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Life After Yucca

Reviving hope for spent-fuel storage.

Fortnightly Magazine - November 2010

wastes differ from spent nuclear fuel in that they are irradiated for very short periods of time in a reactor—10 to 14 days vs. 4.5 years for fuel rods. Since weapons-produced wastes have much less radiation than spent nuclear fuel does, with much lower heat content, their impact on a salt repository is much smaller. Such wastes are shown to be acceptable in studies at Sandia National Laboratories and elsewhere. Whether greater heat from spent nuclear fuel would preclude storage in salt merits further study. At a workshop in May 2010, Tom Pfeifle and Frank Hansen of Sandia indicated the lab is researching the issue. 8

Others, such as State Rep. Heaton and Mayor Bob Forrest of Carlsbad, say the WIPP should remain on the table for consideration for future storage uses. They suggest the following considerations:

• If the heat studies by Sandia are favorable, WIPP could handle spent nuclear fuel. Studies show that after 90 years spent nuclear fuel dissipates to a level of radioactivity comparable to transuranic wastes;

• New Mexico and the DOE need to see the performance of salt dome storage of transuranic waste over the next 10 to 20 years to consider expansion;

• Expanding WIPP would be much less costly than building the planned repository at Yucca Mountain. Costs of Yucca Mountain over its lifetime are estimated to approach $100 billion. 9

• Funding for such an expansion could be raised by transferring the $750 million collected each year from fees on operating power plants into a trust fund, or transferring from funds already collected during the past several decades in the nuclear waste fund.

The Fernald Experience

Different approaches to siting have produced different results in the United States.

Cynthia C. Kelly, president of the Atomic Heritage Foundation, formerly director of the Office of Public Accountability at DOE in the 1990s, recalls several success stories of nuclear waste disposition using a collaborative process. Kelly particularly acknowledges the work of Professor James Fishkin of Stanford on what he calls “deliberative democracy” as a path forward for the process of siting controversial facilities.

Because the public view of radiation risks usually is disproportionate to the real risks, Fishkin has applied a deliberative polling process, in which a panel is given access to information about an issue, discusses the information and then re-votes on the issue. Fishkin has documented that such a process can successfully bring public opinion more in line with the real risks.

Such a collaborative process can bring about a more rational, cost-effective solution—as it did at a contaminated site in Ohio.

At the Fernald Feed Materials Production Center, near Cincinnati, uranium ore was purified, prior to making weapons. In 1989, the plant was closed and cleanup of the site began after decades of use and apparent indifference to environmental and safety issues. 10 In the earlier years, weapons production preempted all other concerns. There was widespread dispersion of waste materials, some concentrated in tanks and others spread around the grounds.

As cleanup began, the community was adamant about shipping all wastes to remote