What Sweden can teach us about nuclear waste

at 10:13 AM ET, 01/28/2012

In 2010, the Energy Department set up a commission to figure out what to do with the country’s nuclear waste, after a planned repository at Nevada’s Yucca Mountain was nixed. This week, the commission came back and advised a “consent-based approach” to choosing a new site. How would this work?

A scenic view of the now-shut-down Three Mile Island nuclear power plant. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)
To understand why the United States still has no long-term plan to store it’s nuclear waste, it’s worth looking back at what happened with the controversial Yucca Mountain waste repository, which was finally squelched by President Obama in 2009. The problem, as it turned out, wasn’t so much technical — most scientists agree that it’s feasible to design a storage facility that can last thousands of years — as political. Yucca was unpopular because many Nevadans felt the waste site had been unfairly foisted on them by Congress. Back in 1987, the two other proposals for long-term repositories in Washington and Texas were vetoed by powerful politicians. That left Yucca, out in the Nevada desert. The fact that Nevadans never felt they had a choice in the matter made all the difference.

“What’s obvious now, although it wasn’t always, is that if a local community doesn’t want you, there’s not much you can do,” Rod Ewing, a nuclear-waste expert at the University of Michigan, told me in an interview last year. “For a project that takes decades, the opposition only has to prevail once for everything to be put off track.” And, while everyone loves to gripe about NIMBYs, Ewing argues that NIMBYs are a fact of life — irrational or not, people get freaked out by nuclear waste.

So what’s the alternative? One option is to look at what countries like Sweden have done. Back in the 1980s, the Swedish government drew up a long list of locations that could potentially host a waste repository. Each town was given a chance to veto, and, after two decades and countless hours of local consultation, Sweden had two finalists, towns that actually competed with each other for the chance to host the site and reap the economic benefits. (One was finally picked in 2009.) Both towns, not surprisingly, already had nuclear plants in the area, and polls showed support running as high as 83 percent.

Now, there are reasons why a similar process might not go as smoothly in the United States. As Michael Greenberg of Rutgers has found, public opinion on nuclear waste follows an odd pattern. The people who live closest to proposed waste sites are often quite supportive (not least because they tend to have friends and family working in local nuclear facilities). But, as you move farther away, opposition grows. So, even if a local community wants a nuclear dump, the state government may squash the idea.

Still, there’s at least one potential model. Currently, the only long-term nuclear-waste facility in the United States is the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad, N.M., which opened in 1999 and handles the radioactive leftovers from U.S. defense facilities. As Roger Nelson of the Energy Department’s Carlsbad office explained to me, plans for the facility were originally most heavily promoted by nearby residents, who were worried about the area’s economy once its potash mines ran out. Eventually, those locals managed to convince wary state legislators in New Mexico to drop their opposition.

The Energy Department’s commission is suggesting a Swedish-style approach for finding a new replacement for Yucca. Matthew Wald of the New York Times has some excellent additional coverage of the commission, noting, among other things, that the panel appeared to put a damper on the idea of reprocessing nuclear waste back into fuel.

In any case, the hunt for a radioactive-waste repository has taken on a new urgency after the Fukushima disaster in Japan highlighted the risks of storing used fuel rods in on-site pools or dry caskets at hundreds of plants around the country. But the process will likely be a slow one — the commission, for its part, suggested that the search for a new Yucca could take as long as 20 years.

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