Take our nuclear waste, please!

After Fukushima, the Obama administration is scrambling to find new storage centers for America's spent fuel rods

Published March 11, 2013 8:11PM (EDT)

This piece originally appeared on Pacific Standard.

Pacific Standard Two years ago today, a tsunami devastated the coast of Honshu in Japan. Twenty-four hours later an aftershock from the earthquake that caused the tsunami triggered sparks that ignited hydrogen trapped in Reactor 1 of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power facility. The reactor exploded. Over the next three days, two other reactors exploded. Those exploding reactors remain one of the indelible images of the disaster.

But as it turns out, they’re not the real problem. What keeps safety officials up at night are Fukushima’s spent fuel rods.

Fuel rods are 14-foot-long metal tubes about the diameter of a pencil that hold stacked pellets of enriched uranium. When bundled into groups of 100 to 500, the rods throw off enough heat to run electricity-producing turbines for one to two years. After that, the heat from the rods begins to dissipate and they’re replaced. Though too cool to generate power, those used bundles of energy are still radioactive—they remain radioactive for about 250,000 years—and they have to be put somewhere.

Utilities generally store spent fuel on site, in massive cooling pools of water for about five years. At that point they have cooled enough to be put in “dry cask” temporary storage tanks—essentially steel pods encased in concrete.

Japan had long tried to establish a permanent storage program for the nation’s spent fuel, to no avail. At Fukushima there were thousands of rods in six pools—a pool for each each reactor—plus an overflow facility. On March 11, when the tsunami killed the diesel generators, circulation in the cooling pools at Fukushima stopped. The explosions at the three reactors sent metal debris into the pools, weakening the pool structures themselves. If just one of the plant’s spent fuel pools collapses, the rods will heat quickly in the open air and could catch fire, releasing deadly plumes of radioactive cesium. For the past two years, the pools have been cooled using water from hoses. Officials don’t expect to begin relocating the spent fuel rods to a safer facility for at least another year, because the machinery used to move the rods was also destroyed in the tsunami.

* * *

As complicated as, say, finding a home for paroled sex offenders.”

The United States is Japan before the tsunami. Currently the nation’s 30 million spent fuel rods are stored at 77 temporary sites in 35 states, each a Fukushima awaiting its own form of a tsunami. Every site has a unique set of vulnerabilities: earthquakes in California, superstorms along the Atlantic Coast, the danger of terrorist attack.

The national stockpile stands at 69,000 metric tons. Every year another 2,000 tons of spent fuel is added to the total. About 25 percent of the nation’s spent fuel is currently in dry-cask storage pods, which are usually stored on-site at the atomic power plants. The rest is held in pools like those at Fukushima. “The utilities need to get rid of the waste they’re storing on site,” says John Bewick, a nuclear industry consultant and former secretary of environmental affairs for the state of Massachusetts. “Many of them have exhausted the capacity of their pools.”

Alarmed by Fukushima, a coalition of environmental groups last year sued the Nuclear Regulatory Commission over the safety of America’s spent fuel pools. They focused on one plant in particular, the Indian Point power plant 38 miles north of New York City, which holds more than 1,300 spent fuel assemblies in cooling pools. In June 2012, a federal appeals court ruled that indefinite spent fuel storage at Indian Point—and all other U.S. nuclear plants—was no longer acceptable. The ruling is expected to force the Obama Administration to implement a plan to move those fuel rods away from the power plants, and to a more long-term storage site or sites.

We once had a plan for that: deposit all our high-level nuclear waste in Yucca Mountain, a deep geological repository in the Nevada desert. President Obama cancelled that project early in 2010. Obama’s re-election permanently sealed Yucca’s fate.

Which leaves us nearly back at square one.

After scuttling Yucca, Obama appointed a Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Waste to figure out what to do. Their report can be summed up in a phrase: open two temporary repositories while we look for a better long-term graveyard. “Temporary,” in this case, means up to one hundred years.

