Saturday, July 24, 2010

The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982: Allowing politics to trump policy for nearly 30 years

Last week, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission struck down the Obama administration's decision to drop Yucca Mountain as the nation's only central repository for nuclear waste. The Nuclear Energy Institute and many others support the NRC's decision. But what people aren't talking about is how we got into this predicament in the first place. President Obama could use this situation to correct decades of poorly communicated policy on nuclear waste storage by keeping Yucca Mountain on the table but using a transparent decision analysis process with public participation that takes into account the efforts already expended on preparing Yucca Mountain for storage.

In one of my classes here in Portugal, we had decision analysis expert Larry Philips give a guest lecture on the multi-attribute decision making process that Great Britain is using to determine how to handle their nuclear waste. (Multi-attribute decision making refers to the process of determining objectives, developing criteria from those objectives on which to score alternatives, weighting the importance of each criterion, and the determining the best alternative by ranking them by score.) After they finish the first process and decide on a method, they will enter another round of thoughtful deliberation on where to locate whichever waste storage method they choose. Intrigued, I asked him what he thought of the U.S. process of picking Yucca Mountain. He glibly replied that the U.S. didn’t use any rational decision-making process to speak of.

Of course we didn’t. Because in the U.S., we rarely let scientific and rational thought interfere with a decision that a politician could use to his or her own electoral benefit. The case of where to site our nuclear waste repository was no exception.

The year was 1987. Three repository locations were on the table: Washington state (near the Hanford Nuclear Reservation site), salt formations in Texas, and Yucca Mountain in Nevada. The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 called for an environmental assessment of each of the three candidate sites, and for the president to choose a site to begin centralized storage. This is the stage in the process where public confidence began to erode. President Reagan chose Yucca Mountain. Because of a carefully deliberated multi-criteria decision analysis facilitated by a team of non-partisan decision experts, you ask? I couldn't find anything to support that hypothesis, so I'll just post some pictures that illustrate how I think the decision might have fomented in that administration in a pre-election year:




(All images courtesy Wikipedia)

When I read the Washington Post editorialDon't let politics drive a nuclear-waste decision” from July 19, I thought how appropriate that title would have been twenty-three years ago when politicians were sealing the fate of Yucca Mountain and billions of ratepayer dollars. Even the first paragraph belies a logical inconsistency that should give a reader pause:

“In 1982, the government claimed ownership of the nation's wastes and vowed to dispose of them in a central location. In 1987, it designated Yucca Mountain as that location. In 2002, the Energy Department deemed Yucca Mountain suitable, and Congress voted its approval.”

It seems to me that before one location was chosen, before billions of dollars were invested in infrastructure, before nuclear utilities and ratepayers were forced to shoulder the cost of a huge public investment, the government should have done the necessary studies and public outreach to ensure that the project would be viable, both technically and socially. But sometimes what is obvious and logical is also quite elusive to Congress.

Now advocates of a central nuclear waste repository are calling on the Obama administration to stop bending to the will of a certain Nevada senator, but they are failing to grasp the possibility that the Yucca Mountain repository was doomed before it was built due to an opaque decision-making process and lack of public outreach.

I believe there are a number of areas in which the U.S. excels compared to England, but apparently making informed, transparent decisions about nuclear waste is not one of them. In this area, we ought to act more like the British. If U.S. citizens could follow the steps of the decision-making process in a timely, organized way, they are more likely to accept the outcome of the process, whether that outcome is storage at Yucca Mountain, or some other location or method.

Right now President Obama's decision to drop Yucca Mountain from consideration holds just as much logic as President Reagan's decision to drop Texas and Washington state in favor of Yucca Mountain. By embarking on a process that is more inclusive of ideas and that seeks to educate the public as much as it does to gain their approval, President Obama could reverse years of public misconception and apprehension about dealing with spent nuclear fuel.

I'll end with some vintage Daily Show footage...but even Jon Stewart fails to grasp the inter-generational complexities that have gone into making Yucca Mountain the political stalemate that it is today:

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1 comment:

  1. Now that Harry Reid could lose to the slightly mad Candidate Angle, does Yucca Mountain become potentially a live policy again? Without the biggest obstruction, and with a pro-nuclear Nevadan Senator, might it get done. And, if Angle's election means a lot of barking mad things would happen but also Yucca Mountain, should we support her candidacy or not?