Friday, February 3, 2012

Yucca Mountain: Whose Voice?

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

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Wrong question. Equivocation may be viable in the law or in politics, but rarely is in the matter of leadership. A consensus typically is developed around a precept advanced, defended, persuaded, even shouted over competing views, by someone taking an initiative early on. Once a concept is introduced, the consensus then coalesces around that leading position, and leader. This is a dynamic well understood by those who have studied the rise of totalitarianism.

No politician in this past generation has wanted to be responsible for taking the initiative to make Yucca Mountain happen without the cover of an overwhelming Congressional vote. This weakenss of not leading on hard matters is also why it has been so easy for a small cadre in the administration and Senate to conspire to subvert the current law in the NWPA-AA. Deconstruction is much easier than construction. Success is achievable merely by shouting loudly and consistently for a new direction (such as in "Crucify Him! Crucify Him!") and is done so easily because there are seemingly few who would dare risk the confrontation with a certain majority leader and the White House - - and it only takes two to tango so the House gets to sit and watch.

Rather, the question you might more gainfully ask is: Who will lead on ensuring a solution to spent fuel in our lifetime? (Perhaps, the same question is asked a different way - who will stand up and lead the effort to preserve federal law when it is a matter of national interest and national security, rather than roll over with the thin and poorly thought-out electioneering excuse that it is a states rights issue.)

There is, then, in consequence, a further extension of that question: Just why would anyone want to take a leadership role in seeing Yucca Mountain through to conclusion? I suspect we all know. The obvious answer is that they would not, because it is risky and, as Machiavelli noted, they would make enemies of those who represent the established power.

Now, such a consideration brings us to the ultimate question: what follows from the lesson that elected officials will not "risk it" to take the leadership in bringing Yucca Mt. to its full procedural resolution?

It is this: why should we think such resolve much less consensus would suddenly be found for the multiple, voluntary, and "consent-based" alternative locations?

Imagine that there is a chorus of voices all shouting in discord "NIMBY" - "try them, their ecomony stinks" - "show us the money" - "prove it will be safe for ever and ever" - "just don't transport it through 'my' state" - "our school district will veto it", etc. In that cacophony, will anyone hear the clarion call of studied leadership. Probably not.

So, be careful to ask the right question. Whose voice? Grant that it may be the voice of reasoned and just leadership doing the hard things that lie before us.

Posted by: Fred Zyphel | Feb 4, 2012 6:20:40 PM

If another geological repository is developed and the licensing process for it is nearly finished will the DOE (or a new agency responsible for nuclear waste disposal) be able to withdraw the license application because it is "not workable" without giving scientific reasons for the license withdrawal?

Posted by: Susanne E. Vandenbosch | Feb 4, 2012 10:33:02 AM

First and foremost, the President's duty in the Constitution is to enforce the laws passed by Congress. Obama dissolved OCRWM which was created by the NWPA, and stopped development of the Yucca Mountain Repository as duly passed by Congress. This is a bad precedence being allowed to stand that a President can willfully ignore a major federal law with over $100 billion impact on taxpayers as well as endangering over 140 communities with nuclear waste. Every state should be in court to stop Obama, yet only a few are. Obviously, lawyers and politicians have no ethics to correct each others' misbehaviors.

Posted by: Davelv | Feb 4, 2012 10:32:31 AM

With all due respect, the issue of intergenerational equity is overstated in this case. The DOE modeled a period of 1,000,000 years, which is hardly a meaningful assessment. Notwithstanding that argument, the waste is at its greatest toxicity level now; time acts in our favor by the decay of the waste products. Our generation's responsibility is to minimize the volume of waste (by reprocessing and reusing fuel) and to dispose the remaining waste where is can be managed and monitored, safely.

Future generations will be far better served if we worry less about things we cannot control but only predict through a series of highly complex, and therefore highly suspect, computer models, and worry more about the mountain of debt that we continue to heap on our children, our grandchildren, and their progeny.

Posted by: Butternuts | Feb 4, 2012 8:55:43 AM

Another important voice question raised by Yucca Mountain involves intergenerational equity. DOE's models suggest that the repository most likely would create a groundwater contamination plume lasting hundreds of thousands of years. That means the importance we assign to the preferences of future generations, or, in economists terms, the discount rates we apply to their interests, should be centrally important to our evaluation of the repository.

Posted by: dave owen | Feb 3, 2012 6:01:12 AM

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