Friday, February 3, 2012
The story of Yucca Mountain, Nevada—designated as the nation’s repository for commercial nuclear waste—is of central importance in the enduringly contentious nuclear power debate.
If you’ve been following the Yucca Mountain controversy, you’ll know that both the Department of Energy and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission have essentially halted the project. From an administrative law perspective, it seems pretty clear that neither agency is behaving as Congress intended. (Links to various documents related to those decisions and legal challenges can be found here.)
But that perspective is unsatisfying because it only hints at a much broader, more persistent issue in confronting environmental risks: whose voice matters?
Consider some of the possibilities:
- Is it Congress, which designated Yucca Mountain as the sole location for site characterization and, ultimately, disposal?
- Is it Nevada, whose veto of the project Congress overrode?
- Is it President Obama, who campaigned on a promise to shut down Yucca Mountain, and has directed the Department of Energy to do just that?
- Is it Nye County, Nevada, within which Yucca is located, and which supports opening a repository?
- Is it the generators and owners of nuclear waste that have made payments into the Nuclear Waste Fund for decades?
- What about the scientists who worked for DOE, NRC, and consulting firms, many of whom dedicated their careers to the repository?
- And what about the broader public and our collective reliance on nuclear energy for about 20% of our electricity?
All of these voices matter—and many more could be added to this list. But whose should prevail? And are there ways to structure our decisionmaking processes going forward to somehow reach outcomes satisfactory to many voices?
On January 26, 2012, the Blue Ribbon Commission (BRC) on America’s Nuclear Future released its final report (press release and final report available here.) Tasked with conducting a comprehensive analysis of policies related to the back end of the nuclear fuel cycle, the BRC’s report recommends using a consent-based, adaptive approach to siting future nuclear waste storage and disposal facilities.
Exactly what that approach will look like remains to be seen. The good news is that there has been a lot of experimentation already in stakeholder engagement, providing a nice supply of lessons for the future. I’ll be spotlighting some of those in the coming months, and hope readers will share others in the comments.
- Emily Meazell