Republican gains in the 2014 midterm elections have refocused attention on a number of policy areas–including nuclear waste storage. Although President Obama has consistently championed nuclear power by providing federal loan guarantees for new reactors and placing nuclear power among the “clean energy” sources targeted for an 80 percent share of the nation’s electricity production by 2035, he has also placed the viability of nuclear power in doubt by thwarting efforts to build a high level radioactive waste repository at Yucca Mountain, Nevada. Several newspapers around the country have run editorials arguing that the Yucca Mountain ought to be revived or even, as the Chicago Tribune suggested, “fast-tracked.” Arguments like these emphasize the risks associated with our current interim storage of spent fuel at more than one hundred power plants in close proximity to population centers throughout the country, commitments for disposal capacity the federal government owes utilities and contaminated legacy sites like those in South Carolina and Washington State, and the amount of research and spending that has already been devoted to investigating the suitability of the Yucca Mountain site.
However, it is unlikely that Yucca Mountain will ever receive shipments of nuclear waste. Nevada’s persistent and successful efforts to thwart the Yucca Mountain project and the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 are likely to continue as they demonstrate the futility of a policy that forces disposal on an unwilling host state. Three years ago the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future said as much, recommending instead a “consent-based” approach to siting nuclear waste storage and disposal facilities. How would such an approach work?
For the past three years, Texas has been accepting what so many other states and localities have rejected in past decades- radioactive waste from the nation’s nuclear power plants. A newly opened private facility operated by Waste Control Specialists in Andrews County, Texas has been receiving shipments of low-level radioactive waste from multiple states. This year, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has amended the license for the Andrews County site to more than triple its capacity and it can begin accepting “Greater Than Class C Waste”- the most highly radioactive materials in the low-level radioactive waste stream, as well as depleted uranium. Residents and elected officials in Andrews County are now considering whether or not to support a proposal for a high-level radioactive waste disposal facility.
We should take a closer look at past developments in Nevada and more recent decisions in Texas to guide our future nuclear waste policy. These two states are engaging with different aspects of the nuclear waste stream, governed by very different policy approaches. Nevada’s efforts to thwart the Yucca Mountain project are rooted in the coercive approach codified in the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982. In contrast, the willingness of Texas to establish new disposal capacity stems from the Low-level Radioactive Waste Policy Act of 1980—a law that expanded the authority of states hosting disposal sites in an effort to overcome state opposition to waste sites in the midst of an urgent shortage of disposal capacity.
First, let’s consider the troublesome politics that has infused the Nevada case. The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 established a scientific site selection process for an eastern and western waste repository. However, President Reagan abandoned this process in 1986 by halting the search for an eastern site amid fears of midterm election losses in potential host states of Wisconsin, Georgia and North Carolina. In 1987, Congress abandoned the search for a western site when House Speaker Jim Wright (D-TX), and House Majority Leader Tom Foley (D-WA), amended the law to remove Texas and Washington from consideration. The amended law became known as the “Screw Nevada” plan because it designated Yucca Mountain as the sole site for the waste repository.
While politics effectively trumped science in the selection of Yucca Mountain, opponents- led by Senator Harry Reid of Nevada- have employed politics to effectively thwart the project. In 2005, Reid placed 175 holds on President Bush’s nominations for various executive appointments until Bush finally nominated Reid’s own science advisor, Gregory Jaczko, to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). In 2006 Reid persuaded the Democratic National Committee to move the Nevada caucuses to the front of the 2008 presidential primary calendar, prompting each candidate to oppose Yucca Mountain. President Obama fulfilled his campaign promise by tapping Jaczko to chair the NRC and dismantling Yucca Mountain. Each year the President’s budget proposals zeroed out funding for the facility, the NRC defunded the license review process and the Department of Energy has continued to mothball the project. Although court decisions have forced the administration to begin reviewing the project, progress has been slow and in the meantime the Yucca facility offices have been shuttered, workforce eliminated, and computers, equipment and vehicles have been surplused. Jaczko was forced to resign amidst concern from other NRC members that his management style thwarted decision making processes. However, Jaczko’s chief counsel, Stephen Burns was sworn in as the commissioner of the NRC on November 5, 2014.
We should expect, accept, and plan for such political maneuvering. Our system of locally accountable representatives empowers individual office holders with a wealth of substantive and procedural tools that make all nuclear politics local. Any decision making on this issue will be a political contest to locate or avoid the waste. Consequently, if there is to be a politically feasible nuclear waste repository, it will require a willing host. Money and the promise of jobs alone have not proven alluring enough for acceptance of such a project. We would do better to embrace our decentralized politics and offer the host significant authority over the waste stream.
This is the current situation that Texas enjoys: Congress gave states responsibility for establishing low-level radioactive waste sites and, as an incentive, enabled states to join interstate compacts. Once approved by Congress, a compact has the authority to accept or decline waste imports from other states, which is a power that is normally not extended to states because it violates the interstate commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution. Texas is in a compact with Vermont, and as host state, Texas shapes the waste market by determining disposal availability for other states. Texas also has authority to set fees, taxes, and regulations for disposal in collaboration with federal agencies. Compacts can dissolve and host states can cease accepting waste altogether at a future date. While even under these provisions most states will refuse to host radioactive waste, the extension of state authority at least courts the possibility (as in Texas) of the rare case that combines an enthusiastic local host community in a relatively suitable location, a supportive state government, and a lack of opposition from neighboring communities and states. This approach better meets our democratic expectations because it confronts the local, state and national politics openly and directly, courting agreement at each level and extending authority over the waste stream to the unit of government bearing responsibility for long term disposal within its borders.
What if we adopt this approach and there is no willing host for spent fuel at a technically suitable site? What if a site is established, but at some future date the host state and compact exercise authority refuse importation or dissolve altogether? We would be left with interim onsite storage- the same result our current predictably failed policy approach has left us in. If there is no willing host, or if long term disposal is less certain due to the host’s authority over the waste stream, we also gain authentic and valuable feedback on societal support for nuclear energy. That is, our willingness to provide for waste disposal in a process compatible with our democratic norms and decentralized political system should influence our decisions on nuclear energy production and waste generation.