One Hundred Centuries of Solitude: Redirecting America's High-Level Nuclear Waste Policy

One Hundred Centuries of Solitude: Redirecting America's High-Level Nuclear Waste Policy

One Hundred Centuries of Solitude: Redirecting America's High-Level Nuclear Waste Policy

One Hundred Centuries of Solitude: Redirecting America's High-Level Nuclear Waste Policy


When Congress passed the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982, it directed the Department of Energy to locate, study, license, and develop a deep underground repository for high-level nuclear wastes. As the authors of this study show, by 1987 the program was in shambles, beset by opposition from every state that had a potential storage site. Congress passed amendments to the original legislation that designated Yucca Mountain, Nevada, as the only site for study and development. The authors trace the evolution of the political and social turmoil created by this difficult site-selection process, looking at the history of the nation's repository program, the nature of the public's concerns, and the effects of intergovernmental conflict. They also examine how other countries have addressed similar problems. Turning to a promising development- a dry-cask storage method judged by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to be safe for a century or more- they urge a full reassessment of the nation's high-level nuclear waste policies and of existing DOE programs. The book concludes with carefully considered recommendations for a new national policy for the storage of hazardous nuclear waste. Everyone concerned about nuclear waste and how it should be managed at the federal, state, and local levels will find valuable information in this in-depth study of the issues at hand.


Time is both the ally of high-level nuclear waste (HLNW) managers and the enemy. It is the ally because the radioactivity in elements and isotopes decreases with age, making the waste progressively less dangerous to human health and safety and the environment. This rate of radioactive decline varies, in some cases diminishing by half (the half life) in seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, or years. in other cases the decay process takes centuries or hundreds of thousands of years before the wastes are safe for human contact. the problem as now conceptualized for hlnw managers is simple to state if not easy to achieve. the hlnw needs to be secured in some fashion until it decays, by virtue of its physical nature, to safe levels. Another possible future solution, not currently available, might be to change the structure of hlnw through high-technology processing and thus decompose the waste into units with different and less lengthy radioactivity. Learning whether this processing is a future option will require patience and generous amounts of time for research.

Time is also the great enemy because it introduces tremendous uncertainties and the possibility of almost infinite variations and combinations for future events. While the past is certain -- although it may be mysterious because we do not know all that has happened -- the future is a storehouse of surprises and revelations. the further we attempt to peer into the future, the less distinct our sense of possibilities becomes. Uncertainty crowds out thoughts, like the terrible deity Cronus of Greek mythology, ready to devour the birth of rationality.

The political process for dealing with the problem of hlnw ultimately resulted in congressional enactment of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act (NWPA) in 1982. Congress decided that hlnw should be stored in a geologic repository deep underground. the regulatory process mandated by nwpa also established a performance standard for the permanent repository. It should securely store spent fuel rods from nuclear power reactors and certain wastes from the federal nuclear weapons complex for 10,000 years. in other words, the repository should impose on the wastes 100 centuries of solitude.

The trick (or perhaps we should say the task) is to find some way to . . .

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