Big Gummint Needed for Nuclear Waste Disposal

Yesterday I watched a Senate Congressional hearing (archived video behind the link), held by the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, on the disposal of nuclear waste.

I was surprised to find that the Committee is seriously considering a bill (S.1240) that would establish a new government agency solely to deal with the country’s nuclear waste. Whether a new agency is created or not, waste disposal can wait no longer: Date from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission suggests that, with the country yet unable to reach a decision on permanent underground disposal of its nuclear waste, the nation’s nuclear power plants will run out of room for spent fuel rods in their cooling pools in 2015.

The Union recommends transferring these rods to dry cask storage, which is more reliable since it does not require a continuous flow of water around the rods. This would not constitute an additional (i.e., more costly) step to the long-term disposal process since the rods would need to be removed from the pools and put in dry casks on their way to a permanent underground storage site anyway. 

A representative from the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) disagreed because the type of disasters associated with cooling pool risks are very low probability events, which means that the dry cask storage might not be the best use of fixed safety resources. Committee Chairman Ron Wyden acknowledged this concern while also cautioning the NEI rep to remember that, with bipartisan legislation, nobody gets everything they want. The waste disposal issue has been debated for decades with no movement, so small sticking points are to be avoided at this stage.

For me, this issue is a clear reminder of the importance of strong central government to deal with inherently public matters. Whatever one thinks of nuclear energy (I sure prefer solar myself), the fact is that nuclear power provides 8% of current US electricity consumption, so the existing nuclear power plants must be maintained and operated for decades into the foreseeable future if the US is to meet its energy needs (wants too, but also needs).

A system of nuclear power plants is sufficiently long-term, capital-intensive, complex, and dangerous enough to warrant strong government participation. Across the industry, time frames (plant construction, radioactive emission, storage, energy production contracts, etc.) are measured in decades or centuries, far exceeding the stamina and attention span of almost everybody but the government. This is not an issue to entrust to small business owners (as important as their proper role is).

Which is not to say that government actions shouldn’t be guided by continuous democratic input. As was covered elsewhere in the hearing, the passage of federal legislation to use Nevada’s Yucca Mountain as a disposal site has yet to be implemented because locals are fighting the law. Several panelists remarked that future proposals must garner the buy-in of state and local governments. An alternative site acquisition process that invites communities to set forth terms (e.g., jobs) under which they would accept a disposal facility makes sense.

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