Nuclear Waste Policy and the Future of Nuclear in America

By Ryan Lee & Ryan Yonk
August 15, 2016 at 5:00 am ET

Currently, 1 in 3 Americans lives within 50 miles of nuclear waste. Above ground and nearing their capacity, small facilities scattered throughout the nation are failing to adequately handle the increasing nuclear waste inventories headed their way.

The United States’ nuclear regulatory regime is ill equipped to handle this ever-increasing problem, leaving the nuclear energy industry at an impasse. Unfortunately that impasse stems from the actions of politicians and legislators acting as nuclear regulators. These leaders often rely too heavily on poor information and misconception, rather than sound science.

The history of nuclear energy has been plagued by public opposition based in fear. This fear emerged with the dawn of the nuclear age, and the destruction of Japanese cities by atomic bombs during World War II. War time events combined with rare and unignorable incidents such as those at Fukushima and Chernobyl only perpetuated the fear of the possible consequences of nuclear energy.

Legislators have long since passed and implemented policies that play primarily to these fears. Legislation regulating how nuclear waste can be handled, recycled, and stored have been unnecessarily strict in an attempt to eliminate every risk associated with that waste. These policies disregard the history of nuclear energy in the U.S.; which has a long safe record and prevents more deaths than it causes.

One of these policies was put into place by the the Carter Administration in 1977. This policy prohibited the reprocessing of nuclear wastes as a response to fears of nuclear proliferation and terrorism. Without the ability to recycle wastes, options for the disposal of wastes has been severely limited. The need for a disposal plan lead to the creation of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982, which was passed in order to develop a road map for the disposal and storage of nuclear waste in the U.S.

The highlight of the NWPA was the designation of a deep-geologic repository site at Yucca Mountain in Nevada in 1987. This single site was to serve as a permanent repository for all of the nuclear waste in the nation. Initially, the site was required to be able to contain waste safely for 10,000 years. Fears of safety, combined with the “not in my backyard” ideology of numerous policymakers led to the requirement being extended to 1 million years. Due to these changes, Yucca Mountain quickly became prohibitively expensive with estimated costs rising to $65 billion, ultimately leading to the projects defunding in 2013, and a strong reminder of the dysfunction of American nuclear waste policy.

As of 2015, nearly 20 percent of the nation’s electricity needs were met by nuclear energy. This presents an alarming statistic as the vast majority of the nation’s nuclear plants in the U.S. were built in the 1970s and 1980s, and thus will either need to be replaced, retrofitted, or decommissioned in the near future, creating substantial waste products that must be dealt with by an already overburdened waste disposal system. As problematic as finding a to the nuclear storage problem is, a number of clear solutions seem to be road-blocked by inept policy. A report to the U.S. Secretary of Energy by the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future, as well as an interdisciplinary study conducted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the lack of a comprehensive waste disposal plan is now the single largest roadblock to the expansion of nuclear energy in the United States.

With an increasing stockpile of radioactive waste already pushing the capacity of the limited storage facilities throughout the nation and more waste on the horizon, the security, and safety of our high-level nuclear wastes, as well as our energy future, are an urgent policy consideration. Solutions require an end to nuclear policy based on misconceptions, poor information, and the overall fear of nuclear Energy and waste among the public. Future nuclear policy should aim to maintain safety while still recognizing that nuclear energy is a staple of energy production in the U.S.

Ryan Lee is a research associate at Strata, a policy research center in Logan, Utah. Ryan Yonk, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of research at Utah State University.

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