U.S. Nuclear Waste Panel Slammed for Ignoring Public Fears

WASHINGTON, DC, August 20, 2010 (ENS) – The Obama administration’s effort to fix the nation’s stalled nuclear waste program is focusing so much on technological issues that it fails to address the public mistrust hampering storage and disposal efforts, say 16 social science researchers from across the country.

Writing in the latest issue of the journal “Science,” the researchers say that President Barack Obama’s Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future is not paying enough attention to the social and political acceptability of possible solutions.

Members of Network for Peace and Justice demonstrate in Custer, Wisconsin, June 20, 2009. (Photo courtesy WNPJ)

“While scientific and technical analyses are essential, they will not and arguably should not carry the day unless they address, substantively and procedurally, the issues that concern the public,” the scientists write.

“Communicating with people about risks from radioactive waste is extremely difficult,” Friedman said. “You can’t see or smell radiation, you don’t know what it will do to you, and dangers from various exposure levels are hard to explain. All of this instills fear in people and works against public acceptability of proposed solutions for disposing of nuclear waste.”

More than 170 national and grassroots environmental organizations, representing every state in the country, have signed onto a “Statement of Principles for Safeguarding Nuclear Waste at Reactors.” It urges decision makers, including the Blue Ribbon Commission, to require hardened on-site storage for high-level radioactive waste stored at nuclear power plants across the United States.

Composed of science and technology experts and several former politicians, the 18 member Blue Ribbon Commission “appears to be overlooking what social scientists have learned over 20 years about public perception of, and response to, the risks of nuclear wastes,” says Sharon Friedman professor of journalism and communication and director of the Science and Environmental Writing Program at Lehigh University, and one of the 16 co-authors of the “Science” paper.

Friedman has been studying risk communication about nuclear issues since 1979 during the administration of President Jimmy Carter when she was a consultant to the President’s Commission on the Accident at Three Mile Island.

“A number of social science studies have already addressed how nuclear waste issues can impact communities and shape policy around these issues. This knowledge should not be wasted but used instead to help find solutions,” Friedman said.

The “Science” paper comes while a “nuclear renaissance” has more than 50 reactors under construction in the world and more than 100 others planned over the next decade.

At the Energy Department’s Hanford Nuclear Site, 2310 tons of irradiated uranium fuel was once stored in water-filled concrete basins near the Columbia River in central Washington. Some fuel rods are intact; others are corroded. (Photo courtesy PNNL)

But the problem of radioactive waste storage has not been solved. Today, some 60,000 tons of high-level waste has accumulated in the United States without a successful waste-disposal program.

“Addressing the relevant social issues does not guarantee success,” the scientists write, “but ignoring them increases the chances of repeating past failures, like Yucca Mountain.”

Yucca Mountain, 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas, Nevada was designated as the nation’s sole geologic nuclear waste repository by Congress in 1982, but President Obama withdrew its funding and has asked that its licensing application be withdrawn.

Objections to the Yucca Mountain site range from the earthquake-prone nature of the area, the movement of water through the site that might corrode containment casks, and the necessity to transport 77,000 tons of highly radioactive waste by truck and rail across the country.

An earthquake in the vicinity of the proposed high-level nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain could cause groundwater to surge up into the storage area, according to a 1997 study by two University of Colorado at Boulder geophysicists.

“If water hits the storage area it could cause a rapid corrosive breakdown of the containers and allow the plutonium to leak into the water table and the atmosphere,” said the study’s co-author physicist John Davies.

The study was funded by the state of Nevada, which maintains a long-standing opposition to the Yucca Mountain repository.

On July 22, the Senate Appropriations Committee voted against an amendment to restore funding for the Yucca Mountain Project.

“I am pleased that the Appropriations Committee recognizes that Yucca Mountain is dead and rejected an effort to bring it back to life,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada. “It’s time to move past this dangerous, taxpayer-money wasting project and let some of our nation’s best minds continue their work to find real solutions for dealing with nuclear waste.”

The Commission is made up of 15 members who have a range of expertise and experience in nuclear issues, including scientists, industry representatives, and respected former elected officials. The Commission’s co-chairs have a record of tackling tough challenges in a thoughtful, comprehensive manner and building consensus among an array of interests.

Highly radioactive waste in double-shell tank 101-SY at the Hanford Nuclear Site in Washington state (Photo courtesy PNNL)

The 18 member Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future is co-chaired by former Indiana Congressman Lee Hamilton, a Democrat, and Brent Scowcroft, former National Security Advisor to Republican Presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush.

Formed in January 2010, the commission will produce an interim report by June 2011 and a final report by January 2012.

To date, the commission has held three full-scale public hearings to receive expert testimony.

The most recent public hearing was held in July at the Department of Energy’s Hanford Nuclear Reservation near Richland, Washington where two-thirds of the nation’s high-level radioactive waste by volume – 53 million U.S. gallons (204,000 cubic meters) – is stored in 177 underground radioactive waste tanks.

Three subcommittees dealing with waste disposal, reactor fuel cycle technology, and transportation and storage are also holding public hearings.

During the most recent hearing, held Thursday, the Transportation and Storage Subcommittee considered testimony regarding the risks of extended dry storage of spent fuel as compared to the risks of storage in pools of water and whether centralized, away-from reactor storage is a feasible alternative to long-term on-site storage.

Friedman advises, “The issues around nuclear waste storage need to be evaluated in a transparent and cooperative environment between technical experts and the public.”

Globally, each year, nuclear power reactors create enough spent fuel to fill a football field to a depth of 1.5 meters (4.9 feet), with a weight of about 10,500 tons.

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