The High-Level Radioactive Waste Policy Dilemma: Prospects for a Realistic Management Policy

By Hadjilambrinos, Constantine | Journal of Technology Studies, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview

The High-Level Radioactive Waste Policy Dilemma: Prospects for a Realistic Management Policy


Hadjilambrinos, Constantine, Journal of Technology Studies


Introduction

Since the dawn of the atomic age, the United States and every other nation that has chosen to use nuclear power have created hazardous substances that have the capacity to outlast human civilization, and possibly even the human species, and the potential to devastate the environment. The management of these substances that make up what has been termed high-level radioactive waste (HLRW) has presented a set of technical and socio-political challenges that are matched by few, if any, other science and technology policy issues. For the purposes of this discussion, high-level radioactive waste consists of spent fuel from civilian and military reactors, as well as transuranic waste which comes primarily from the fabrication of nuclear weapons. The most serious of these challenges stem from the fact that this type of waste is extremely harmful to all life and will remain so (and, therefore, must be secured) for a period of time that is beyond anything in human experience (at least 10,000 and, possibly, more than 1,000,000 years). The time frame over which the waste will remain dangerous depends on its composition and, to some extent, on the definition of what constitutes a dangerous level of radioactivity. In terms of spent reactor fuel, composition is a function of the type of reactor and on whether or not re-processing takes place.

U.S. policy for the management of HLRW has focused on long-term (permanent) containment which still has many technical and policy issues to overcome. This focus has been to the detriment of medium-term containment-in fact, existing U.S. law explicitly prohibits the federal government from developing an interim (e.g., medium-term) repository for HLRW before a permanent disposal facility is operational. Medium-term containment presents technical and policy challenges that are inherently much easier to address than permanent disposal. This article argues that without a coherent national policy for medium-term containment, the U.S. HLRW management system is compromised, and the risks to human health and the environment are made higher than they need be.

Problems Inherent in the Permanent Isolation Option

The focus of national HLRW management policy on permanent isolation of this waste from the environment has been long standing. As early as 1956, when the nation's civilian nuclear power program was little more than a research effort, the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) promulgated regulations that, in effect, required all highly radioactive wastes to be permanently removed from the environment (Hewlett, 1978). The scientific consensus at the time was that geologic disposal (a method whereby stable geologic formations constitute the final barrier to waste dispersal into the biosphere) was the only realistic disposal method offering the possibility of permanent isolation. This consensus was expressed in a report prepared by the National Research Council of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (National Research Council, 1957).

In accordance with the findings of this report, the AEC began the search for an appropriate site in which to construct the first permanent geologic repository for spent fuel from civilian nuclear power plants (none of which yet existed)-a search that continues a half century later. The quest for a permanent geologic repository site which was begun by the AEC and was continued by its successor agencies, the Energy Research and Development Administration (ERDA, extant from1974 to 1977) and, since 1977, the Department of Energy (DOE), faced several setbacks over the years. The investigation covered numerous sites in 36 states but failed to identify a single suitable location. The failure was in some cases due to the clearly inappropriate characteristics of the geology of the site, but was more often due to political opposition which made it impossible to even begin to study a site's geology in any detail (Easterling and Kunreuther, 1995, pp. …

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