But who wants the hot waste? This is as complicated as, say, finding a home for paroled sex offenders. Social scientists call it a NIMBY (“not in my back yard”) problem and with its whiff of doomsday, complex science, and stigma, nuclear waste storage might be the mother of all NIMBY problems.

* * *

“It was a lousy understanding of politics, behavior, and society.”

 Various people in Congress have accused Obama of politicizing the question of nuclear waste by killing Yucca. Which is typical: for years, politicians have tried to treat nuclear waste disposal as a purely scientific problem, if only because the politics of the issue are so arduous. Yucca boosters loved saying that unbiased “science” had arrived at the best (and, it was implied, maybe the only) answer to the problem, and this in turn had the welcome effect of reducing the politics to a Hobson’s choice. Yucca was “the Most Studied Real Estate on the Planet,” as the description often went, and if it happened to sit in Nevadans’ back yard, well, they just had to deal. (In the Silver State, the congressional act that created Yucca was derided as the “screw Nevada” deal.) There’s an implicit assumption that someone’s hand has to be forced.

Last June, at a congressional hearing about the defunding of the Yucca project, U.S. Assistant Energy Secretary Pete Lyons said the administration’s decision to shelve Yucca came down to a “question of social, public acceptance.” Unsurprisingly, members of Congress again pounced at this “politicization” of the issue. “And this would be welcomed as rosewater in the rest of the United States?” asked a cynical Jay Inslee, then a House Democrat representing Washington state. “What evidence do you have that there’s any more socially acceptable place?”

But it was politics, not science, that led us to study Yucca in the first place (rather than other potential sites that at the time sat in states with more powerful representatives in Congress). And it was a lousy understanding of politics, behavior, and society that sent us back to the drawing board. The Blue Ribbon Commission confirmed as much: “Any attempt to force a top-down, federally mandated solution over the objections of a state or community” is likely to be expensive, time-consuming, and ultimately unsuccessful.

The bad news is that we have failed. The collective problem of permanent nuclear waste disposal has rolled back down to the bottom of the hill. As a result, fuel rods are still sitting around in pools across the country. The good news is that, since the last time we starting trying to set up a permanent high-level nuclear waste dump, we’ve learned something.

And while our national track record storing nuclear waste has mostly consisted of failures, it does include a few success stories. There are towns in the United States where people live who are proud of their nuclear waste repositories— Carlsbad, New Mexico; Andrews, Texas. Both research and experience suggest that there are probably people and places out there who would be willing to shoulder this collective burden; maybe it’s just that we haven’t been asking them in the right way.

* * *

“A cash transaction recast them as desperate scroungers selling their own blood.”

Michael O’Hare, a professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley, has studied NIMBY problems for more than thirty years. “There’s no magic bullet here,” O’Hare says. He has no illusions about how hard it will be to find the next generation of nuclear waste repositories. The unspoken assumption here is worth speaking: “The project has to be sensible. That’s step one. The science must be solid, you have to have the right geology and technology.”

And there are towns in this country where the geology and technology is right. It’s tempting to stereotype the sort of town that accepts a nuclear waste dump—to imagine a place so desperate for jobs and business that it will do anything to bring them home. But experience shows that waste disposal firms that treat any such town as desperate do so at their own peril. Even the most down-on-its-luck burg has its dignity, and balks when that dignity is affronted.

“There’s a big difference between an outsider coming to your town imposing a NIMBY project on you, versus you finding a way to create value for the rest of the world and being rewarded for it,” O’Hare tells me. O’Hare has a central piece of advice: local buy-in works best when locals aren’t forced to rely on information from biased sources. “Give local communities funds to do their own scientific research,” he says. “Tell them, ‘Here’s a budget, here’s a list of geology professors. Get your own information. Get your own experts. See what they say.’” Many of these lessons are pretty basic: transparency is good; forcing something upon people is bad).

One idea, though, that has emerged from recent NIMBY research is surprising. The idea has to do with money, altruism, and compensation—and it derives from an old idea about blood donors.

