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Nuclear Gridlock
The nuclear-waste-disposal industry is haunted by failed policy.


Most policy analysts and other observers would agree that efforts to site facilities for the storage of nuclear wastes have engendered one of the most difficult and intractable public-policy problems this country has ever faced.

The Low-Level Radioactive Waste Policy Act, passed in 1980, required each state to ensure the availability of disposal capacity for low-level wastes generated within its borders. Wastes covered under the act include residues from the processing of uranium ore as well as equipment and materials—such as tools, protective clothing, and cleaning materials—contaminated with low levels of radioactive materials.

To facilitate disposal of these materials, the Low-Level Radioactive Waste Policy Act encouraged the development of interstate compacts for the regional siting of disposal facilities. In other words, a state could strike a deal with one of its neighbors to accept its wastes.

Two years after the Low-Level Radioactive Waste Policy Act was passed, Congress passed the Nuclear Waste Policy Act. This legislation was designed to create a comprehensive national program for permanently disposing of high-level wastes—primarily, used uranium fuel from commercial nuclear reactors and military radioactive wastes generated during the production of nuclear weapons—by burying them in mined, geological repositories within the earth.

Both acts were amended later in the decade. The Low-Level Radioactive Waste Policy Act was amended in 1985 to provide additional incentives to states to form regional compacts and to meet siting deadlines. The Nuclear Waste Policy Act was modified in 1987 with the passage of the Nuclear Waste Policy Amendments Act, which, among other things, abandoned the plan to evaluate multiple sites and focused efforts instead on a single location: Yucca Mountain, Nevada.

In the intervening years since Congress attempted to place the country on this relatively fast track toward developing nuclear-waste disposal capacity, however, not a single low-level site has been approved, and the high-level program appears to be decades from having a functioning repository.

Further, several of the interstate compacts encouraged by the Low-Level Radioactive Waste Policy Act are in disarray, and the low-level waste sites that are closest to obtaining a license, along with the high-level waste site at Yucca Mountain, face a continuing barrage of public opposition, legal challenges, and delays that have escalated costs.1

We can only conclude that efforts to site facilities to date have been uniformly unsuccessful and that we are now caught up in policy gridlock.

Five factors have nudged us into this policy gridlock: 1) a history of benign neglect of the waste end of the nuclear cycle; 2) a general failure of both the public-policy sector and private industry to anticipate the volatility of public response to proposals for nuclear-waste disposal; 3) overriding public fears of "things nuclear"; 4) a track record among nuclear managers that has failed to nurture trust; and 5) strong, effective opposition from the larger environmental community and, more recently, from civil-rights organizations. Taken together, these five factors have framed a complicated, disturbing picture for those charged with resolving the nuclear-waste-disposal crisis.

n Benign neglect. For several decades, federal policy encouraged and subsidized the development of nuclear power but devoted scant attention to the question of what to do with its waste byproducts. Apparently, both the federal government and the nuclear industry believed that the disposal of nuclear waste would pose a manageable, noncontroversial technical problem.2 Hindsight reveals the extent to which this was a serious miscalculation. Ever assuming that a ready solution lay right around the corner, decision makers turned to the waste end of the cycle much too late. By then, substantial amounts of high-level waste had already accumulated in water-cooled basins at nuclear reactor sites across the country. And those responsible for high-level waste management were pressing for a more permanent disposal solution with increasing urgency.3

The management of low-level wastes was somewhat less of a problem at that time because of the availability of six regional disposal sites, in Illinois, Kentucky, Nevada, New York, South Carolina, and Washington. These sites have not lived up to expectations, however. The first four have since closed because of various difficulties, and the South Carolina site was closed for a time to states that were not members of the Southeast Compact, though it has now reopened and is available to receive wastes from all states except North Carolina.4 The Washington site currently serves as a host for the Northwest and Rocky Mountains compacts. These events have escalated the urgency of the low-level-waste problem nearer to the level that characterizes high-level waste.

