Efforts to site new facilities for the disposal of hazardous waste (HW) and radioactive waste have met with utter paralysis. HW disposal companies have spent hundreds of millions of dollars trying to site new landfills and incinerators for this waste, but most of this money has gone down the drain. Since the enactment of the chief federal law on HW, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act of 1976 (RCRA), only one new HW landfill has opened on a new site in the United States (in prophetically named Last Chance, CO). Siting attempts for nuclear waste have been just as fruitless; except for one small facility in the Utah desert, no new radioactive waste disposal sites have opened since the late 1960s.
This siting impasse is unnecessary. It results from a little-noticed structural flaw in our system of environmental law, and from a misunderstanding of the psychology of communities faced with facilities they perceive as dangerous.
The structural flaw is that we regulate every different kind of waste stream separately. Starting with nonradioactive wastes, there are RCRA hazardous wastes; remedial waste from the cleanup of Superfund and other contaminated civilian sites; remedial waste from the cleanup of RCRA waste disposal sites; contaminated soil from underground storage tank cleanups; contamination from old military facilities; old chemical weapons; hazardous waste from the demolition of buildings and structures, such as asbestos, lead, and polychlorinated biphenyls; non-RCRA industrial wastes; wastes from mining and from oil and gas extraction; sewage sludge; ash from air-pollution control devices and incinerators; and medical waste.
There are almost as many varieties of radioactive waste: high-level and