In January of last year, the Blue Ribbon Commission (BRC) laid out an outline for how to move forward with managing the U.S.’s nuclear waste. In addition to recommending one or more long-term geologic repositories, they also recommended one or more interim, consolidated waste facilities. The committee also stated that any new facilities should be sited using a consensus-based approach that allows communities to play a central decision making role in the process. Incoming Energy Secretary Enrie Moniz, a member of the BRC, has voiced his commitment to putting these recommendations into motion during his term.
The last time we tried this was back in the early 1980’s with the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, which failed to take a transparent, consensus-based approach. Due to this fact there is an abundance of urban mythology in communities from Georgia to all the way out to Washington State about how “our town was almost turned into a nuclear waste dump.” For 5 years I lived in one of these towns- Asheville, NC- which like dozens of other locations was surveyed and quickly rejected based on inappropriate geology.
The story goes that the community didn’t get so much as a briefing and after a few locals spoke to the surveyors, rumors abounded that the federal government was planning to store waste there. There is still an active narrative, ‘that a small group of community members defeated the powerful nuclear lobby in their attempt to destroy our town,’ which has served as the lead in to just about every article on nuclear energy in the local papers ever since. Fighting nuclear projects is practically a local pastime.
Many involved in “fighting” this particular repository site (which, again, was only surveyed and never actually up for serious consideration) then made careers out of fighting all nuclear projects (locally and nationally), some are still at it today. Leaving people out of the dialogue is a big reason the nuclear industry has a bad rap. People hate feeling left out. This time we’ve got to do a better job at proactive inclusion.
Nuclear waste storage is perhaps the one thing that nuclear supporter, opponents, nonproliferation experts, politicians and everyday folks all agree on!! Everyone thinks we need a solution to the waste problem, like, yesterday. Three cheers for consensus!
And, thankfully, the industry has learned important lessons from the past and is working from a much better starting point:
Unlike the first go round; we already have 2 deep geological repositories. Neither is currently open to receiving commercial nuclear waste for political reasons- but they exist- and that’s half the battle. In fact, it’s got to be more like 4/5ths of the battle!
First, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) is a fully functional repository in an underground salt bed in New Mexico, which currently accepts only government nuclear waste. The site has overwhelming community support and would like to open it’s doors to commercial waste as well- it’s really a matter of getting the proper policy in place. This is the most common sense solution- and I think that the group tasked with implementing the recommendations of the BRC will agree.
Additionally, although Yucca Mountain is currently shuttered, as leadership changes over time there is a possibility that it could be revisited. Since nuclear projects run on decades long time scales, while elections run on 2 and 4-year cycles, there is a strange history of nuclear projects being defunded, refunded, or suffering other budget fluxes for political reasons. It drives nuclear professionals absolutely crazy- and is a big part of why so many government contracted projects have trouble staying on time and on budget, and some never get finished- but it is a reality of the current industry. This dynamic makes it hard to rule Yucca out completely in the long run. That said, certainly WIPP seems the much smarter starting point than Yucca or beginning from scratch.
Which leaves us with siting and building one or more interim nuclear storage facilities. Unlike a geologic repository, there is not a need for a certain type of rock bed, so the options are far more open ended in terms of potential hosts. Location will play a role, but more in terms of accessibility and centrality to other sites that will be sending their waste to the site. As I found out last week while visiting the Netherlands, there are a lot of community benefits to hosting one of these facilities- and with the right people directing the effort, it can even be done with style.
I met Hans Codee at the PIME Conference in Switzerland earlier in my trip and was invited to attend an art exhibit at COVRA, the interim storage facility he directs in the Netherlands. Yes, you read that correctly- an art exhibit at a nuclear waste facility. In addition to quarterly art shows, on the days when nuclear materials aren’t being moved about the facility is open to the public and receives visitors regularly (more than 100 days per year). This is possible due to purposeful design in every aspect of the site, which Codee has overseen since the planning stages.
Hans explained to me that since everyone in the Netherlands is responsible for producing this waste though the consumption of energy, it was important that everyone has access to it- to understand the risks and benefits of nuclear energy. Additionally, he wanted the space to contribute to the community by offering both educational and cultural opportunities.
It difficult for me to describe just how effective this framework for managing an interim nuclear waste facility really is, so I will offer these images. Make sure to read the captions as you scroll over each image, or click on any image to start a slideshow:
My suggestion as we move forward with the BRC recommendation for an interim waste storage facility: build on the COVRA model. So much hangs in the balance in building public trust in nuclear waste management- we really need to create a U.S. interim site purposefully, beautifully and with style. Thankfully, we have a great example for how to do just that. A huge thank you to Hans Codee and the COVRA team- your facility exceeded my wildest expectations!