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Burying Uncertainty Risk and the Case Against Geological Disposal of Nuclear Waste

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Chapter 9. An Alternative to Permanent Geological Disposal


In 1952, four years before the United States began commercial generation of electricity by nuclear fission, James Conant—Roosevelt's wartime advisor on atomic energy and later president of Harvard University—predicted that the world would turn away from nuclear power because the problem of waste disposal would prove to be intractable. In 1957, a U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS) panel issued a similar warning: "Unlike the disposal of any other type of waste, the hazard related to radioactive wastes is so great that no element of doubt should be allowed to exist regarding safety." 1 Another NAS panel expressed reservations about solving the radwaste problem in 1960. Again in 1983, NAS scientists continued to express doubts about nuclear waste disposal when they warned that flooding a permanent radwaste repository, with subsequent "exposures after many thousands of years considerably higher than background ... could not be absolutely ruled out." 2

Conant's prediction, that the world would turn away from nuclear power, appears to be coming true—although perhaps not for the reasons he suggested. Indeed, as the first chapters of this volume have argued, the development of nuclear power is slowing down worldwide. Although this slowdown could change, perhaps because of global warming, no new commercial reactors have been ordered in the United States, for example, since 1974. Moreover, as we argued in chapter 2, the commercial nuclear programs in every developed nation, with the exception of France, have been either halted or cut back. Centralized and government owned, the French nuclear program has not proved economical and is billions of dollars in debt. Throughout the world, cost overruns, public opposition, and safety concerns—such as the 475,000 fatal cancers likely caused by the Chernobyl accident—have all caused utilities and citizens to turn away from nuclear-generated electricity. 3 The availability of cleaner, sustainable, alternative energy technologies, 4 such as solar power (which U.S. government studies claim can now supply 40 percent of U.S. energy needs at competitive prices and little risk), 5 and continuing difficulties with radioactive waste have also caused a growing rejection of commercial nuclear power. As Nobel prize-winning physicist Henry Kendall puts it, using atomic energy to generate electricity is "one of the largest-scale technological failures that has ever occurred in a major nation." 6 Despite this failure, however, we still need to deal with the problem of the wastes created by our use of commercial nuclear fission. For more than half a century, nations throughout the world have been generating radioactive waste. Even if all commercial and military nuclear programs came to an immediate halt, there would still be at least 86,000 metric tons of high-level waste (HLW) requiring permanent isolation, in addition to the low- and intermediate-level wastes and transuranics. As one author put it, the nuclear installment plan has already been rung up on the register of time. 7

Because the catastrophic-radwaste-exposure scenario of the 1983 NAS panel cannot be ruled out, at least under current U.S. plans for permanent waste disposal, Alvin Weinberg recently made a proposal to Congress. He recommended that the Department of Energy (DOE) follow the example of Sweden and exert "more effort than it is now to develop ... inherently safe waste disposal schemes ... waste packages, waste forms, canisters, and overpack, that are completely resistant even if the repository is invaded by water, for much longer than . . . 300,000 years." 8 Since the U.S. government requires the HLW package to last for only three hundred years, Weinberg's recommendation calls for 3 orders of magnitude improvement in the longevity of U.S. canisters. To employ Weinberg's scheme, he says we would have to cool the wastes for up to one hundred years above ground, rather than the planned ten years. After one hundred years, Weinberg claims, the heat generated per minute by the waste would be only one-fourth of the produced after ten years; this temporary storage would increase safety and reduce the later probability of leaks from the canisters. Storage for only fifty years would also enable the wastes to be [Illigible Text] 1.5 times more densely; it would simplify repository design and cut facility costs by more than a billion dollars. 9

Although Weinberg favors permanent HLW storage, he is a proponent of temporary, monitored, retrievable storage for the first one hundred years that the waste exists. Hence, his position is significantly opposed to that of U.S. government officials who are pursuing immediate permanent disposal. Believing that Weinberg's proposal has more merit than that of the DOE and the NRC, we argue in this chapter for above-ground, temporary management of HLW in negotiated, monitored, retrievable storage (NMRS) facilities for approximately one hundred years. At the end of that time, we can reexamine the uncertainty and inequity issues (discussed in earlier chapters of this volume) associated with permanent repositories. We argue, therefore, for using NMRS for a century, then making a decision about geological disposal. This is a wait-and-see position. Wait and see if we can develop more resistant copper canisters. Wait and see if we can prevent water from generating colloids and leaching waste from borosilicate glass. 10 Wait and see if we can devise a way to render radioactive materials less harmful. Wait and see if we can resolve some of the uncertainty and inequity problems treated earlier in this volume. At least part of the rationale for our "wait-and-see" attitude is the belief that science, especially science in the public interest, ought to be conservative. Conservative science, as I. S. Roxburgh put it, makes it prudent to assume that if high-level radwastes are buried, then groundwater will eventually come into contact with them. 11 And if groundwater will come into contact with them, then it makes sense to use the long-term copper canisters, as the Swedes do, and to defer permanent disposal until we are certain that we can deal with the problem of groundwater intrusion.

