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Life After Yucca

Reviving hope for spent-fuel storage.

Fortnightly Magazine - November 2010

areas with sparse populations, like Nevada.

At about the same time, federal policy shifted with regard to the participation of affected communities. EPA was given DOE’s former role in regulating nuclear radiation. In August 1993, the agency set up site-specific advisory boards at 12 major sites and began a more collaborative approach to managing nuclear sites. DOE cooperated with EPA in implementing this approach. The local panel at Fernald began to review the options of shipping vs. storing the wastes on site. They asked questions: How clean was necessary? Where should wastes go? What would be the risks and financial costs of shipping? What would be the effect on communities where waste was to be stored?

Members of the Fernald Advisory Group visited their counterparts at the Nevada Test Site, developed personal relationships with them and came to understand their concerns. When they looked at the billions of dollars it might cost to clean and ship all the wastes, and the increased accident risks, the Fernald group changed its positions. They agreed to allow some wastes to remain on-site, as long as the highest level wastes were shipped elsewhere. This was a dramatic turnaround.

Early estimates were that the costs to remove all of the wastes at Fernald would be about $12 billion. By 2006, the actual cost was $4.4 billion. The cleanup was completed 12 years earlier than forecast. On-site disposal of 1.35 million cubic yards in a secure landfill had occurred by 2003, while 31 million pounds of uranium waste had been removed to Texas and Utah. In 2008, the Fernald Preserve was formally opened for public use.

Some slightly contaminated laboratory and office wastes were shipped from Fernald to Clive, Utah, 80 miles west of Salt Lake City, where they are stored by EnergySolutions, a private, commercial, for-profit business licensed to dispose of Class A low-level radioactive wastes (LLRW). Its Clive facilities and its operations are regulated by 13 local, state, and federal agencies. Wastes are disposed in a landfill. A proposal for EnergySolutions to handle Class B and Class C wastes, less than 1 percent of current wastes, is in process. 11

As at the Fernald site, there was controversy over disposal of wastes at Hanford, the focus of the largest environmental cleanup worldwide. And as with Fernald, public panels were established to accommodate a collaborative process. Initially, wild hearings featured radical groups making dramatic presentations. But as the hearings progressed, more rational consideration of the facts eventually led to substantive review of the issues and local support for an agreement with DOE on a path forward. The Hanford Advisory Board is central to the decisions about waste disposition on and off site.

The Utah Experience

In Utah, the electric utility industry approached a local Indian tribe, the Goshutes of Skull Valley, after unsuccessful attempts to negotiate with an Indian tribe in New Mexico for an interim spent-fuel waste-storage facility. The industry signed an agreement for the interim storage of dry fuel casks on the Goshute reservation on Dec. 26, 1996. 12 The State of Utah, during the