A Final Resting Place for Nuclear Waste

Location of the Yucca Mountain site
Credit: Department of Energy

For 60 years the problem of nuclear waste has bedeviled our nation. On one level this is no surprise. After all, the horrors of radioactive contamination are vivid enough to make any community asked to potentially assume the entire burden of all the nuclear waste in the U.S. skeptical of the promises of scientists and policy makers that the waste can be stored safely. And the toxic waste will remain dangerous for millennia, likely to outlive humankind’s time on this Earth.

Against that backdrop, Congress mandated and policy makers have repeatedly (since 1987) pushed one solution on the nation: the proposed Yucca Mountain site in Nevada. For a host of technical and legal reasons, this has been an utter failure. Two decades after the congressionally imposed deadline of 1998 to have Yucca up and running, the effort is moribund. It’s NRDC’s view that Yucca was a poor choice for this waste, fraught with technical problems. But more importantly, the people of Nevada and their bipartisan slate of elected representatives overwhelmingly object and it’s clear that they will not give in and allow the waste to be shipped through much of the country to Nevada.  

Yucca has long been viewed as the expedient solution, but that attempt to foist a solution on an unconsenting state has instead been a failure. If Congress decides to waste tens of millions of dollars to restart the licensing process for the Yucca site, more anger and further delay is sure to follow.

Against that backdrop, the Natural Resources Defense Council sought to learn what state officials understand is their regulatory authority over the spent fuel and radioactive waste from America’s 99 commercial nuclear reactors. We sent a questionnaire to state officials working on the issue, and the results showed that an overwhelming majority believe they should have additional regulatory authority over nuclear waste storage and disposal, similar to the authority states now have over hazardous waste.

Importantly, none of the 13 states that responded were interested in hosting a radioactive waste disposal site. Only one indicated it might consider hosting a consolidated commercial spent fuel storage facility.This is a watershed result and one that bolsters NRDC’s view that a new framework for nuclear waste must be established, one that is based on the concept of cooperative federalism.

After all, it’s the partnership between federal and state partners that is key to other federal environmental laws. Under other environmental statutes such as the Clean Water Act or Resource Conservation & Recovery Act (the solid and hazardous waste law), the federal government sets a standard, but the states can assume the implementation of those laws in their state and adjust accordingly and enforce it. They still must adhere to a federally mandated floor of protections. Generally, those states with “delegated” programs can impose stricter requirements or different regulatory mandates.

Credit: DOE

With nuclear waste, however, states are written out of the equation. The original incarnation of the Nuclear Waste Protection Act was a remarkable, nearly visionary piece of legislation that contained one tragic, fatal flaw—keeping the national government’s preemptive authority over that highly toxic waste, and not accounting for the needs of the states and the way all other environmental laws work.

Given these results, it’s clear that under current law neither Yucca nor another other site for this waste will be found. If Congress rewrites the law and ends the Atomic Energy Act’s exemptions from environmental law, then EPA and the states can potentially come up with strong standards and even publicly accepted sites that can finally start to dispose of this nearly unimaginably toxic waste.

The sooner Congress drops its misguided attempts to shove Yucca down the throat of Nevada’s residents and adopts this plan to treat nuclear waste consistent with the rest of environmental law, the sooner our nation will start real solutions to the now six-decade predicament of nuclear waste disposal.

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