Knowing the uncertainties and inequities involved in our imposing nuclear wastes on future generations (see the previous chapters), the most rational and ethical course of action is to strive to limit both the uncertainty and the damage resulting from our actions. As A. Bates puts it: "Having recognized the fundamental unfairness of inflicting injury upon the innocent and unrepresented people of the future, we can only, in fairness, strive to limit the damage to the full extent of our natural abilities." 12 This chapter presents one option for limiting the uncertainty and damage from high-level radioactive waste: NMRS. 13 Our discussion of NMRS is not comprehensive, because the posal. Nevertheless, our argument is developed enough to show that there are probable alternatives to permanent disposal. After presenting a summary of one important alternative means of high-level waste management, negotiated monitored retrievable storage facilities (NMRS), the chapter outlines the basic arguments in favor of NMRS. The third and final section of the chapter evaluates some of the main objections that can be raised against NMRS.


Basic Principles

If our criticisms of the methodological and ethical flaws in current programs to develop permanent geological repositories are relevant to contemporary decisionmaking, then these criticisms ought to provide some suggestions for improving our public policy regarding nuclear waste. On the basis of the analyses in the eight preceding chapters, we have seven basic suggestions for alternative policies regarding high-level radioactive waste (HLW). 14 Following our conclusions (in chapters 3 through 6) regarding uncertainty, human error, value judgments, social amplification of risk, and questionable inferences, we have three proposals for reforming these aspects of current policy regarding HLW:

  1. Minimize scientific uncertainty by delaying the decision about permanent disposal and by creating technically qualified, multiple NMRS facilities. Each of these will begin accepting spent fuel, for temporary storage, with storage periods and amounts set by legal limit.
  2. Maximize methodological soundness in NMRS site studies and maximize disclosure, understanding, and consent by funding and creating independent technical and financial capabilities, as well as independent review committees in host communities. All these independent groups should be funded by the beneficiaries of nuclear power and be able to help the host community negotiate with government officials regarding HLW site selection, operation, monitoring, and maintenance.
  3. Minimize human and institutional errors in site selection by using a lottery to eliminate qualified NMRS sites. Following the discussion of risk distribution in chapters 5 and 8, we have two suggestions for alleviating inequity.

  4. Spread the geographical risk and maximize regional equity by developing a number of regional NMRS facilities.
  5. Spread the temporal risk and maximize intergenerational equity by funding a "public defender for the future," equipped with an independent technical staff and capable of challenging laws, policies, and regulations regarding HLW. Following the discussion of liability limits, compensation, and consent in chapters 5 and 8, we have two proposals for beginning to address these problems:

  6. Guarantee full liability, now and in the future, for all nuclear and waste-related accidents, deaths, and injuries.
  7. Maximize voluntariness and consent by compensating proposed host communities for the NMRS, even before the communities begin negotiating regarding the terms under which they might accept the NMRS facilities.

The NMRS Option

The first proposal, developed in response to the criticisms of existing plans for permanent HLW repositories, is to plan and build NMRS facilities. We could minimize scientific uncertainty by delaying the decision about permanent disposal for one hundred years and by creating technically qualified, multiple NMRS facilities, each of which will begin accepting spent fuel, for temporary storage, with storage periods and amounts set by legal limit. 15 The main rationale for NMRS is scientific. As Alvin Weinberg says, U.S. waste management has been like a football game. We were trying for a touchdown pass (permanent disposal), and we fumbled. Now, says Weinberg, we must try for a first down. The first down is successfully handling waste through a monitored retrievable storage facility. 16

In proposing facilities that are negotiated, monitored, retrievable forms of temporary storage, it is important to examine and defend each of the four components of the NMRS. Because the siting, operation, and management of the NMRS will be negotiated, the host communities will be better able to exercise free, informed consent over the siting process. Indeed, as we shall discuss later, a number of communities have already offered to be sites for NMRS facilities. In addition to being negotiated, another reason why NMRS installations are likely to be easier to site (than permanent repositories) is that they will be continually monitored and hence as secure as possible. They will be designed so as not to contaminate either the present or future environment. Conceivably the canisters at an NMRS site could leak, just as they might at a permanent repository. Monitoring should enable us not merely to detect and correct such leaks as rapidly as possible. Better still, monitoring should enable us to detect weak or corroding containers and replace or repair them even before they begin to leak. It is also important for HLW policy to keep open options for the future, to preserve flexibility, and to enable us to respond to mistakes. Hence, to correct gaps in our knowledge, it is important for the NMRS sites to be retrievable facilities. Later, in perhaps one hundred years, society may be better able to deal with HLW in a way that ensures long-term predictability and containment; the waste will be