Nuclear Gridlock: The Nuclear-Waste-Disposal Industry Is Haunted by Failed Policy

By Albrecht, Stan L. | Forum for Applied Research and Public Policy, Summer 1999 | Go to article overview
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Nuclear Gridlock: The Nuclear-Waste-Disposal Industry Is Haunted by Failed Policy


Albrecht, Stan L., Forum for Applied Research and Public Policy


Most policy analysts and other observers would agree that efforts to site facilities for the storage of nuclear wastes have engendered one of the most difficult and intractable public-policy problems this country has ever faced.

The Low-Level Radioactive Waste Policy Act, passed in 1980, required each state to ensure the availability of disposal capacity for low-level wastes generated within its borders. Wastes covered under the act include residues from the processing of uranium ore as well as equipment and materials--such as tools, protective clothing, and cleaning materials--contaminated with low levels of radioactive materials.

To facilitate disposal of these materials, the Low-Level Radioactive Waste Policy Act encouraged the development of interstate compacts for the regional siting of disposal facilities. In other words, a state could strike a deal with one of its neighbors to accept its wastes.

Two years after the Low-Level Radioactive Waste Policy Act was passed, Congress passed the Nuclear Waste Policy Act. This legislation was designed to create a comprehensive national program for permanently disposing of high-level wastes--primarily, used uranium fuel from commercial nuclear reactors and military radioactive wastes generated during the production of nuclear weapons--by burying them in mined, geological repositories within the earth.

Both acts were amended later in the decade. The Low-Level Radioactive Waste Policy Act was amended in 1985 to provide additional incentives to states to form regional compacts and to meet siting deadlines. The Nuclear Waste Policy Act was modified in 1987 with the passage of the Nuclear Waste Policy Amendments Act, which, among other things, abandoned the plan to evaluate multiple sites and focused efforts instead on a single location: Yucca Mountain, Nevada.

In the intervening years since Congress attempted to place the country on this relatively fast track toward developing nuclear-waste disposal capacity, however, not a single low-level site has been approved, and the high-level program appears to be decades from having a functioning repository.

Further, several of the interstate compacts encouraged by the Low-Level Radioactive Waste Policy Act are in disarray, and the low-level waste sites that are closest to obtaining a license, along with the high-level waste site at Yucca Mountain, face a continuing barrage of public opposition, legal challenges, and delays that have escalated costs. (1)

We can only conclude that efforts to site facilities to date have been uniformly unsuccessful and that we are now caught up in policy gridlock.

At a Standstill

Five factors have nudged us into this policy gridlock: 1) a history of benign neglect of the waste end of the nuclear cycle; 2) a general failure of both the public-policy sector and private industry to anticipate the volatility of public response to proposals for nuclear-waste disposal; 3) overriding public fears of "things nuclear"; 4) a track record among nuclear managers that has failed to nurture trust; and 5) strong, effective opposition from the larger environmental community and, more recently, from civil-rights organizations. Taken together, these five factors have framed a complicated, disturbing picture for those charged with resolving the nuclear-waste-disposal crisis.

* Benign neglect. For several decades, federal policy encouraged and subsidized the development of nuclear power but devoted scant attention to the question of what to do with its waste byproducts. Apparently, both the federal government and the nuclear industry believed that the disposal of nuclear waste would pose a manageable, non controversial technical problem. (2) Hindsight reveals the extent to which this was a serious miscalculation. Ever assuming that a ready solution lay right around the corner, decision makers turned to the waste end of the cycle much too late.

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