Congress needs to start over on nuclear waste

San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station. Photo by D Ramey Logan via Creative Commons
San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station. Photo by D Ramey Logan via Creative Commons

Guest Commentary | June 23, 2019

By Geoffrey Fettus, Special to CALmatters

Marooned along the Pacific Ocean are thousands of tons of radioactive waste, awaiting a resting place that would take it far from the threat of tsunami, and far from millions of Californians.

We need a solution for the waste stuck at San Onofre and the other California reactors. But in their desperation to move the threat away from the Golden State, some California lawmakers are making two grave errors.

First, they continue to push a long-doomed final storage site at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. That location is scientifically and legally unsound and destined never to pass legal muster or gain acceptance from Nevadans.

Second, while Yucca sputters, some people have decided that an “interim” storage site could be an answer. That approach was discussed – and criticized – at a House panel field hearing in Laguna Niguel this month to discuss options for moving this waste.

These proposals are distractions, ones that will leave our nation stumbling about while ignoring what could be a permanent answer.

Congress needs to start over and develop rules that give local communities a say in the safeguards of nuclear waste that will stay in their neighborhoods. It’s only with those rules that any region would agree to take this waste.

Let’s start at the beginning:

  • There is a real problem over how to dispose of the thousands of metric tons of nuclear waste at current or closed nuclear plants around our country.
  • This waste will pose risks to human health and the environment for a million years, a time frame inconceivable to the human imagination.

While the 80,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel that is stored at nuclear plants could be managed safely, coming up with ways to dispose of that waste and make it safe for millennia is long overdue.

But that necessity has led Congress to try for the same quick, expedient and destined-to-fail-every-time fix.

Indeed, this has gone on for 30 years with the proposed site at Yucca Mountain, only 100 miles from Las Vegas. Despite scientific warnings that the site isn’t an adequate long-term repository and the continued fierce and well-taken objection of residents and political leaders of all parties in Nevada, some say all we need is to end “political games” and force Nevada to take the waste.

Well, that hasn’t worked for decades. And there are signs that members of Congress are getting wise to this folly. House members voted down an amendment to a spending bill that would have wasted more money pursuing the license for Yucca.

Separately, Sen. Dianne Feinstein has proposed legislation that prioritizes an interim site when a permanent, underground site is needed. It also fails to give states adequate regulatory authority over radiation-related health and safety issues associated with nuclear waste facilities within their borders.

Here is the thing: The people in a state such as New Mexico, one of the options for an interim site, aren’t going to accept that waste on these terms any more than Nevadans will.

There’s a way to cut this Gordian knot and find a way to get the waste off the beach in California, but it must be done in a fashion that respects our extraordinary history of cooperative federalism in environmental law.

Congress must correct the fatal flaw in the 1954 Atomic Energy Act. That gave the national government exclusive jurisdiction over radioactive waste, but this baked in assumption was never challenged by the passage of environmental laws decades later.

Unlike other regulated pollutants, the Atomic Energy Act cut out the necessary role of states and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in guarding public safety and welfare from radioactive waste. Since then, this initial mistake has endured and simply been presumed to be the way of the world.

It’s not; it’s the root of the problem.

It can be fixed, but it will take patience and the wisdom to learn from past mistakes. In fact, our political system has never easily digested or durably solved profound national problems like voting rights, health care or gun control by either federal fiat or, conversely, by turning matters over to the states entirely.

In every instance these complex issues demanded compromises and laws or regulations that take into account the needs and perspectives of individual states.

Under the anachronistic nuclear waste power dynamic, states from Nevada to Maine have rejected federal attempts to dictate disposal of nuclear waste within their borders.

The only way to change this dynamic is with new legislation that establishes a consent-based approach and a new process that takes into account the fundamental need for public and state acceptance.

By removing the exemptions from environmental law in the Atomic Energy Act, EPA and the states could then—under well-established hazardous waste laws—regulate the process and give the idea of consent some teeth.

Let’s be clear: No state is going to accept this waste under the current system – and no amount of political will can change that. The sooner Congress starts anew and finally places nuclear waste under our environmental laws, the sooner our nation will have a durable pathway for disposal of this toxic legacy.

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Geoffrey Fettus is senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council’s climate and clean energy program in Washington, D.C., gfettus@nrdc.org. He wrote this commentary for CALmatters.

 

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