Panel Highlights Alarming Lack of National Plan for U.S. Nuclear Waste

The handling of America’s radioactive nuclear waste is “damaging and costly,” a government panel says. Daniel Stone reports.

For longer than Barack Obama has been alive, the United States has been a country without a formal plan to deal with long-term nuclear waste. Some nations, like Spain, bury it underground. Others, like France, reprocess some used fuel to suck the maximum amount of juice from it. But America, well, simply stalls.

There are costs to that stalling. A government panel appointed by Energy Secretary Steven Chu released a report Monday taking the United States’s lackadaisical attitude to task. “Put simply, this nation’s failure to come to grips with the nuclear waste issue has already proved damaging and costly,” wrote the panel, which was led by Lee Hamilton, a former Democratic congressman, and Brent Scowcroft, a national security adviser to two Republican presidents.

The problem is diverse and robust. Rather than store all nuclear waste in a single, highly protected location, America’s current policy simply bides time by housing the radioactive byproducts of nuclear fission at each of the country’s 104 operating plants. While many are secure, the system has holes. A Newsweek report in late 2010 highlighted safety lapses at some nuclear plants—8 percent of plants holding high-level waste failed security tests.

The report, long awaited by the nuclear industry as the government’s most definitive blueprint for handling waste, made several recommendations, such as creating a new government institution solely responsible for nuclear waste management. It also proposed more efficient transportation of dangerous chemicals and stopping placing some waste in communities that don’t want it and aren’t being compensated by the federal government for the risk of being near it.

The large unmentioned issue, however, is Yucca Mountain, the nuclear waste repository site in rural Nevada, about 100 miles north of Las Vegas. The panel was asked to avoid making judgments about geography or siting—decisions which often are influenced by local politics. In 2009, President Obama effectively canceled the decades-long exploration of Yucca as a possible solution to the nation’s nuclear waste problem. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was widely credited for having pressured Obama to stop the Yucca project from advancing in his state.

To address the U.S.’s nuclear waste future without mentioning Yucca paints a bleak picture for the country, which has no other strong prospects for a repository located elsewhere. “We’re frustrated that they didn’t even use the Y-word,” says Eric Loewen, president of the American Nuclear Society, the leading professional group of nuclear scientists and analysts, referring to Yucca. For nearly a year, Loewen’s group has lamented that the administration dropped Yucca without completing a fair review of the project, uninfluenced by politics.

Instead, the panel and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the federal agency that oversees the nation’s nuclear energy plants, have explored the idea of spent fuel reprocessing. By repackaging and reusing spent fuel, less waste is produced. But commissioners expressed doubts that reprocessing would solve the problem. The Union of Concerned Scientists, a Washington advocacy group, said in a statement that reprocessing fuel simply delays the dangerous build-up of waste, rather than prevent it.

Other countries are equally flat-footed on a long-term policy, including Canada and Japan. But many others, including Sweden, Russia, and the United Kingdom, have plans in place for repository sites that are projected to be operational within the next few decades.

Still, even if Congress and the White House hammer out a plan, the lag time to prepare could be substantial. The report concludes that no currently available technology can “alter the waste management challenge this nation confronts over at least the next several decades, if not longer.” In other words, when it comes to radioactive chemicals stored all over the country, one might have to get used to it.