The Proposed Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Dump
The Obama administration and Senate majority leader Harry Reid are opposed to advancing the Yucca Mountain proposal, but the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) continues to review an application for a national nuclear waste respository there. It therefore does not look like the proposal is going anywhere. Here's the history:
On December 6, 1999, the NRC published in the Federal Register (64 FR 68005)* a status report on its thinking about whether the Yucca Mountain plan is reasonable. The plan would put all of our nation's most radioactive waste from nuclear power plants and nuclear weapons production deep inside a specially excavated cavern inside Yucca Mountain.
Congress decided in 1987 that a permanent burial site inside Yucca Mountain was the right solution to the nuclear waste problem. See 42 USC 10,172.** Congress relied on five "findings" of the NRC issued in 1984. See 49 FR 34658; 49 FR 34688. These findings are known as the NRC's "Waste Confidence Decision." The December 6, 1999, NRC report states that today there is no reason to change these findings and, moreover, it is discontinuing its commitment to reconsider its decision every ten years.
The five "findings," which are reproduced in 64 FR 68005, are (1) the Yucca Mountain burial
plan is technically feasible, (2) Yucca Mountain is available as a deep burial site, (3) the NRC has "reasonable assurance" that high level nuclear waste "will be managed in a safe manner" where it is produced (on-site storage) until Yucca Mountain is prepared to receive the waste, (4) the NRC has "reasonable assurance" that high level nuclear waste can be stored on site "for at least 30 years beyond the license life" of current waste producers, and (5) even if it takes longer than anticipated, there is "reasonable assurance that safe independent onsite or offsite spent [nuclear] fuel storage will be made available if such storage capacity is needed."
The Secretary of Energy (currently, Bill Richardson) must send the NRC's recommendation on to the President, who must accept the Yucca Mountain plan together with NRC's proposed procedures for licensing Yucca Mountain as the national nuclear dump.
No New Technical Information Since 1984?
NRC's primary reasons for being unwilling to change its 1984 findings and "Waste Confidence Decision" are "substantial advances in spent fuel storage" have occurred since the last review in 1990, and no "significant and pertinent unexpected events [have occurred], such as major shifts in national policy or a major unexpected institutional development, or new technical information."
This strongly suggests the NRC continues to believe, as many did in the 1980s, that sending all the nuclear waste "away" somewhere is safer than storing it safely nearby until we learn better how to handle and perhaps use the waste. Many who believed in the 1980s that permanent burial is reasonable do so no longer.
One such person is the respected sociologist of disasters Kai Erikson. The following discussion of Erikson's book, "A New Species of Trouble: Explorations in Disaster, Trauma, and Community" (1994) is taken from a recent article by Michael Gerrard.***
"Kai Erikson points out our primitive state of knowledge about [nuclear waste], and the decision of other nuclear nations `to let the wastes cool indefinitely on the surface [of the earth] (along with the political tempers the waste always seem to arouse) and, in that relaxed frame of mind, [other nations] have scarcely begun the search for permanent disposal sites.' He argues:
When one is faced with such high levels of uncertainty, the wisest course would seem to preserve as much flexibility as possible and to turn to irreversible measures only if there are no viable alternatives. Deep geological entombment is clearly one of the least reversible options that can be imagined; indeed, that has long been regarded as its principle virtue. [Erikson, p. 224]
Erikson then concludes with a plea for 'forms of storage that allow both continuous monitoring and retrieval.' In his view, 'We cannot promise our children--never mind those who follow hundreds or thousands of years hence--that they will be safe from the wastes. And so long as that is so, we are not taking the problem out of their hands so much as we are taking the solution out of their hands.' Erikson seems to agree with Thomas Paine, who wrote that '[e]very age and generation must be as free to act for itself, in all cases, as ages and generations which preceded it. The vanity and presumption of governing beyond the grave is the most ridiculous and insolent of all tyrannies.' "
Is an earthquake in Nevada needed before the NRC recognizes "significant and pertinent unexpected events" have occurred since 1984? Or is it simply that views like Kai Erikson's, based on what we don't know (rather than on what little we do) lack "new technical information"?
Who pays, and who benefits, from the nuclear industry's ability to dump its wastes?
*This follows EPA's request for comments on its proposed radiation standards for Yucca Mountain, 64 FR 46976 (Aug. 27, 1999); cf. National Research Council, Comments on Proposed Radiation Protection Standards forYucca Mountain, Nevada (Nov. 26, 1999) (available at http://books.nap.edu/catalog/9729.html) (finding general agreement with EPA but also finding there is "no scientific basis" for (1) employing ALARA principle, (2) predicting societal factors used to model exposure, (3) deternmining acceptable risk levels, (4) and limiting the time period for exposure to 10,000 years (rather than 1 million years, as proposed by the Council)). You can find most of the Federal Register (FR) notices, regulations (e.g., CFR), and codes (e.g., USC) referred to here on the Internet. We have a brief Guide to Finding Federal Documents to show you how. **In 1992 Congress also authorized the Department of Energy (DOE) to develop the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), a deep geologic repository for disposal of transuranic (TRU) radioactive waste near Carlsbad, New Mexico. WIPP Land Withdrawal Act (LWA) of 1992 (Pub. L. No. 102-579), as amended (Pub. L. No. 104-201). "TRU waste consists of materials containing elements having atomic numbers greater than 92 (with half-lives greater than twenty years), in concentrations greater than 100 nanocuries of alpha-emitting TRU isotopes per gram of waste." 64 FR 68661 (Dec. 8, 1999). Among the DOE waste sites is the West Valley Demonstration Project in Cattaraugus County. ***Michael B. Gerrard, "Demons and Angels in Hazardous Waste Regulation: Are Justice, Efficiency, and Democracy Reconcilable?", 92 Northwestern Univ. Law Review 706, at pp. 745-746 (1998). Mr. Gerrard is a partner in the law firm of Arnold & Porter in New York City and is Special Counsel to Cattaraugus County in the county's opposition to the proposed Farmersville landfill.