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Trouble at the Back End

Allison Macfarlane

FUEL CYCLE TO NOWHERE: U.S. Law and Policy on Nuclear Waste. Richard Burleson Stewart and Jane Bloom Stewart. xviii + 427 pp. Vanderbilt University Press, 2011. $65.

The vexing problem of what to do with spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste in the United States is still unresolved, and a solution now seems more distant than it did a few years ago. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) worked for many years to plan and gain approval for a deep geologic repository (one mined deep into a geological formation) at Yucca Mountain, Nevada. In 2009, the Obama administration abandoned the project, claiming that public acceptance would never rise to levels that would enable the site’s implementation. In its stead, the administration established the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future, with the goal of learning from past mistakes in the back end of the nuclear fuel cycle and suggesting a new policy strategy with which to move forward.

Into this situation Richard Burleson Stewart and Jane Bloom Stewart have launched their book, Fuel Cycle to Nowhere, hoping to impact the work of the Blue Ribbon Commission (BRC). The authors are members of the Consortium for Risk Evaluation with Stakeholder Participation, a multi-university group that is supported by the DOE. As a member of the BRC, I can say that although the Stewarts’ book did not have any direct influence over our recommendations, each group came up with a surprisingly similar set of policy suggestions.

Fuel Cycle to Nowhere is an ambitious book, covering both the history of nuclear waste policy in the United States and the broad range of this policy, from the early history of the Atomic Energy Commission’s first forays into nuclear waste policy in the 1950s to a detailed discussion of the events surrounding the establishment and eventual collapse of policy supporting a repository at Yucca Mountain. It also covers low-level radioactive waste policy, transuranic waste policy, waste classification schemes and the transport of waste material.

One significant but less well-known story the book highlights is that of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, or WIPP, near Carlsbad, New Mexico. WIPP, which opened for business in 1999, is the only operating deep geological repository for nuclear waste in the world. Transuranic wastes from the U.S. nuclear weapons complex—the plutonium-contaminated gloves, booties and equipment that present a long-lived but low-activity hazard—are contained in simple 55-gallon steel drums and emplaced underground. These materials are shipped by truck to the site (there have been more than 10,200 shipments to date) and carried over 2,000 feet underground, into the bedded salt of the Salado Formation.

The importance of the story of WIPP is this: Although the state and antinuclear groups opposed the site for years, it is now accepted by the state and especially by local residents and is generally considered a success. WIPP was proposed in the 1970s by local inhabitants, who were suffering the economic impacts of the decline of the nearby potash-mining industry. New Mexico policy makers were wary of the dump site, but through a variety of state and federal laws and legal agreements with the DOE (the entity developing the repository), it received the assurances necessary to allow WIPP to eventually open. These safeguards included limiting the contents of the repository to transuranic wastes from the weapons complex and formally excluding high-level wastes and spent nuclear fuel. They also included oversight of mixed waste—material that is both chemically and radioactively hazardous. Oversight of the environmental health and safety risks of nuclear material is denied to states by the Atomic Energy Act, but it was provided to New Mexico through the Resource, Conservation, and Recovery Act, which gives the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency authority to provide oversight of mixed waste. The DOE also addressed a constellation of issues that were of deep concern to the state, such as the need to build bypass routes to avoid major city centers on waste transport routes. These issues were dealt with piecemeal over time, reflecting flexibility and an improvisational approach that in the end succeeded.

The authors contrast the experience of WIPP with the history of Yucca Mountain, which is perhaps the very definition of a prescribed and predetermined repository-siting policy. With the 1987 amendments to the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, Congress designated Yucca Mountain as the only site that the DOE could investigate and characterize as a potential repository. In doing so, Congress created intense political pressure to find the site suitable. Nevada, in response, was relentless in its fight against becoming the “nation’s nuclear waste dump” and, as the Stewarts describe, always maintained a “scorched earth opposition.” The state brought a raft of lawsuits, some that successfully set back the site by years.

Fuel Cycle to Nowhere concludes with a plan to revise the back end of the nuclear fuel cycle in the United States—the management of spent nuclear fuel and waste materials as well as the decommissioning of nuclear facilities. The authors affirm the need for at least one more geologic repository, if not more. They note that both public trust and the assent of the host community and state are essential to success. Oversight by the affected state should be assured, as should the state’s role in facility decision making. To increase the likelihood that the hosts will agree to the site, they write, several steps are necessary. Adequate compensation is needed, as is a guarantee that the host state will receive compensation for conducting its own technical analyses of the site. Developing scientifically supportable standards for site evaluation will be necessary, as will independent technical oversight of the facility. The public’s ability to access all information about the plan should be assured, as should the way in which decisions about the site are reached. The process of siting and site development should occur with enough flexibility to deal with issues as they appear. Until 2009, the DOE managed the interim storage of high-level waste, the transportation and the final disposal of these materials through its Office of Civilian and Radioactive Waste Management. The Stewarts suggest that a new entity, perhaps modeled on a federal corporation, would be more successful. Finally, they note that the current funding mechanism for nuclear waste disposal is broken and needs to be fixed.

The members of the BRC, which came out with its final report on January 26, 2012, agree with all of the above conclusions, and many of those conclusions form the basis of our eight overall recommendations. The top three are as follows: to establish a new consent-based, transparent, adaptive, staged, standards- and science-based approach to siting that is governed by partnership arrangements or legally enforceable agreements with states; to establish a new organization dedicated solely to manage waste storage, transportation and disposal; and to provide assured access to waste funds by making both future revenues generated by the Nuclear Waste Fund and the existing balance of the fund ($25 billion) available when they are needed. Congressional legislation is necessary to fix the nuclear waste morass that currently exists in the United States, but the experience of WIPP has shown us it can be done.

Fuel Cycle to Nowhere is a comprehensive guide to the laws and legal issues that are major facets of nuclear waste policy in the United States. Sometimes it seem too comprehensive—the book suffers from a serious case of redundancy and would have been served by heavier editing. It is well referenced (the notes themselves take up 81 pages), although there are a number of disturbing mistakes in the technical data and historical facts reported sprinkled throughout the text. Examples include the claim in the introduction that there was a 40-year moratorium on spent nuclear fuel reprocessing in the United States. In fact, Presidents Ford and Carter indefinitely deferred federal support for reprocessing. President Reagan reversed this decision, but no reprocessing facilities were ever constructed, because the price tag of these facilities is enormous. In the discussion of low-level nuclear waste, the authors say that North Carolina left the Southeast Compact (an alliance of states formed to deal with low-level radioactive waste disposal) to join the Atlantic Compact. North Carolina did not join the Atlantic Compact—but South Carolina did. Despite these problems, the book is useful in that it locates in one place a discussion of the policy processes around WIPP and Yucca Mountain.

In the United States, the process of nuclear waste disposal is more than just a collection of laws and legal battles—it rightfully combines politics, public acceptance, technical issues and economic choices against a background of state versus federal rights. The continuing saga of nuclear waste makes the production of electricity by nuclear power a more complicated and ambiguous option than many competing electric power technologies.

Allison Macfarlane is a professor of environmental science and policy at George Mason University in Fairfax, VA. Her research focuses on environmental- policy and international-security issues associated with nuclear energy. She is the editor of Uncertainty Underground: Yucca Mountain and the Nation’s High-Level Nuclear Waste (The MIT Press, 2006), which explores the unresolved technical issues for nuclear waste disposal at Yucca Mountain, Nevada.

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