We Want You! (To be a Permanent High-Level Radioactive Waste Disposal Site)

The Fukushima Daiichi plant meltdowns and subsequent explosions in Japan exposed the dangers of the storage plans for spent high level radioactive waste[1] (HLW) currently used by the United States.[2]  The United States stores nearly 65,000 metric tons[3] of HLW in water tanks or concrete casks within operating nuclear power plants or on the grounds of decommissioned nuclear power plants.[4]  This figure is estimated to increase at rate of 2,000 to 2,400 metric tons annually.[5]  However, these storage methods should not be considered a permanent storage solution.[6] 

Despite an acute awareness of the potential risks to public health and environmental safety, the Federal government has tried to develop a permanent HLW disposal facility at Yucca Mountain, Nevada for the past 30 years in accordance with the Nuclear Waste Policy Act[7] (NWPA).[8] Unfortunately, an amendment to the NWPA in 1987 significantly narrowed the Federal government’s ability to identify alternative HLW repository sites and designated Yucca Mountain as the only future site for a permanent geologic HLW repository in the United States.[9]  However, the unilateral decision to build the HLW facility at Yucca Mountain via Federal legislation has become a source of bitter conflict between Nevada and Congress that has been fought for years in courts and Congress.[10]  Recently, a DOE advisory committee tasked with reviewing policies for managing the back-end fuel cycle, noted that the delays and controversy associated with Yucca Mountain may be partly attributed to the NWPA’s highly prescriptive, inflexible approach driven by political considerations.[11]  Coupling this decades-long gridlock with the current Presidential Administration’s desire to terminate development of the Yucca Mountain facility[12] and the NWPA’s provision precluding evaluation of other sites; the odds of the United States achieving of developing a permanent HLW repository is significantly diminished.

On the bright side, the United States need not look further than its northern neighbor, Canada, for a possible solution for its permanent HLW storage woes.  Canada’s Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) recently reported that 19 communities formally expressed interest to learn more about hosting a HLW disposal facility through the nation’s phased voluntary-based siting plan.[13]  Although no community has volunteered to host a HLW disposal facility, the high level of interest expressed by these communities has encouraged Canada and other nations that traditionally consider nuclear waste disposal sites to be “political poison for any public officials that even hint they might accept them in their backyard.”[14]  Canada can move forward with the next phase of its siting process and begin discussions with interested communities about its siting procedures and the economic benefits of hosting a HLW disposal site.[15]  More importantly, Canada will also perform an initial screening to determine whether any volunteer community meets the scientific criteria to serve as a host HLW disposal site.[16]  Canada’s process will open the door to a series of evaluative studies to determine the most suitable location for a HLW repository in conjunction with a community that is a willing participant.

Canada’s voluntary siting approach has started to generate significant support within the United States.  For example, the BRC advocated a similar “adaptive, consent-based siting process” in its final report to DOE in combination with the establishment of a federal corporation tasked with seeking volunteer communities.[17]  Unfortunately, the BRC did not identify any particular means of accomplishing this significant undertaking.  However, implementation of this process could easily be incorporated into DOE’s existing statutory authority under the NWPA.  This could be accomplished through a simple Congressional amendment providing the Secretary of Energy authority to seek permanent HLW repository host sites on a voluntary basis.  The statutory framework of the NWPA already provides evaluation and selection procedures for such sites, making the creation of a separate federal corporation superfluous. In light of Canada’s recent success using a voluntary siting approach there is no reason to believe that similar success cannot be achieved in the United States under the existing statutory scheme.


— Nichole Clagett, Notes Editor

[1] High level radioactive waste is generally a byproduct of fuel used by nuclear reactors to generate electricity.  Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Backgrounder on Radioactive Waste, Feb. 4, 2011, available at  http://www.nrc.gov/reading-rm/doc-collections/fact-sheets/radwaste.html.

[2] Reliable water access is needed throughout the cooling process to keep high temperature fuel rods submersed as the rods continually boil and steam off water until their temperatures are lowered.  Meltdowns at Fukushima were caused by an inability to deliver fresh water which caused stored spent fuel rods to overheat and produced large quantities of highly flammable hydrogen gas. David Biello, Partial Meltdowns Led to Hydrogen Explosions at Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant, Scientific Am., Mar. 14, 2011, http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=partial-meltdowns-hydrogen-explosions-at-fukushima-nuclear-power-plant.

[3] In terms of mass, this figure works out to be about 143,300,300 pounds.  See Metric Conversions, http://www.metric-conversions.org/weight/metric-tons-conversion.htm, last visited Oct. 2, 2012 (Type “metric tons to pounds”).

[4] David Biello, Presidential Commission Seeks Volunteers to Store U.S. Nuclear Waste, Scientific Am., July 29, 2011, http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=presidential-commission-seeks-volunteers-to-store-nuclear-waste.

[5] Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Future, Department of Energy, Disposal Subcommittee Report to the Full Commission, 12 (2012) available at http://cybercemetery.unt.edu/archive/brc/20120620220845/http://brc.gov/sites/default/files/documents/disposal_report_updated_final.pdf [hereinafter BRC Report].

[6] Nuclear Regulatory Commission, supra note 1.

[7] Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982, as amended, 42 U.S.C. §§ 10101 – 10270 (1982).

[8] BRC Report, supra note 5, at iii-vi.

[9] However, the NWPA requires the Secretary of the Department of Energy to nominate at least five potential sites to the President.  The site characterization section of the NWPA does not provide the Secretary authority to consider alternative sites. BRC Report, supra note 5, at 18; 42 USC 10133 (1982).

[11]BRC Report, supra note 5, at 6.

[12] Lisa Mascaro, Obama Administration: ‘We’re Done with Yucca Mountain’, Las Vegas Sun, Jan. 29, 2010,  http://www.lasvegassun.com/news/2010/jan/29/obama-administration-were-done-yucca-mountain/.  

[13] Jeff Beattie, Nineteen Communities in Canada Signal Interest in Hosting a Nuke Waste Site, Energy Daily, Sep. 11, 2011.

[14] Id.

[15] Nuclear Waste Management Organization, Moving Forward Together: Canada’s Plan for the Long-Term Management of Used Nuclear Fuel,  available at http://www.nwmo.ca/sitingprocess_overview5

[16] http://www.nwmo.ca/sitingprocess_overview5, last visited Oct. 3, 2012.

[17] BRC Report, supra note 5, at 80.

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