Thursday, February 16, 2012

Nuclear Waste Siting Processes: Looking for Volunteers

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.

--Emily Meazell

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Thanks for your comments, law prof! The BRC's report focused on nuclear waste specifically, but stay tuned for a post I'll do in the future on chemical weapons incineration facility siting. You won't be surprised to learn (if you didn't know already) that the only site that managed to stay out of court was one that involved a detailed community negotiation process on the front end. And please post about the other schemes you have in mind, if you are so inclined!

Posted by: Emily Meazell | Mar 1, 2012 6:33:35 PM

Very interesting post about "voluntary engagement" schemes! I have a vague recollection that such schemes have been used, or at least considered, in siting other LULUs as well. If i'm right, would be interesting to see how those processes have worked out. Did the Blue Ribbon Commission cover use of such schemes in other contexts? I think you raise some excellent questions that ought to be considered as part of the use of such schemes - thanks for a very thoughtful post!

Posted by: law prof | Mar 1, 2012 2:07:58 PM

Susanne and Dave, thanks for your comments. You might take a look here ( for links and information both about the litigation currently pending before the D.C. Circuit and about the voices of Nye County and the various scientists and engineers on the Yucca project. Regardless of what the D.C. Circuit decides, it seems likely that politics will develop the next mechanisms for siting a repository. How can those best be structured to avoid having another mess?

Posted by: Emily Meazell | Feb 20, 2012 11:23:58 AM

Incentives have often been used by those doing research on human subjects so it is not necessary to reinvent the wheel as far as using incentives to get entities to serve as hosts for spent fuel storage or disposal facilities. The incentives should be large enough to induce participation but not so large that people will risk a serious threat to their health. Some volunteer communites for nuclear waste have high unemployment or fear high unemployment when an existing facility fills up. If they live in a small town or company town there will be a glut of real estate for sale. This will decrease the price of workers homes and a loss of equity in addition to a loss of salary. This prospect may make them willing to accept a new facility.

Posted by: Susanne E. Vandenbosch | Feb 19, 2012 8:17:26 PM

General Scowcroft, a co-chair of the Blue Ribbon Commission, testifying before the Science, Space and Technology Committee of the House of Representatives on February 8, 2012 stated that the volunteer process could start from the bottom i.e. a community could volunteer first and then and effort could be made to see if the site was scientifically suitable.

Posted by: Susanne E. Vandenbosch | Feb 19, 2012 10:30:10 AM

The law presently in effect allowed the governor of Nevada to veto the Yucca Mountain repository. He did so. The law presently in effect allowed a simple majority of the House of Representatives and a simple majority of the Senate to override the veto. This was done in 2002. The Departmentof Energy tried to withdraw the license for Yucca Mountain.The Atomic Safety and Licensing Board ruled that it could not do so. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission did not overrule the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board. The DC Court of Appeals will decide whether the Department of Energy has the authority to withdraw the license. The hearings for this case will start in May 2011. At the present time the federal government does not have the power to offer incentives for taking a geological repository. This will require new legislation. The only positive thing about this mess is that spent fuel which has been removed from the reactor is becoming less radioactive.

Posted by: Susanne E. Vandenbosch | Feb 19, 2012 10:15:24 AM

You note a small village in Spain lobbied for a waste site. So too did Nye County for the Obama cancelled Yucca Mountain Repository as did six other neighboring counties, in total area bigger than each of the 25 smallest US states. The BRC report's recommendation of local community desire was certainly met at Yucca Mountain. To summarize the BRC as anything other than Obama payola to Reid does disservice to the 10000 scientists and engineers who proved Yucca Mountain was safe, and continues the misinformation propaganda of those opposed to following the nation's law per the Nuclear Waste Policy Act passed 30 years ago and followed by every President but Obama.

Posted by: Davelv | Feb 18, 2012 9:29:45 AM

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