In This Issue
Summer Issue of The Bridge on Managing Nuclear Waste
June 15, 2012 Volume 42 Issue 2

Managing Nuclear Waste: Part One of a Two-Part Series on Social Science in the Engineering Enterprise

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Author: Ronald M. Latanision

The United States derives a significant fraction of its electric power from nuclear power plants (NPPs). One hundred four operating NPPs at 67 sites generate about 20 percent of this nation’s electricity. However, nuclear electric generation also produces wastes (used fuel and other kinds of waste). Although we have been operating NPPs for more than 50 years, the management of those wastes is still a vexing issue at the convergence of technology, public policy, and social science. This issue of The Bridge addresses issues related to nuclear electric generation in general and nuclear waste management in particular.

The short-term approach to handling nuclear wastes has been to store them in spent fuel pools or in dry storage containers or casks at reactor sites, an approach that has been adopted throughout the world. In the longer term, there appears to be universal agreement that the most appropriate method of managing commercial and defense-related wastes is by emplacing them in a deep geologic repository for up to one million years, thereby protecting the public from the release of radionuclides that could have adverse effects on human health and the environment.

The United States was well along a path toward building such a repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, a state that has no NPPs within its borders. Over the years, opposition to the selection of the Yucca Mountain site has grown, both on the part of the public and of their elected representatives.

In 2009, the Obama Administration decided to pursue termination of the project. Nevertheless, the reality remains that we must take seriously our need as a nation to manage the wastes we produce, whether they be municipal wastes or wastes related to electric generation or manufacturing, with a view toward their potential impact on the environment. The need to protect our air and water from contamination should be a national imperative.

In January 2010, the White House directed Secretary of Energy Steven Chu to establish a Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future (the BRC). In January 2012, the BRC, led by co-chairs Lee Hamilton and Brent Scowcroft, released its final report. Since then, Secretary Chu has appointed a Working Group to provide advice to the U.S. Department of Energy on implementing the policy recommendations in the report.

Most of our commercial NPP fleet has been relicensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), for another 20 years of operation. To maintain a nuclear electric capacity beyond that point, we will have to consider building new capacity or relicensing existing plants, or both, to operate beyond the current extension. In either case, nuclear wastes will continue to be generated, spent fuel pools will have reached their capacity, and the nation will need a publicly acceptable approach to handling those wastes.

Daniel Metlay, B. John Garrick, and Nigel Mote lead off this issue with a concise history of global approaches to the handling of nuclear waste, in effect, a summary of past and present efforts in this country and abroad that have brought us to this point in terms of nuclear waste management. John is chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board, Nigel is the Board’s executive director, and Dan is a senior member of the professional staff.

In the next article, Al Carnesale, UCLA Chancellor Emeritus and a member of the BRC, discusses the BRC’s findings and recommendations for handling nuclear wastes going forward in the United States. Taken as a whole, the conclusions and recommendations of the BRC provide a sound policy platform. In my view, two of the recommendations in particular stand out. First, the BRC recommends that decisions about the siting of future nuclear waste facilities be consent-based, that is, that the affected public in proximity to a proposed site must agree to accept the presence of such a facility in its neighborhood. Second, the BRC recommends the development of short-term (or interim) storage facilities for nuclear waste as an intermediate step preceding ultimate disposal in a geologic disposal facility.

Note that “short-term storage” in this context might mean hundred(s) of years. However, engineers don’t typically think in terms of designing for a century or more of service. In addition, changes in the stored fuel over a period of centuries, and the consequences of those changes, are essentially unstudied. In the third article, Andy Kadak, former CEO of Yankee Atomic Nuclear Plant and a former member of the MIT Nuclear Science and Engineering faculty, focuses on issues associated with the continued storage of nuclear fuel, perhaps the most immediate challenge in terms of managing nuclear wastes. Next, James Rubenstone of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission describes the regulatory challenges associated with overseeing the management of nuclear wastes in this changing policy environment.

The perspective of the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), the policy organization of the nuclear industry, is presented by NEI President Marv Fertel. He provides a supply-side point of view on the path forward. Despite the industry’s record of safe and secure management of used nuclear fuel, he acknowledges that the public and policy makers still have serious concerns. Fertel identifies the federal government’s inaction in meeting its obligation under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 as a source of the industry’s deep frustration in terms of the development of a sustainable solution to spent fuel management.

Public attitudes are a crucial factor in the national conversation about nuclear power, particularly about the location of interim storage sites or a long-term geologic repository. In the last article, Hank Jenkins-Smith and his colleagues from the Center for Risk and Crisis Management at the University of Oklahoma focus attention on public perceptions of risk and the factors that influence those perceptions.

I find it difficult to envision how any technical solution to the management of nuclear waste can succeed without a supportive public. Indeed, international experience associated with locating repositories described in this issue underscores the importance of public understanding and trust.

The evolution and shaping of public opinion pervade our social fabric from politics to education and health care and from the infrastructure to nuclear waste management. Unfortunately, shaping public opinion often means propagating misinformation for political gain, which has become all too familiar. In an ideal world, however, people can be encouraged to form opinions based on the best and most meaningful information available.

In the next issue of The Bridge, we will provide a broad-based discussion of the importance of social science in the engineering enterprise. Contributors will explore science-based and engineering-based approaches to solving public policy problems, the design of organizations that must operate at a high degree of reliability, the social amplification of risk from hazardous technologies, sources of public opinion about risky technologies, and engineering ethics.

The current issue of The Bridge and the companion issue that will follow in September are the first volumes published under my direction as Editor in Chief, and I welcome feedback from our readers. Send your comments directly to me at rlatanision@exponent.com. Perhaps at some point we will have a mechanism in place for reader reaction.

Finally, I wish to remember my predecessor, George Bugliarello, for his many years of service as “interim” editor and for his graceful sense of engineering statesmanship in guiding The Bridge. He has left us a wonderful legacy.

About the Author:Ronald M. Latanision is editor in chief of The Bridge