With US plans for a deep geological repository now on hold, maybe the US could learn from the experience of European countries, and their communities-led approach, that are leading the way in waste disposal.
The barren Yucca Mountain in Nevada, USA, was once described by a Senate Committee white paper as ‘the most studied real estate on the planet.’
And one thing that is pretty clear, after more than US$8bn in research over a quarter of a century, is this: the mountain does not contain a deep geological nuclear waste repository, and probably never will.
Yucca Mountain’s history as a potential waste disposal site provides a salutary lesson into the pitfalls of steamrollering over public opinion when it comes to matters of nuclear power policy.
Despite offering an optimal location from a geological point of view, and being on a former nuclear test site that is hardly likely to attract much tourism, the Yucca Mountain repository project has met with vehement opposition from the citizens of Nevada.
Political hot potatos
The resistance stems from a 1987 Nuclear Waste Policy Act amendment that resulted in the US Department of Energy prematurely junking studies on two other potential sites and focusing solely on Yucca Mountain, without consulting the Nevadans.
The so-called ‘Screw Nevada Bill’ incensed voters in the non-nuclear state and turned the project into a political potato hotter than a spent fuel rod. By May 2009, US Secretary of Energy Steven Chu was forced to admit: “Yucca Mountain as a repository is off the table.”
The Yucca Mountain project cancellation has left the US with a costly problem, however. The Federal Government has had a legal responsibility to dispose of high-level waste since 1998. Without a repository, the failure to meets its obligations could cost the taxpayer $11bn by 2020.
Nuclear industry sources accept the current political stalemate over a disposal site is counterproductive. “It's a press,” says Scott Carlberg of Talking Points, a public affairs management firm that coordinates the New Carolinas Nuclear Cluster.
“It's a hard thing to look at right now during a time of election years.”
But if politicians want to move the process forward, perhaps the best place to start is by recognising that if the high-handed approach used at Yucca Mountain did not work then maybe a more inclusive one will.
That has certainly been the case in Finland and Sweden, currently the only two countries in the world that have got as far as selecting definite sites for nuclear repositories.
Tellingly, both nations are planning to build repositories in communities that already host nuclear power plants and receive significant benefits from the industry.
Regarding the Finnish repository operator Posiva’s choice of Olkiluoto, near two of the country’s four nuclear power plants, for its disposal site, Timo Seppälä, the company’s senior communications manager, says: “It was not luck. It was a long process.
“From a local perspective, it was essential that we had sites that had nuclear facilities that had operated well, without problems, which had added credibility in the eyes of the local communities. And, of course, the local municipality has benefited in many ways.”
Professor Katherine Morris, BNFL research chair in geological disposal at the University of Manchester’s School of Earth, Atmospheric and Environmental Sciences, UK, agrees that having the local community on side is critical to success in repository planning.
“My view is that it is the only way that things really have been demonstrated to proceed towards implementation,” she says. “I think the UK has learnt from that pathway quite well.”
In the US, she adds: “Each individual community will have its individual drivers. If one is in a nuclear community then their familiarity with the types of processes and types of materials that you can handle will get you down a different pathway to a community that has other drivers.”
Policy makers will have to accept the need to negotiate openly with the communities they target for repository projects, and tailor initiatives to suit them, explains Morris.
“One could imagine, for example, some parts of the US would want not only geological disposal, but maybe refreshment of any nuclear power generation, safe management of sites, and expedited progress to end states, as part of a deal,” she says.
What is evident from the Scandinavian experience and that in other countries is that this process of engaging with local communities is not something that can happen overnight.
The foundation work for Posiva’s Onkalo facility, currently the most advanced in the world in terms of progress, began more than two decades ago.
Thus cautions Morris: “As and when we obtain a volunteer community, it will be several decades after that to do the necessary technical and scientific site-specific studies and the heavy engineering in order to be able to put waste in place.”
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