Thursday, February 16, 2012
Last time, I wrote about the Yucca Mountain controversy and highlighted the question of how to structure a nuclear waste siting process in such a way as to maximize the voices of many stakeholders. The Blue Ribbon Commission has recommended a voluntary engagement approach for the United States, whereby an agency would publish technical criteria and invite interested communities to volunteer to host such a site. This suggestion, I’ve noticed, often generates you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me laughter—what community would ever volunteer?
As it turns out, some do, raising a host of other questions about process design in the context of dread risks. Last month, Spain announced that a small village south of Madrid has been selected to host the country’s first full-fledged nuclear waste repository. According to news reports, the citizens of Villar de Canas are thrilled: they lobbied hard for the facility and hope it will remedy the town’s 30% jobless rate.
A similar story is unfolding in the United States: the town of Carlsbad, New Mexico is already host to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), which stores transuranic waste in an underground repository. The location was selected in the early 1970s, with strong local support. Even so, the first shipment of waste didn’t arrive until 2001, following many years of technical study, stakeholder negotiations, legal challenges, and legislative activity. Now that Yucca has stalled, Carlsbad is volunteering to take the nation’s high-level waste.
Putting aside the technical considerations—for instance, the salt beds underlying Carlsbad are excellent geologically, but they are not perfect—could Carlsbad’s interest short-circuit what should be a more deliberative process? Any repository will bring money and jobs to a locality, in addition to benefits packages that are typical of nuclear waste siting schemes. Should other communities have a chance to compete for those benefits? Should we be concerned that money and jobs operate as bribes? Is there an environmental justice problem here, or should we be comfortable with communities speaking for themselves?
A number of process design features might ease some of these concerns. For example, voluntary engagement schemes require strong veto authority for the potential host communities to ensure they have meaningful bargaining power. They start by identifying a site’s necessary technical criteria as a way of building scientific legitimacy into the process. And they do allow communities to compete. Of course, our federal scheme adds some interesting wrinkles to the process. While Spain could work directly with its localities, the United States will have to develop consensus across states, tribes, and local governments. It promises to be a long road ahead, but hopefully we can collectively make a decision about where to site our waste.