In 1970, the British sociologist Richard Titmuss published a comparative study of blood donation systems in United Kingdom and the United States. In America, 30 percent of the national blood supply came from paid donors. The U.K. depended entirely on unpaid volunteers. Classic economic theory held that offering cash to donors would make the system more efficient and increase supply. In Titmuss’s analysis, it did the opposite. Most blood donors, he found, acted out of a sense of altruism. If they were unpaid, they considered themselves generous civic-minded individuals. A cash transaction, however, recast them as desperate scroungers selling their own blood for a few coins. Monetary compensation “crowded out” the finer motivations and resulted in fewer blood donors.

Titmuss’s book, “The Gift Relationship,” was assailed by economists, but it brought about a global shift in blood policy, including in the U.S. Titmuss died in 1973, before he could expand on his initial research with additional empirical work. Since then, and especially in recent years, his ideas have been taken up and tested by a smattering of social scientists.

In 1993, two Swiss economists tested Titmuss’s theory of “crowding out” in a new context: nuclear waste facilities. That year, the Swiss government had proposed building two nuclear waste repositories in two separate towns. One would hold low- and medium-level radioactive waste; the other, long-living highly radioactive waste. Bruno Frey and Felix Oberholzer-Gee of Zurich’s Institute for Empirical Economic Research conducted interviews with two-thirds of the households in those communities.

In the proposed low-medium waste site, 50.8 percent of the people said they would be willing to accept the repository in their town. In the high-level waste site, 41 percent indicated they would accept it.

Then Frey and Oberholzer-Gee asked the same respondents if they would accept the same nuclear waste dump if the government included an annual compensation payment ranging from $2,175 to $6,525 per person. Support for the waste facilities collapsed.

In the proposed low- and medium-level waste town, acceptance dropped from 50.8 percent to 24.6 percent. In the proposed high-level waste site, it moved from 41 percent to 27.4 percent. “About one-quarter of the respondents seem to reject the facility simply because of the compensation,” the economists noted.

In fact, when offered a higher figure (as much as $8,700 a year), Frey and Oberholzer-Gee found that “only a single respondent who declined the first compensation was now prepared to accept the higher offer.” The Swiss citizens weren’t looking for a better price point. They saw their patriotic offer—bearing a risk for the good of the nation—reduced to a dirty cash-for-trash scheme, and they balked.

The introduction of money reframes the exchange, says Dan Ariely, a professor of behavioral economics at MIT’s Sloan School of Management. “Imagine what would happen if a stranger asked you to help them carry a sofa,” Ariely says. “You might do it to be a helpful person. But if that same stranger offers you two dollars, all of a sudden your desire goes down. Money doesn’t add to your motivation, it substitutes. The social motivation leaves, crowded out by the monetary incentive.” Once a situation is recast as a monetary exchange, in fact, there seems to be an insult boundary, a payment level below which a person would feel a loss of self-respect.

“With an issue like this, explicit cash payments make people very uncomfortable,” says Michael O’Hare. “They feel that this is not the kind of thing that ought to be traded in money.” When people consider a NIMBY project, whether it’s an airport, a prison, or a nuclear waste site, they impute a moral content to their behavior. Compensation sullies their motivation. “Crudely caricatured,” he wrote in a recent report, “a compensation offer can appear to ask, ‘How much do we have to pay you to give your children cancer?’”

Towns that entertain the thought of a nearby nuclear waste dump often have an economic rationale for doing so, but they’re also wary of being bought off. The key, O’Hare said, is to find indirect ways of compensating the local community that builds on a sense of pride in the facility.

* * *

“Why store nuclear waste in salt?”

“Watch your step.” The elevator door rolled open with a clank. John VandeKraats led our party into a cavern as spacious as a church while 2,150 feet above us, the sun pounded the 107-degree desert. In the mine a cool 75-degree breeze brushed our skin, guided by miles of air ducts and fans. Our headlamp beams made the opaque walls looks like dirty ice. VandeKraats guided us to Room 6 at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad, New Mexico.