The long delay in giving appropriate attention to the waste-disposal problem also indirectly bumped it to the top of the public policy agenda at a most inopportune time. In fact, by the time policymakers turned their attention to the waste-disposal problem, public opposition had become galvanized against the nuclear-power industry.5 As a consequence, those faced with finding a waste-disposal solution were operating in a world that invested little trust in those expected to manage the problem. Meanwhile, the perceived risks associated with radioactive-waste disposal loomed ever larger.

n Policy blinders. Despite growing hostility to the nuclear industry and growing fears and concerns about radioactive-waste-disposal policy, decision makers failed to anticipate the volatility of public responses to waste-siting proposals.

Congress created explicit provisions for extensive public participation in nuclear-waste legislation. The Nuclear Waste Policy Act, for instance, identifies roles for the general public, for affected states, and for Indian tribes. Both the Nuclear Waste Policy Act and the Low-Level Radioactive Waste Policy Act reflected congressional concern over public input and state and tribal concurrence in the facility-siting process.

These provisions, however, apparently helped little in alleviating public fears that were increasingly associated with radioactive waste. They also did little to assuage public mistrust and skepticism about those assigned primary responsibility for developing strategies for waste disposal.

In fact, a recent analysis of a large number of studies of public attitudes toward high-level nuclear-waste disposal shows a remarkably consistent pattern of responses despite the diversity of sampling and data-collection techniques used in the studies.6 First, given the opportunity, an overwhelming number of citizens would vote against having a nuclear-waste repository in their state. Second, compared to a range of other environmental hazards, nuclear waste is believed to be one of the most dangerous. Third, compared to any other industrial or municipal facility, a radioactive-waste-disposal facility is viewed as the least desirable. Fourth, public reactions to image of radioactive wastes reveal feelings of dread and fear. Fifth, perceptions of the risks associated with a radioactive-waste- disposal facility are closely tied to mistrust of government and agencies responsible for repository management. Sixth, there are widespread concerns about the likelihood of accidents at a repository or in the transportation of wastes. And seventh, while economic benefits are sometimes associated with radioactive-waste-disposal facilities, these are usually overshadowed by concerns over safety and health.

These views are so strongly held that they have contributed significantly to current gridlock and the difficulty of establishing a more workable policy for the future.

n Nuclear dread. As the above summary implies, substantial evidence now indicates widespread anxiety about nuclear-waste storage as well as other forms of nuclear activity. The survey data suggest that nuclear issues cause a different, deeper-seated kind of fear and dread than do other kinds of locally undesirable land uses.7

Researcher have found, for example, that the dominant images of nuclear waste that emerged from a number of state and national surveys reveal "pervasive qualities of dread, revulsion, and anger—the raw materials of stigmatization and political opposition."8

Other indicators of this level of concern also abound. Consider, for instance, that for every person advised to leave home at the time of the Three-Mile Island accident, 45 actually left.9 A deep, profound fear seemed to characterize feelings of many residents in the area.

The bottom line is that the risk of nuclear exposure scares human beings in troubling ways. Radioactivity adds an entirely new and complicating dimension to the already difficult challenges associated with siting any form of locally unattractive activity or facility.

n Public distrust. Just as public fear of nuclear activities is pervasive, there is also evidence of substantial public mistrust of those who manage these activities. Several recent studies have identified public concerns about perceived failures of the industry to deal effectively with radioactive problems in the past.10

An increasingly disturbing aspect of these findings is that this lack of trust seems to be growing and has spread to target not only the industries involved but the scientific and technical community, as well as government, which theoretically represents the will of the people.

In other words, public opinion surveys reflect increasing levels of distrust of those who must manage a range of risky technologies—such as nuclear power generation or toxic chemical production—on which modern society depends.11 Our demands for the lifestyle and convenience made possible by these technologies, combined with our lack of trust of those who must protect us from the inherent dangers of these technologies, creates a difficult Catch-22 for the policymaking community.

n Galvanized opposition. Historically, the nuclear enterprise has had its share of critics, chief among them environmental and civil-rights groups. While the former contend that nuclear operations pose significant risks to the environment, civil-rights groups object that low-income, minority communities will be inequitably saddled with waste-disposal facilities. Evidence indicates that racial and ethnic minorities, as well as the poor and those who live in rural areas, are more likely to be exposed to hazardous and toxic materials and to live in areas targeted for waste facilities. This reality has played a critical role in fueling the environmental justice movement.12

It now seems that many of these critics view nuclear-waste disposal as the Achilles’ heel of the nuclear enterprise. These organizations surmise that efforts to block or dramatically increase the cost of waste disposal for the commercial nuclear-power industry will make the industry itself increasingly vulnerable.

