THE GOVERNOR of Nevada thinks it's a terrible idea, but the best place for storage and possibly final disposal of the highly radioactive spent fuel from nuclear power reactors is at the Nevada Test Site.
Understandably, no area of the country welcomes the idea of becoming the repository for this spent fuel -- which, by the end of the next decade, will exceed 41,000 metric tons, enough to fill 90,000 large disposal canisters. But with proper incentives and safeguards, a safe and acceptable arrangement can be worked out -- if Congress has the courage to accept responsibility for choosing the appropriate site.
Congress thought it had dealt with the problem when it passed the Nuclear Waste Policy Act (NWPA) in 1982. That act called for investigating potential storage and disposal sites around the country. But it's now clear that, politically, this doesn't work. Any far-flung search for nuclear waste sites becomes an endless procedural and political marathon. Meanwhile, many tons of radioactive waste remain at reactor sites around the country in pools never intended for long-term storage.
The Department of Energy's plans for exploring sites have been stymied by road blocks thrown up by Congress itself. In May 1986 the fragile congressional consensus supporting the NWPA was shattered as DOE sought relief from election-year political pressures. With the White House looking over its shoulder, DOE picked three finalist sites in the West, but postponed indefinitely the search for sites for a second repository in the East. Now many in Congress are trying to block action on even the first western site.
Deliverance will come only when Congress makes up its mind to switch to a new siting philosophy. Instead of renewing the mandate for a fruitless search across the country for the "best" deep geologic disposal and surface storage sites, Congress should direct DOE to focus, at least at first, on one particularly promising place. Legislation that would narrow the search to a single site, and probably to Nevada's Yucca Mountain, is, in fact, now far advanced in the Senate. This measure, sponsored by Sens. J. Bennett Johnston (D-La.) and James A. McClure (R-Idaho) would give a host state financial benefits running to as much as 50 million to 100 million dollars a year.
Gov. Richard H. Bryan of Nevada, protesting "nuclear blackmail," objects on two counts:
First, that it's grossly unfair to single out one state to receive all of the nation's most dangerous radioactive waste.
Second, that to abandon the national search to find the best sites is to throw aside scientific rigor and objectivity in favor of a politically expedient "quick fix."
The first objection could only be addressed by parceling out radioactive waste to every part of the country -- an obviously impractical solution. Yucca Mountain isn't a perfect place, but its characteristics indicate that, with appropriate safeguards, it could make a safe geologic repository.
Yucca Mountain, at the southwest edge of the Nevada Test Site, received the highest rating in a DOE assessment completed in May 1986. Two other sites -- at DOE's Hanford reservation in Washington and in Deaf Smith County in the Texas panhandle -- were also picked for detailed "characterization," including testing from deep exploratory shafts and tunnels.
The latter two sites present extreme environmental or land-use conflicts. The Hanford site is next to the Columbia River, a resource of incalcuable value to both Washington and Oregon. The Deaf Smith site is beneath the Ogallala aquifer, the regional groundwater supply on which Texas High Plains farmers rely to irrigate their crops.
The Nevada site, on the other hand, is relatively free of such conflicts. Together with the NTS, Yucca Mountain is part of the immense desert region known as the Great Basin including some of the driest, most remote, most sparsely inhabited and hard-bitten country in the United States. Among the sites considered, only the Nevada site would allow the repository to be built high above even the most accessible of the aquifers present -- a highly desirable feature because there would be little or no movement of groundwater to leach waste canisters and, in case of eventual canister failure, to transport radioactive material.
Yucca Mountain does present technical problems needing careful study. In particular, the site is in a tectonically active region. A recurrence of earthquakes or volcanism cannot be entirely precluded over the 10,000 year period of hazard for waste isolation, but the fact that the repository would be 800 feet above the water table makes it very unlikely that such events would result in groundwater contamination
But all sites present uncertainties not easily resolved, and the high cost of testing a site makes it sensible to proceed with full exploration of the Nevada site before examining any other. Originally the cost of characterizing each site was put at no more than $100 million; now it is estimated at $1.2 billion for Yucca and even more for each of the other two.
Some of the $3 billion saved by characterizing only Yucca Mountain could go toward reducing Nevadan's safety concerns. Needed assurances include: 1) development of a robust waste canister designed to last tens of thousands of years and provide a "fail-safe" backup system of containment; 2) creation of an independent project oversight and evaluation board with authority to intervene at any sign of lapses from sound scientific or engineering practice; 3) proceeding more gradually toward a final repository, starting with temporary underground and surface facilities in Yucca mountain and on the adjacent Jackass flats, then advancing to permanent disposal. Licensing for final waste isolation could even be deferred for 50 years or longer. Meanwhile Nevada would be assured an early and continued flow of federal benefit payments even if Yucca Mountain were ultimately found unsuitable for a permanent repository.
Many states -- including most notably Nevada itself -- have learned to live with, even love, projects (including power reactors) that are more dangerous than a nuclear waste repository. Many Nevadans would be concerned about any curtailment of nuclear weapons testing, long a major source of civilian jobs. It's worth noting that, despite the real and perceived risk associated with nuclear testing, the state's gambling and tourism industry has flourished. A repository could provide a new and peaceful industry in a state whose major revenues will suffer if other states follow New Jersey in permitting casino gambling.
The repository, however, should not depend on Nevada's consent anymore than did the original weapons-testing location decision. Congress alone should decide how to deal with this national problem. But the state selected should be assured the same generous rewards whether it opposes these siting decisions or not. These benefits are not bribes. They are equity payments recognizing that Nevada will be getting first-of-a-kind waste facilities that no state has wanted.
If the offer of benefits and of new assurances of waste containment and project integrity are presented together, it should be a lot easier to convince Congress -- and many Nevadans -- that the new strategy is not only politically workable but also technically prudent and essentially fair.
Luther J. Carter, a Washington journalist, is author of Nuclear Imperatives and Public Trust: Dealing with Radioactive Waste. This article is adapted from a longer one in the October issue of Environment.