WIPP, as it’s known in nuclear circles, is a mine dug a half-mile deep into a 2,000-foot layer of rock salt in a remote stretch of the Chihuahua Desert. WIPP doesn’t accept high-level waste or spent fuel rods. It was built to contain the relatively low-level radioactive clothing, tools, pipes, rags, debris, concrete, and dirt contaminated with plutonium at military bomb building facilities like Rocky Flats, Colo., and Savannah River, South Carolina. The waste gets sealed in 55-gallon drums and loaded into special shipping packages—they look like big septic tanks—and trucked to WIPP. VandeKraats and his colleagues are essentially America’s Cold War cleanup crew. They are very good at what they do. In the nuclear waste industry, WIPP is considered the gold standard. The Blue Ribbon Commission Report often refers to the New Mexico facility as the kind of operation that should be used as a blueprint for future radioactive waste repositories.

WIPP’s Room 6 is a hangar-like space exactly as long as a football field—300 feet—and about two-thirds as wide. It’s half filled with hundreds of black 55-gallon drums piled all the way to the room’s 13-foot ceiling. In its current configuration, WIPP’s capacity tops out at 6.2 million cubic feet of waste. After 13 years in operation, it’s almost half full.

About 96 percent of WIPP’s waste is low-level stuff that can be handled by workers wearing normal work wear. The rest is hotter stuff, but still not fuel-rod hot, and it’s not kept in open rooms. Instead, small horizontal tunnels are bored into the walls of these same repository rooms and 55-gallon drums full of this “remote handled” (RH) waste are shoved into them like torpedoes into a firing chamber. A five-foot plug made of steel-wrapped concrete seals the waste into the wall.

“We have to drill those RH holes on a just-in-time basis,” VandeKraats told me, “because salt has a quality of plasticity. We call it ‘salt creep.’ Over time, it will move and fill in any void.” And once a room is full and sealed, there’s no going back to retrieve a drum.

The idea is that over time the “salt creep” fills the voids, enveloping and encapsulating the waste within the geologic layer. Why store nuclear waste in salt? A number of reasons: It usually occurs only in extremely stable geologic regions—i.e. no earthquakes. Its presence proves the absence of flowing water, as groundwater would have dissolved the salt bed. It’s easy to mine. And its plasticity heals any fractures in the bed, so if cracks were to occur the salt would naturally seal them.

* * *

“WIPP was no ‘screw New Mexico’ deal.”

NIMBY opposition can sometimes increase the farther you move from a waste dump—further, in other words, from the people who might derive direct economic benefits from the project, and into the populations of people who simply feel a stigma associated with having their state be the nation’s nuclear waste dump. But WIPP was no “screw New Mexico” deal. The locals in Carlsbad welcomed the mine. Back in 1975, the federal government considered building the repository in Lyons, Kansas, which sat atop a similarly thick bed of rock salt. Lyons and the state of Kansas wanted nothing to do with the project. People there were farmers. Soil and groundwater were their bread and butter, and they didn’t want radioactive elements injected into the mix.

Carlsbad, by contrast, was a town of miners. Thriving potash mines drove the local economy. Folks there were comfortable working underground, and they knew all about the salt hidden below. “We said we’d be interested in considering it, and we’d keep an open mind,” recalled John Heaton, a former state legislator who now serves as energy development coordinator for the city of Carlsbad. The potash mines were beginning to play out. A federally funded deep waste repository might keep local miners employed for decades.

And, perhaps more importantly, the state of New Mexico wanted it. Yucca Mountain remains unfinished because Nevada state officials fought it every step of the way. New Mexico, on the other hand, has embraced atomic projects ever since there were atomic projects to be embraced. Today New Mexico’s Los Alamos National Laboratory and Sandia National Laboratory are two of the nation’s leading nuclear research centers.

* * *

“When Michael O’Hare talks about indirect compensation, this is what he means.”

Back on the surface, we returned our hardhats and radiation monitors to the mine gate manager. As we exited, a group of workers readied the next shipment of contact-handled waste for its ride down the same elevator into Room 6. The shipments don’t ever stop at WIPP. They arrive at about a rate of about one truckload per day.

That caught me by surprise. “Truckload?” I said. “I would have thought you’d ship by rail.” My reaction made Bobby St. John smile.