Once the titan of the waste producers is defeated, these groups believe, acceptable solutions can be hammered out for the comparatively small amounts of radioactive wastes that remain from nonmilitary and noncommercial-power sources, including hospitals and research laboratories.

Because of their historical opposition to the nuclear establishment and their more generic concerns about environmental protection, a number of major environmental organizations have become increasingly powerful players in the siting process. In fact, in every case of a proposed siting involving either permanent or temporary storage of high- or low-level radioactive waste, the environmental community has been a major factor in affecting outcomes.

Examination of a list of those involved in any of the current nuclear-waste-siting activities reveals that these groups are significant participants. Consider the case of the proposed Ward Valley low-level waste facility near Needles, California, for instance. The project would accept low-level waste from California, Arizona, South Dakota, and North Dakota. Among those opposing the Ward Valley project are a broad range of civil- and native-rights groups and local, regional, state, national, and international environmental organizations. Some of these groups are single-issue oriented—organized specifically to oppose the Ward Valley project—while others have a larger agenda of opposition to the nuclear industry in general.

Many associated with the nuclear enterprise—whether from industry, government, or academia—have tended to make important miscalculations that have complicated the task of finding workable solutions to the waste-siting problem. The first has arisen from the temptation to assume that the public opposes waste-disposal proposals only because of ignorance and lack of information.

Researchers have noted similar miscalculations from decision makers in the oil industry.13 When an industry spokesman was asked to account for strong support for off-shore oil exploration in Louisiana and equally strong opposition in California, the response was that Californians opposed the activity because they didn’t understand it. The solution, of course, was to develop educational campaigns to better inform people about the benefits of offshore drilling.

After years of such campaigns, people are now better informed about the potential benefits of off-shore drilling, but they are also better informed about its potential risks. And, despite assurances that the risks are manageable, the level of opposition and concern has increased.14

The same has occurred in the area of nuclear waste. To assume that the process’s failings can be easily resolved by creating better public information programs is contradicted by the evidence. Consider, for instance, that the nuclear industry recently spent millions of dollars in a high-tech public-education campaign designed to improve the attitudes of Nevada residents toward the Yucca Mountain project. The unintended consequence of this is that opposition has been reinforced among those who have had greatest exposure to the campaign.

Many in the science community argue that we do have a safe storage technology and that the primary problem is convincing the larger public of this fact. Objective conditions, however, are often less important than subjective perceptions.

The second mistake is to assume that opposition to siting proposals is largely an irrational response. The siting of a nuclear-waste facility always involves redistribution of risks, costs, and benefits among members of a given population. In most instances, the siting process concentrates the risks and costs on a comparatively small segment of the population while diffusing the benefits much more broadly.

This risk-cost-benefit redistribution creates strong incentives for resistance among those who bear the risks and costs. Such resistance can be perfectly rational when it is driven by questions about equity, safety, and environmental protection. This is particularly the case when there are no clearly identifiable social or psychological benefits to hosting a facility and the economic benefits are, at best, marginal.15

The flip side of this is that those who would benefit from the siting of a repository—in this case the residents of the nation or of a given region—are much more diffuse and have little counter-incentive to force the siting decision upon the risk-bearing minority. To the contrary, they may be quite disposed not to do so, again because of appeals to equity and fairness.

A third mistake is to believe that opposition is driven primarily by selfish concerns tied to the not-in-my-backyard syndrome. Instead, the data suggest that local motives are much more diffuse and include at least the following: 1) a desire to defend and preserve a traditional way of life and resource-management procedures, 2) the desire to maintain local control over resources, 3) the desire to maintain what are believed to be more ecologically sound resource-use patterns, 4) honest questions and concerns about equity and fairness in the distribution of risks and costs, 5) direct experience with prior activities that have involved the issues of trust and risk, and 6) concerns about what is in reality a very flawed process—one that too often has discounted real and perceived risks to health and well-being.16

The road to a more workable nuclear-waste policy is fraught with twists and turns and countless potholes. My own lack of optimism in our prospects for arriving at a solution, at least in the short-run, is driven by a recognition of the enormity and the complexity of the task.

