to say they’re awaiting a technological solution to spontaneously present itself.  Likewise, pundits and lawmakers alike have spurned the intentional absence of BRC comment on the Yucca repository.  Some have questioned the plausibility of establishing consolidated interim storage facilities in a timely fashion.  The timeline of such a process does little to reassure those concerned with the onsite storage at commercial utilities, particularly those under financial duress.

Regardless of your position, it is difficult not to praise the report for its ability to apply lessons learned to a strategy moving forward.  While almost all of the recommendations derive from discussions, and in some cases conclusions, that are decades old, the report applies these conclusions into a process that seems likely to avoid the turmoil that has plagued waste storage and disposal.  Adaptive and consent-based siting is perhaps the only methodology that has found success in US nuclear waste history.  And while the adoption of an independent organization to handle nuclear waste may seem at first glance like a bureaucratic sidestep, the introduction of such an agency applies more focus and regulatory power to the issue, and may potentially alleviate the omnipresent distrust that states have of the DOE.  Additionally, the clause to free the NWF assets to these causes seems an overdue correction of politically confused finances.

So what does this all mean?  Primarily, what history has made clear is that ideas with merit and the best of intentions are merely the precursor to the much larger, and much less reasonable arena of politics.  While the technocratic approach to nuclear waste has proven itself on paper, it has resulted in little to aid the United States in resolving our waste woes.  Nationally, this means that our best course is to demand action from our government representatives.  The BRC recommendations will mean nothing, and offer no benefit to our nation or the environment without political action.  The environmental and fiscal reasons alone should spur most anyone to action.  Locally, we need to understand that aspects of these recommendations may inadvertently direct much of this waste to the Idaho National Laboratory (INL) for the interim.  The contention is quite clear that the plan for consolidated interim storage has its shortcomings.  Specifically, it is the sole short term timeline which demands an immediate scientific solution, which the BRC was not commissioned to supply.  This leaves the option of either leaving waste with utilities for further decades during siting proceedings, or consolidating it to DOE facilities.  While the latter option does in fact have merit in an environmental and safety frame of thought, it undermines all future trust in nuclear dealings by renegotiating accords, such as the Idaho Settlement Agreement.  These are difficult decisions, and we should make sure that we, and our government representatives, are fully aware and educated on them.