A Way Out of U.S. Nuclear Waste Impasse?

The issue of Science magazine published today, June 13, contains an important commentary about how the intractable nuclear waste problem might be solved. Isaac J. Winograd and Eugene H. Roseboom Jr, retired senior scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey, suggest creating the proposed repository for high-level nuclear wastes at Yucca Mountain in stages, starting with a pilot facility. Their views have some weight inasmuch as they take credit--or blame?--for having conducted the studies that led to the selection of the hugely contested Nevada site in the first place.

There are at least two ways of recounting the history that led to the current impasse. If you asked me, I'd tell you that in 1989 Luther J. Carter, a respected former news writer for Science magazine, wrote a book for Resources for the Future in which he said essentially this: if we're ever going to solve the nuclear waste problem, we have to just pick a site more or less arbitrarily, and then--damn the torpedos!--ram it through. What better location than the place where the United States had tested nuclear weapons all through the fifties, a place already thoroughly contaminated by radiation? (That's a caricature of Carter's views, to be sure, but I believe he put it pretty much like that to me personally, when I discussed the situation with him a few years later.) What Carter and RFF failed to take into account, in any event, is the degree to which Nevada opinion would rally in the interest of blocking a Yucca Mountain facility. As a result, Nevada's congressional delegation could be counted on to block creation of the repository at every opportunity, and any presidential candidate vying in a Nevada primary would be sorely tempted to pledge opposition to the project.

Winograd and Roseboom tell the story a little differently. More than a quarter century ago, they say, they proposed storing wastes "in areas with deep water tables, specifically within the several-hundred-meter-thick unsaturated zones common to the arid and semi-arid Southwest USA." That led directly to a focus on the Great Basin and, within it, to Yucca Mountain. Nonetheless, when Congress passed legislation in 1987 selecting the site for a repository, the bill immediately became known, as the authors say, as the "screw Nevada act." Technical study followed upon technical study, it soon becoming clear that scientists and engineers would never reach full agreement about long-term risks. Then came a virtual death knell on July 9, 2004, when the generally conservative U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled that the integrity of the site would have to be guaranteed not just for 10,000 years--the standard up to the then--but for as much as a million years.

The appeals court decision put nuclear waste strategy into a dead-end. To get out, Winograd and Roseboom argue, "it behooves the earth science community . . . to inform the courts, the public, and legislators that . . . the fate of HLWs over times frames of hundreds of millennia is not knowable." To win back public confidence, they suggest, build a succession of repositories at Yucca Mountain, evaluate them one at a time, retrieve wastes as necessary, and ultimately SOLVE THE PROBLEM.

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