Over the past decade, more than 7,000 shipments of radioactive nuclear waste have been sent, without any problem, to a government repository in the southwestern United States.
This crucial repository is not the ill-fated Yucca Mountain, the Nevada site that has been steeped in controversy since Congress selected it 22 years ago to store the country's civilian nuclear waste. Yucca Mountain, in fact, has gotten so bogged down in legal and political fights that President Barack Obama, in his new budget, is proposing to eliminate almost all of its funding and explore "alternatives," raising serious questions about how the United States will resolve its nuclear waste problems—and, for that matter, whether the nuclear industry will be able to grow in coming decades.
The functioning repository is located in Carlsbad, N.M., and it may hold some useful answers. Since opening in 1999, it has received more than 60,000 cubic meters of radioactive waste from the country's nuclear defense facilities. Experts say its success offers valuable clues about how Washington can learn from the mistakes made at Yucca Mountain to find a lasting waste solution.
Foremost is the challenge of winning public support. "Any way you look at it, this is a social confidence problem that needs to be addressed," says Charles Powers, a professor of environmental engineering at Vanderbilt University. Advanced technology, government funding, and political backing all will help, he says, but nothing is more important than fostering local support.
As Powers acknowledges, that's easier said than done. Take Yucca Mountain. When Congress picked Yucca in 1987, it did so without the blessing of the state, which quickly sued to stop the project. (It lost.) Ever since, Nevada officials, led by U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, have aggressively opposed storing waste at Yucca. Some argue the site is geologically inadequate. Others warn of falloffs in Las Vegas tourism. And in general, observers say, there's a mentality of victimhood—a sense that the federal government forced this upon the state.
Events at the Carlsbad repository, officially known as the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, have gone differently. Starting in the mid-1970s, the original push to put it there came not from Washington but from the local community, which was then heavily engaged in potash mining and concerned about its economic future as mines ran out. Says Roger Nelson of the Department of Energy's Carlsbad Office: "They came to the Atomic Energy Commission at the time and said, 'Hey, we think this is a good idea. We want your waste.' " Though many high-ranking New Mexican politicians opposed the project, support in the southern part of the state was, and remains, strong.
Nor is this an isolated case. "Other countries have found a way to do it," says Rodney Ewing, a nuclear-waste expert at the University of Michigan. "Sweden is a good example. Their approach is, we won't build a repository unless the local community agrees." After nearly 20 years of research and study, Sweden this summer is expected to decide between two possible waste sites. In both regions, more than 75 percent of the residents support it, according to a 2007 poll by SKB, a Swedish company. Experts say that's partly because of an intense public education campaign to inform residents of possible risks and benefits.
Not surprisingly, in many places, support for a waste facility is very low. "Not in my backyard" attitudes are common, even though, as Powers's Vanderbilt colleague David Kosson says, the health risk of living near a high-security, properly built, properly operated storage site is actually low compared to other, less regulated operations. Still, the list of countries that have stopped, delayed, restarted, or abandoned efforts to build repositories because of high costs and public opposition is fairly long.
So proponents are trying to develop new ways to build public support. Powers and Kosson have proposed one idea: consolidating U.S. civilian nuclear waste, now spread out at more than 100 locations, into four "interim" regional storage sites that would hold the waste for up to 90 years. To properly select those sites, they say, the government could offer an incentive—$1 billion, for example—to induce interested communities and inform them about risks. Then, with the waste safely stored for 90 years, the government would have enough time to find a permanent geologic site that's acceptable to a local community, all the while developing technologies that might help reduce additional waste.
Indeed, there are other ways to deal with waste than to put it directly into permanent storage. As Energy Secretary Steven Chu recently told Congress, efforts are underway to develop a new generation of reactors that can burn waste, though they'll most likely need several decades of additional work. Meanwhile, some countries, including France and Japan, reprocess their spent nuclear fuel, a technique that reduces the volume and toxicity of the waste product. The United States does not, thanks to a Cold War-era policy intended to limit nuclear proliferation. (Reprocessing involves separating uranium and plutonium, the latter of which can be used for bombs.)