Nevertheless, a workable solution to the nuclear-waste problem is essential for this country, no matter how elusive it might prove to be. For one thing, such a policy is needed to shape a future for the commercial nuclear-power industry. Revival of the industry would produce substantially larger quantities of waste materials requiring storage. If we can’t contend with the waste we’re currently generating, one can only imagine how the problem would grow in proportion if the nuclear-power industry were to gear up.

Just such a revival is projected by many who are in the business of finding ways to meet electrical power demands in a world characterized by dwindling nonrenewable resources and increasing recognition of the negative environmental and health effects associated with current, nonnuclear power sources, chiefly fossil fuels.

But even without such a revival, we face the task of finding a more permanent storage solution for growing volumes of nuclear wastes currently held in hundreds of temporary sites around the country.

And if commercial nuclear power experiences no revival, the eventual decommissioning and dismantling of existing facilities will substantially increase the need for a waste-disposal solution. We must add to this the challenge of devising disposal arrangements for military wastes and for radioactive wastes from hospitals, research facilities, and other sources.

These realities make it difficult to concur with the critics who call for a moratorium on current siting efforts.17 Indeed, while there may be some advantage to creating a short-term, retrievable-storage arrangement, we cannot set aside efforts to find long-term solutions to either the low- or the high-level waste problems.

The fact remains, however, that we are probably further from realizing a tenable, long-term nuclear-waste policy than at anytime since the passage of the 1980s legislation. Consider, for instance, that in the realm of high-level wastes, we’ve spent over $7 billion for site characterization, and yet the construction of a facility for deep, permanent geological burial at Yucca Mountain is, at best, decades away.

And even with promising efforts to negotiate temporary-storage arrangements with some communities and Indian tribes, numerous difficult hurdles remain. For example, efforts to negotiate with a compliant tribe of Mescalero Apaches for a retrievable-storage facility for high-level radioactive wastes confronted overwhelming barriers erected by New Mexico state officials, environmental groups, and Native American rights organizations.

Meanwhile, in the low-level waste arena, we are now nearly two decades beyond the passage of legislation that turned over responsibility for establishing waste facilities to the states, and yet not a single facility has been created.

This leaves us with an analysis that has been long on problems and short on solutions. Is there anything we have learned that might provide future hope and guidance? To begin with, so long as our society values public involvement and concurrence, the successful approach must include a strong element of volunteerism. We must continue to seek out communities that will volunteer to serve as hosts for nuclear-waste-disposal facilities. There are, of course, important challenges with this.

Volunteerism can succeed only if there is a sufficiently appealing incentive package attached to the siting of waste facilities. Furthermore, we must remain sensitive to the ethical aspects of any approach that generates bidders only from the most economically desperate and deprived communities.

There are other problems with this approach, as well. First, it is extremely difficult to put a price on health, safety, and obligations to future generations. For most of us, these are nonnegotiable items. Second, as noted in the case of the Mescalero Apaches, there will always be outside players who will remain unimpressed and unmoved by even the most generous incentive packages. Third, there are problems created for local communities when a proposal carries unidentified long-term impacts and opportunities that must be forgone. For instance, by hosting a waste facility, a community may limit its future development options. Because of this, negotiations must include a careful assessment of values forgone, and an effort must be made to ensure that compensation is appropriate both in the short term and over the long run.

It is one thing, for instance, for the Skull Valley Goshute Indian Tribe in Utah to agree to host a nuclear-waste repository because the presence of several other unattractive facilities in that area have already foreclosed any other form of future development. It is quite another for a community to make a choice that severely limits future options without sufficient compensation for lost opportunities.

Despite the complications that are linked to any policy that requires substantial public involvement and acceptance, choosing a course that retreats from our commitment to these principles is unacceptable. Communities should be allowed to make choices.

When, in the interest of the larger group, it seems necessary to offer incentives for taking on problems that the rest of us would like to avoid, we must be committed to doing everything possible to make the trade-offs as fair and equitable as possible. And we should never stoop to trading off health and safety, in either the short or the long run.

We must remember that our form of democracy grants to its citizens the right to determine the acceptability of the various risks and solutions that affect their lives. As U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brandeis noted, "The highest office in the land is the citizen."18 Therefore, when we face the task of weighing technical expertise against the views of the citizens, the views of those citizens can never be lightly set aside.

