By Allison Macfarlane
As with much policy-setting in the Trump administration, a single tweet from the president on February 6 appeared to reverse a previous stance. The message about Yucca Mountain, the nation’s proposed geologic repository for spent nuclear fuel and other high-level radioactive waste, set the media alight with speculation about new actions in US nuclear waste policy. But has anything changed, really?
Nevada, I hear you on Yucca Mountain and my Administration will RESPECT you! Congress and previous Administrations have long failed to find lasting solutions – my Administration is committed to exploring innovative approaches – I’m confident we can get it done!
Trump’s tweet acknowledges the fierce and long-standing opposition to Yucca Mountain in a swing state he lost by a slim margin in 2016. The Democratic presidential candidates are unanimously opposed to storing nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain.
A permanent impasse. Yucca Mountain has spent much of its existence as a political football. The original Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 required detailed characterization of three potential repository sites for the disposal of the nation’s spent commercial nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste from the nuclear weapons complex. By 1986 it was clear that work on three sites would be very costly, and Congress balked at the price tag. Political wrangling ensued, and it was no accident that among the three states under consideration—Nevada, Texas, and Washington—the one with the most-junior congressional delegation, including a newly elected Senator Harry Reid, was selected as the only site to be characterized by the Energy Department for suitability as a repository.
Pressure to do something is building, though, as more reactors shut down around the country. Since 2013, nine reactors have permanently closed, and by 2025 at least six more are slated to join them. These 15 will join the 12 reactors already shut down, for a total of 27 around the country. Eleven of them have been or are being completely decommissioned, so all that will remain on site will be the spent fuel, awaiting a solution. Leaving spent fuel in dry storage in perpetuity is not a solution: The casks won’t last forever and will need to be changed out periodically (experts do not yet know how long they will last). Can the American public ensure that a benevolent government will exist 50, 100, or 1,000 years from now to carry out this task? We cannot.
There are important lessons to learn from the mistakes and successes of these other programs: The host community must accept the site by a large majority; the host community must be compensated; it must be allowed to veto the site, up to a predefined point in the process; the process works best when the host community is allowed to participate in site development and conduct its own independent research; the nuclear waste management organization and the nuclear regulator must be trusted institutions; and the waste management organization must have the ability to manage its own budget and plan for the long term.