Anyone who thinks the city of Seattle has dithered inexcusably over replacing the Alaskan Way viaduct should contemplate the fact that for 67 years, ever since the first Hanford reactors started cranking out plutonium for atomic bombs, the nation has dithered — or not even bothered dithering — over storing its nuclear waste.
Some forward-thinking people had, of course, wanted to level the viaduct for decades, but they acquired a rationale at the beginning of 2001, when the Nisqually Quake sparked the realization that if the Big One hit, soil could liquify, the viaduct's supports could give way, and the whole double-decker elevated roadway could come crashing down, with several lanes of rush-hour motorists sandwiched between layers of reinforced concrete. Seattle's August referendum that was considered a vote for the tunnel may (or may not) be the end of the dithering. If it is, the process has taken little more than 10 years.
More than eight years before the 1953 opening of the Viaduct, Hanford pioneered the creation of radioactive garbage. The first Hanford reactor went critical in September 1944. The site started turning out plutonium three months later. Until then, no one had generated appreciable quantities of nuclear waste. So the wartime waste that was dumped into unlined pits and single-walled steel tanks in the desert of central Washington was historic. Is historic: The nastiest stuff is still there.
The state of Washington is trying to get it moved elsewhere. But the state may swimming against the political tide.
At first, nobody even bothered dithering about long-term disposal of the waste as Hanford started filling those cheesy single-walled tanks. The focus was all short-term: build the bombs; win the war. There would be time enough later to do something about the waste.
People were still thinking short-term in 1957, when civilian nuclear power plants started generating waste of their own. Spent reactor fuel rods have been stored ever since in pools of water, glowing the eerie blue of Cerenkov radiation, still waiting for the final solution.
Union of Concerned Scientists nuclear policy expert Ellen Vancko explains, "The reality is, that everybody who lives near a nuclear power plant also lives near a nuclear waste dump."
The serious dithering that led to the continuing reality began roughly half a century ago. Back in the 1960s, the old Atomic Energy Commission decided to stash the waste in a Kansas salt mine — assuming that a salt formation, pretty well by definition, had been isolated from water and therefore sealed from the outside for a long, long time. Then it turned out that oil and gas exploration had punched lots of boreholes into the salt dome. Scratch that idea.
In 1980, the federal government decided on a deep geological disposal. Later in the decade, it started culling possible sites in 36 states, as a step toward creating two depositories, in separate regions. States in the East and Midwest objected. In 1986, the feds narrowed the search to Washington, Texas, and Nevada — and to a single site (would you have wanted to negotiate the politics of storing nuclear waste in Pennsylvania or Ohio?). Nevada was the lucky winner. Nuclear Waste Policy Act amendments of 1987 called for studying and licensing a site at Yucca Mountain.
In 2002, the secretary of energy finally recommended Yucca Mountain. President George W. Bush accepted the recommendation. Nevada's governor vetoed the choice. Congress overrode his veto. Yucca Mountain it was.
Or not. Of course, people in Nevada didn't want it. Neither did the people anywhere else. But at least there weren't a whole lot of Nevadans to worry about, there was lots of space, the federal government owned the land, and the United States had, after all, tested nuclear weapons in Nevada for years, so how bad could this be?
Politically, Yucca Mountain has turned out to be pretty bad. Campaigning in Nevada, Barack Obama said that if he were elected, he'd kill the Yucca project. His administration has tried to do just that. Nevada's Democratic Sen. Harry Reid — now Senate Majority Leader — has applauded the administration's efforts.
State Attorney General Rob McKenna and other Washington officials have not. They have tried to keep the federal government from abandoning the Yucca project. Can their legal arguments reverse the tide?
The political landscape looked different in 1989, when the state Department of Ecology (then directed by Chris Gregoire) signed a Tri-Party Agreement with the the U.S. Department of Energy and the EPA. Under that agreement and a consent decree approved by a federal judge last year, the energy department must get all that high-level radioactive waste out of Hanford storage tanks and embed it in glass at the Waste Treatment Plant (aka the vitrification plant) currently under construction. All the waste is supposed to be treated by 2047 — seven years after all the old single-walled tanks are supposed to be emptied.
But there's a catch: The vitrification plant has been designed to produce glass units that will be stored at Yucca Mountain. The cannisters that hold the glass logs will be the right size, the radiation emitted by each cannister will be within the right range, etc., to meet Yucca Mountain's waste acceptance criteria. Another deep geological depository might have different criteria. Therefore, the waste at Hanford might have no place to go. Or, the vitrification plant might have to be redesigned— and it's getting pretty late in the day to do that. Besides, there is no other deep geological depository for which the design could be changed. The vitrification may be on track to start running in 2022. If it doesn't make that date, there is no chance of meeting the tank cleanup schedule in the consent decree.
"The cleanup would proceed," without Yucca, McKenna has said. "The only question is where the high-level waste would be stored. We have always had the understanding that it wouldn't be at Hanford." Indeed, many people have assumed that the waste would wind up outside Hanford, but "it's not actually spelled out," Assistant Attorney General Andrew Fitz explains. At this point, there is no way to make it happen. The feds never promised to take it away. They promised to clear all that radioactive crud out of the old steel tanks, but they never said they'd get it across the state line. Federal law requires deep geological disposal. And under the federal Nuclear Waste Policy Act, the Department of Energy chose Yucca Mountain. The state has been relying on that law in its litigation against the federal government. But the feds have no specific obligation to the state.
Nor do the feds have a specific plan — except not to store waste at Yucca Mountain. Obama has proposed a national energy strategy that includes a revival of nuclear power, an industry that has not started a new plant since early in the administration of Jimmy Carter. And it's hard to envision much support for the public subsidies — or at least public acceptance of risk — that would still be required. The Union of Concerned Scientists' Vancko wrote last year in The New York Times, "President Obama proposed tripling nuclear loan guarantees to $54 billion from the $18.5 billion the Department of Energy allocated in 2005. The industry, however, wants more. It wants taxpayers to underwrite all the new reactors it wants to build.
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