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Life After Yucca

Reviving hope for spent-fuel storage.

Fortnightly Magazine - November 2010

different. Namely, the amounts of wastes produced in Scandinavia are small compared with those in the United States, and the countries approach the problem in different ways. In Sweden, the government established a private corporation, the Swedish Nuclear Fuel and Waste Management Co. (SKB), in the 1970s. Over a period of years, SKB studied numerous potential sites, working closely with local communities and officials throughout the process. Communities were asked to bid to host a repository in deep bedrock for spent nuclear fuel. This collaborative effort contributed to a positive reaction from citizens. Opinion polls in Sweden showed about 85-percent local support for nuclear-waste storage, even from communities that lost the bid, and 75 percent of respondents saying the issue should be resolved now, rather than leaving it to future generations. SKB ultimately selected two sites—an interim facility near Oskarshamn and a final repository in Forsmark. 2

Meanwhile, Finland is siting a permanent facility on Olkiluoto Island, using a meticulous technical and engineering process, designed even to anticipate the return of the ice age, and to endure for 100,000 years. A Finnish government decision on the final project is expected in 2012. 3 Of course, nuclear power generally is viewed much more favorably in Europe than it is in the United States. For example, France gets about 80 percent of its power from nuclear reactors, and as a consequence France has the cheapest electricity prices and best air quality in Europe. In Germany it’s more controversial, with public uncertainty about siting criteria for spent fuel, though about 25 percent of the country’s power is nuclear-generated. Germany initiated a program in the 1990s to eliminate nuclear power, a strategy now being reconsidered. 4

In the United States, despite the Yucca Mountain halt, there are some positive experiences with local community acceptance. For example, closure of the Fernald nuclear site in Ohio in 1989, where 500 million pounds of uranium was purified, led to a controversy over the off-site shipment of wastes. This was resolved through a participatory process that led to local approval of retaining material on-site. 1.3 million tons of the “most contaminated” waste was shipped to waste-facility sites in three states, while 4.7 million tons were encapsulated on site in a landfill designed to last 1,000 years. 5 The remainder of the site was opened as a 1,050-acre nature preserve in 2008.

In another example, at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington, site of the largest environmental cleanup in the world, early controversies about pollution of the Columbia River watershed and intense public hearings eventually led to agreements and local community acceptance of storage of some wastes. The broadly-based and representative Hanford Advisory Board actively participates in site remediation work today, under a tri-party agreement, with broad areas of review. On-site waste treatment plant and vitrification technologies are among the areas being scrutinized.

Also, today there are 103 reactors operating at 64 sites in 31 states throughout the United States. These facilities have long-established relationships in their communities, and most operate with little or no controversy. Such plants provide jobs and