18 February 2013 byWilliam M. Alleyand Rosemarie Alley, New Scientist
Cumbria’s decision to veto an underground repository for the UK shows how hard it is to find a long-term solution
THERE are 437 nuclear power reactors in 31 countries around the world. The number of repositories for high-level radioactive waste? Zero. The typical lifespan of a nuclear power plant is 60 years. The waste from nuclear power is dangerous for up to one million years. Clearly, the waste problem is not going to go away any time soon.
In fact, it is going to get a lot worse. The World Nuclear Association says that 45 countries without nuclear power are giving it serious consideration. Several others, including China, South Korea and India, are planning to massively expand their existing programmes. Meanwhile, dealing with the waste from nuclear energy can be put off for another day, decade or century.
It’s not that we haven’t tried. By the 1970s, countries that produced nuclear power were promising that repositories would be built hundreds of metres underground to permanently isolate the waste. Small groups of technical experts and government officials laboured behind closed doors to identify potential sites. The results – produced with almost no public consultation – were disastrous.
In 1976, West German politicians unilaterally selected a site near the village of Gorleben on the East German border for a repository, fuelling a boisterous anti-nuclear movement that seems to have no end in sight.
In the UK, the practice of choosing candidate sites with little public input was lampooned as “decide, announce, defend”. In the US, backroom political manoeuvring led to the 1987 selection of Yucca Mountain in Nevada, at the time an under-populated gambling Mecca with no political muscle. Nevadans have been fighting what they call the “Screw Nevada Bill” ever since. The Obama administration pulled funding from Yucca Mountain to appease Senate majority leader Harry Reid, who is from Nevada, but the decision is still being battled in the courts and Congress, and the site is not completely off the table.
It took a while, but governments began to catch on that the top-down approach wasn’t working. Time for a new strategy: look for a community willing to host a repository, using lots of touchy-feely language such as consent-based, transparent, adaptive, phased and terminable. On paper, it is win-win. Sweden and Finland, those paragons of Nordic cooperation and efficiency, are now in the home stretch for opening the world’s first nuclear waste repositories, and are held up as proof-positive that the new policy can work.
Yet finding a volunteer community is the relatively easy part, because nuclear waste repositories bring jobs and money. But this doesn’t mean their neighbours, or the regional powers that be, are going to go along with it.
This unfortunate aspect of policymaking became readily apparent in the UK last month. Everything seemed a sure shot for taking the next exploratory steps toward a nuclear waste repository in west Cumbria. Located next door to Sellafield, the granddaddy of the UK’s nuclear facilities, two local communities comfortable with nuclear matters were in favour. The bugles and bunting were practically being unfurled when Cumbria County Council, concerned about tourism in the Lake District and possible future leaks, vetoed the plan. No other volunteers are in line as a backup.
The US recently announced its own volunteer-based policy, including promises to have an interim storage site up and running within eight years and a repository by 2048. It should know better. Is it forgetting its own track record, even with interim storage facilities?
In the 1980s, the community of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, agreed to host an interim facility. Statewide opposition shut it down. In the 1990s, the Skull Valley Band Of The Goshute Nation, a recognised Native American sovereign nation, volunteered to host an interim facility on its reservation in Utah. Last December, after more than 15 years of legal sparring with the state, the utilities working with the Goshute finally gave up.
The most recent volunteer community to be snubbed is Nye County, where Yucca Mountain is situated. After a commission chartered by the Obama administration recommended a new “consent-based” approach to break the deadlock over the site, Nye County officials wrote to US energy secretary Steven Chu giving their consent to host the repository at Yucca Mountain. Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval subsequently informed Chu that the state of Nevada will never consent to a repository.
It’s now over half a century since the dawn of nuclear energy and dangerous and long-lived waste continues to pile up all over the globe. Something needs to be done. Although touted as the solution, finding a consenting community is merely the first step. The harder part is getting everyone else to sign on.
And then comes the real challenge – to determine if the ground beneath a volunteer community is geologically suitable for a repository. This daunting endeavour requires a decades-long process that is both politically sensitive and technically complex. Inevitably, surprises occur as studies go underground. Here, the public needs an independent, technically savvy group whom they trust to address their concerns and interpret the scientific results.
The difficulties of finding a happily-ever-after triad of volunteer community, consenting neighbours and geologically suitable site cannot be lightly dismissed. Replacing a top-down approach with a consent-based one is a step in the right direction, but it doesn’t fundamentally solve the problem.
This article appeared in print under the headline “Down in the dumps”