The Problem of Nuclear Waste Disposal

The question of what to do with nuclear waste did not receive much attention in the early years of the atomic program. The AEC and others in the subgovernment were more concerned with the scientific challenges of harnessing the atom. Nuclear waste, in contrast, was generally assumed to be a less complex, essentially technical problem that would be easy to solve. Reflecting its low priority within the AEC, action on nuclear waste disposal was deferred indefinitely. This decision, like so many others in the program’s early years, only made the problem worse, because the lack of an effective nuclear waste policy became one of the antinuclear movement’s most potent arguments in the 1980s.

The problem for utilities was that spent reactor fuel was piling up in cooling ponds at reactor sites around the nation. The cooling ponds, however, were not designed to store waste permanently, and most could hold no more than 3 years of spent fuel. Moreover, utilities could not expand their on-site storage capacity without state regulatory approval, which was by no means assured. By the late 1970s, with many utilities worried about running out of space and facing mounting on-site storage costs, the nuclear industry sought legislative relief, arguing that a federal commitment on high-level waste was essential to its future.

After several years of deliberation, Congress acted in 1982, adopting the Nuclear Waste Policy Act (NWPA). The NWPA established detailed procedures and a schedule for the selection, construction, and operation of two permanent high-level waste repo­sitories. Under the law, the Department of Energy (DOE) would conduct an intensive nationwide search for potential sites, which would be evaluated with a demanding set of technical criteria and guidelines, including environmental assessments. The DOE was then to compile a list of potential sites from which the President would select two for further review and site characterization, one in the eastern United States and one in the west. By all accounts, implementation of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act was a failure. Although the DOE met the act’s 1983 deadline for issuing siting guidelines, virtually every other stage of the selection process was bitterly contested. All of the states considered as potential repository sites challenged the designation. With the states in open rebellion, Congress tried to repair the damage by amending the NWPA. In December 1987, Congress rejected the multiple-site search process established in the legislation and instead designated Yucca Mountain, Nevada, as the repository site. The search for a second site in the east was abandoned.

The case of nuclear waste disposal demonstrates the increasingly decentralized nature of nuclear politics in the 1980s. The widespread search for suitable nuclear waste disposal sites touched many states and communities and brought multiple new actors, in the form of state and local governments, to the policymaking arena. Whatever their motivations, the new actors brought different perspectives and goals to the debate; indeed, most actively resisted federal efforts to site nuclear waste facilities. With states and local governments assuming a critical role in policymaking, it is clear that the conflict over nuclear waste had expanded far beyond the confines of subgovernment politics. At the same time, how­ever, the nuclear waste issue illustrates that support for nuclear power within the federal government remained strong in the 1980s. The Department of Energy, the NRC, and Presidents Reagan and Bush supported nuclear power, and worked to reestablish a favorable political climate. With states impeding the siting of a high-level repository, the industry sought to shift the financial and legal risks of nuclear waste management to the federal government, which willingly obliged.

Updated: September 29, 2015 — 9:03 pm