“We go out and talk to people along the route, and we keep going out,” Bobby St. John told me. St. John is a communications specialist withWashington TRU Solutions, the private contractor (a subsidiary of the URS Corporation) running the WIPP site for the Department of Energy. He spends a lot of time on the road talking with communities along the specially designated interstate highways that serve as WIPP’s trucking routes. Establishing those routes took years of negotiations and countless public meetings.

“It doesn’t do any good to meet them once and forget about them,” St. John said. Obtaining permission to allow trucks hauling nuclear waste to pass through a town, he said, requires a kind of information push. “We go out and talk to people,” he told me. “Nobody wants to be blindsided. We all require information. So I’ll go out and show people the containers we use, talk about the drivers we hire,” he said.

St. John had recently returned from an emergency response training session with the Shoshone-Bannock tribe in Idaho, whose reservation encompasses a section of Interstate 15 used to truck nuclear waste from the Idaho National Laboratory cleanup site to WIPP. “We had a two-day training, all about responding to a hazardous materials accident along the highway,” St. John said. When Michael O’Hare talks about indirect compensation, this is what he means. The Shoshone-Bannock first responders are getting a number of things out of the deal. Free training, of course. But they’re also getting due respect from WIPP officials, an acknowledgement of the risk they’re bearing, and a sense of inclusion in the larger project. They also have personal contacts—names and cell phone numbers of WIPP officials they’ve met face to face.

As for Carlsbad, it too has realized some long-term indirect compensation. For a city without a four-year college, the WIPP site has acted as a brain draw, providing well-paid jobs to highly educated engineers and administrators. That reverberates throughout the community, raising the level of expectations in local public schools, providing more coaches and volunteers and civic leaders. WIPP employees tend to stick around. Farok Sharif, the facility’s general manager, has worked there for 23 years. Joe Franco, the head operations manager, grew up in Carlsbad. He’s been at WIPP for more than two decades. That sort of thing matters. No community wants its nuclear waste facility run by fly-by-night employees with no sense of obligation to the place and its people.

* * *

“The home of the nation’s newest nuclear waste repository”

Over the past decade, a “nuclear corridor” has been slowly developing in southern New Mexico. The WIPP site opened in 1999. When Urenco, one of the world’s leading nuclear fuel suppliers, decided to undertake the first new uranium enrichment plant to be built in the United States in 30 years, it chose a site in Eunice, New Mexico, about 50 miles east of Carlsbad. The Urenco facility began operations in 2010. The Urenco plant is so close to a new low-level nuclear waste repository in Andrews, Texas, that workers in the two facilities could walk outside and share lunch.

Andrews County is a raw piece of Lone Star oilpatch that rubs up against the New Mexico border. The landscape is all oil pumpers and mesquite, with the prosperous little burg of Andrews (pop. 11,000) serving as the county’s only incorporated town. Main Street’s got a Sonic, a Dairy Queen, a Subway, and a Pizza Hut, but for a Wal-mart or Costco, you’ve got to drive 35 miles south to Odessa.

Andrews also happens to be the home of the nation’s newest nuclear waste repository. The Waste Control Specialists (WCS) facility, which sits about 20 miles west of town along the New Mexico border, became the first U.S. commercial nuclear waste repository to open in 22 years when it opened in April 2012. The Andrews facility deposits 55-gallon waste drums in a massive clay-lined landfill. The landfill is open-air now, but it’ll eventually be covered by 25 to 45 feet of red clay and soil. WCS is licensed to handle low-level waste: mildly irradiated waste from hospitals and scientific labs, as well as tools, walls, and flooring from decommissioned nuclear power plants. A far cry from hot spent fuel rods, in other words. What’s striking is how much the citizens of Andrews seem to regard their new waste facility as a point of local honor. Here and there are yard signs that boast “Andrews Offers Solutions.”

