Where to find a happy home for spent nuclear power plant fuel?
In one of its frequent outbreaks of expedience, Congress in 1987 designated Yucca Mountain, a bleak massif in southern Nevada, as the sole location for licensing a nuclear waste repository - or, as the late Nevada Senator Chic Hecht said in a malaproprism - a nuclear waste "suppository."
Today, members of Congress from both sides of the aisle - outside Nevada, that is - say the law is the law and the Obama administration was wrong to pull the plug on the project. Licensing must proceed unless and until the Nuclear Regulatory Commission decides the site is not suitable, they say.
Maybe so. Perhaps Yucca Mountain is geologically the best site in the country for storing high-level wastes that must be kept isolated from the environment for thousands of years.
Nevertheless, what the Yucca-Mountain-or-bust lawmakers either don't see or won't acknowledge is how their predecessors in Congress set up the nuclear waste for endless politicization and likely failure. There are lessons to be learned.
In passing the 1987 law, politics trumped science. Congress decided to rush a solution to the prickly issue of nuclear waste disposal by designating one repository site in a politically weak state before sufficient evidence had been collected that the one site was technically the most suitable.
The outcome of Congress trying to wash its hands of the matter was predictable. Feeling put-upon by a distant federal government, that politically weak state and its representatives in Congress, Republicans and Democrats alike, have fought the Yucca Mountain project ferociously ever since.
When one of Nevada's congressional representatives, one Harry Reid, worked his way up the ladder to become Senate majority leader, and when Nevada itself moved up the political pecking order as a swing state in a closely divided country, the state applied its newfound leverage. The project was canned, despite the expenditure of billions and the continuing buildup of spent nuclear fuel in vulnerable "swimming pools" at plant sites.
So, what lessons can be learned?
One, don't force politically problematic projects down the throats of local communities and states. Because that doesn't make the difficult politics go away. As a June 1 Government Accountability Office report put it more prosaically: "If local communities or states feel that the federal government is not willing to address their concerns in a transparent way, they will be less inclined to work cooperatively with the federal government." Let states have a substantive oversight role. Provide generous incentives and work respectfully with citizens to gain their trust.
Two, the short-termism characteristic of federal policymaking tied to endless election campaigns and 24-hour news cycles is unsuitable for a task as technically complex and with such a long time horizon as managing dangerous nuclear waste. The GAO recommended that Congress consider turning the matter over to an independent organization somewhat removed from day-to-day D.C. politics, such as a government corporation empowered to work constructively with local communities and states on site characterization, selection, and oversight.
Third, buy some time. MIT nuclear maven Ernest Moniz has suggested moving spent fuel out of those swimming pools into dry casks, where they could be kept stable and isolated at less risk. Moniz suggests consolidating the casks at one or more licensed storage sites, where they could be watched over for a century or more... providing adequate time to study and select permanent geologic storage sites on their merits and/or find a way to reuse the stuff that is safe, cost-effective, and proliferation-resistant.
That amounts to kicking the can to future generations. It might be the best we could do, hoping that our unborn descendants will be wiser than we have been.
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