To be sure, the WCS facility has faced its share of controversy and opposition. A state environmental audit raised serious concerns about the company’s safety record and about the proximity of the waste site to an underground water table. And it didn’t sit well with many in Texas that Harold Simmons, the Dallas billionaire who owns WCS, is among the most prodigious political wheel-greasers in American industry; Simmons is one of the largest donors to Texas Governor Rick Perry, who hand-picked the environmental commission that ultimately approved the site (against the recommendation of some of its scientists). But it’s notable that most of that opposition came from outside Andrews County.

In Andrews, locals were on board from the beginning. Civic leaders had spent years looking for ways to diversify the local economy away from the boom/bust cycles of agriculture and oil when the prospect of a nuclear dump first arose in the mid-1990s. After scientists from Texas Tech University surveyed the ground and declared that the WCS site didn’t overlie the critical Ogallala Aquifer, the city of Andrews went ahead with the project. (The site’s proximity to the Ogallala remains a point of contention.) Bob Zap, the mayor of Andrews, told me his neighbors were eager to take on a project few others would touch. “What did you want out of it?” I asked the mayor, thinking: money, tax base, jobs.

“You know, that’s the interesting thing,” Zap said. “The city gets employment for some people here, but the city itself doesn’t get any revenue from it. Nor did we get any money up front for it. What we want is openness about what’s going in there, good science and good regulation. There’s a kind of pride about what we’re doing out there.”

* * *

“It’s not as if nobody is willing to step forward”

Congress and the Obama Administration have yet to act on the Blue Ribbon Commission’s recommendations. But that hasn’t stopped some communities from stepping up and volunteering. Earlier this year South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard expressed interest in having the Department of Energy fund research into the suitability of his state’s shale deposits for possible nuclear waste storage. Albert Carnesale, the nuclear engineer and former UCLA chancellor who served on the Blue Ribbon Commission, noted recently that Daugaard’s interest “does not guarantee that South Dakota would say, ‘Okay, put it here.’” But it did indicate, Carnesale said, that “it’s not as if nobody is willing to step forward to even think about it.”

In fact there’s already an exploratory committee in New Mexico. The Eddy-Lea Energy Alliance, a group of local politicians and citizens in Eddy County and Lea County, New Mexico, is investigating the possibility of building an above-ground interim storage site for spent nuclear fuel. (Eddy County encompasses the city of Carlsbad. Lea County is its eastern neighbor.)

John Heaton, the former state legislator, is leading the effort. “We’re looking at a surface storage facility,” he told me. “We think it’s an ideal site: ten miles north of the WIPP site, 40 miles from any population, seismically stable, very dry, with no overhead air traffic.”

The two-square-mile site, Heaton told me, would have enough capacity to take all of America’s spent fuel currently in dry cask containers.

There might be another advantage to siting a temporary storage facility near the WIPP mine. Heaton thinks the federal government should be taking a look at WIPP as an alternative to Yucca Mountain. And he’s not alone. Last year James Conca and Judith Wright, geoscientists who’ve worked on disposal projects at Yucca Mountain, WIPP, and the Hanford site in Washington state, advocated turning WIPP into the nation’s high-level nuclear waste disposal repository. It would cost, they estimate, about a third of what it would have cost to bring Yucca Mountain online, while “the annual revenue stream from the Nuclear Waste Fund is sufficient to accomplish this program, plus interim storage, without additional taxes or rate hikes.”

WIPP officials tend to treat the idea with understandable delicacy. “What other continuing mission the government might consider really isn’t up to us,” WIPP General Manager Farok Sharif told me. He did note, however, that “the taxpayers have invested a lot of money in this facility. The good news is that we started as a pilot project, but we’ve demonstrated how well this can be done, how safe it is here.”

John Heaton thinks it can be done. WIPP’s experience building both its repository and an extensive transportation network makes him think there’s a lot to build on here.

“You have to do it a community at a time, a state at a time,” he told me. “It doesn’t happen overnight. You don’t just jump out and do these things. But we think it can be done. Overcoming the emotional concerns that come with all things nuclear is still the challenge. But we feel we know how to do that.”

“We’re America’s nuclear corridor,” he said. “And this is the next logical step to take.”

By Bruce Barcott

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