The responsibility of the technical expert then becomes that of helping citizens understand the range of available alternatives and the possible consequences. The citizens can then be better prepared to make informed decisions about the rightness, viability, and acceptability of what is being proposed. Anything short of this is never going to work.n


Proposed Low-Level Waste Facilities Plagued by Controversy

Current efforts to establish facilities for permanent storage of low-level nuclear wastes have been fraught with problems. In fact, each of the four "most advanced" proposals - all having reached the stage of making at least preliminary applications for a license - now faces the very real prospect of failure and abandonment.

For instance, efforts to site a facility in Wake County near Raleigh, North Carolina, have now been suspended. While the state of North Carolina may continue to recognize its commitment to the Southeast Compact to site a facility to handle low-level wastes from the member states, its rejection of the Wake County site and a return to the drawing board will prolong the process for several years. This comes at a time when the compact has virtually run out of money because of the costs of site characterization and the loss of revenues from the Barnwell facility, which resulted when South Carolina withdrew from the compact.

The proposed site for a facility to serve the Southwest Compact at the Ward Valley site in Needles, California, could still be the first to be approved. But the transfer of land needed for the facility from federal to state control continues to be delayed, and a large, well-endowed, nationally based environmental opposition is prepared to fight this one to the bitter end.

Until just a few weeks ago, Texas continued to have high expectations for the Sierra Blanca site, located about 90 miles southeast of El Paso. However, after years of study and the expenditure of very large sums of money, the application for a site license was recently rejected. Texas, like North Carolina, is now faced with starting the process over again.

The Boyd County, Nebraska, site continues to be heavily embroiled in controversy and the state has recently issued an intent to deny a license. The probability of this site ever being approved has decreased dramatically.

Beyond these four, several other states have basically started their siting process over again. Some, like Pennsylvania, are touting a volunteer approach that has little real chance of producing a site anytime soon. Other states, like New York, seem willing to wait for someone else to come up with a solution. And so it goes. n SLA




















Stan L. Albrecht is dean of the College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences at Utah State University, in Logan, Utah.19

1. Several states within various regions of the United States have signed compacts with one another for disposal of low-level radioactive wastes. In joining a compact, each of the member states agrees to host a waste disposal site that will receive wastes from other members of the compact. Currently, there are ten compacts around the nation. A handful of states have not joined any compact.

2. M.E. Kraft, E.A. Rosa, and R.E. Dunlap, "Public Opinion and Nuclear Waste Policymaking," in Dunlap, Kraft, and Rosa, eds., Public Reactions to Nuclear Waste: Citizens’ Views of Repository Siting (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1993).

3. US Office of Technology Assessment, Managing the Nation’s Commercial High-Level Radioactive Waste (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1985).

4. See sidebar: "Proposed Low-Level Waste Facilities Plagued by Controversy."

5. Kraft et al., "Public Opinion and Nuclear Waste Policymaking."

6. E.A. Rosa, R.E. Dunlap, and M.E. Kraft, "Prospects for Public Acceptance of a High-Level Nuclear Waste Repository in the United States: Summary and Implications," in Dunlap et al., eds., Public Reactions to Nuclear Waste, pp. 291-324.

7. H. Flynn et al., "Time to Rethink Nuclear Waste Storage," Issues in Science and Technology 8 (1992), pp. 42-48; G.W. Hinman et al., "Perceptions of Nuclear and Other Risks in Japan and the United States," Risk Analysis 13 (1993), pp. 449-455; P. Slovic, J. Flynn, and M. Layman, "Perceived Risk, Trust, and the Politics of Nuclear Waste," Science 254 (1991), pp. 1603-07.

8. Slovic et al., "Perceived Risk, Trust, and the Politics of Nuclear Waste."

9. K. Erikson, A New Species of Trouble (New York: W.W. Norton, 1994).

10. M. English, Siting Low-Level Radioactive Waste Disposal Facilities: The Public Policy Dilemma (New York: Quorum Books, 1992); S.L. Albrecht, "Equity and Justice in Environmental Decision Making: A Proposed Research Agenda," Society and Natural Resources 8 (1995), pp. 67-72; G. Cvetkovich and T.C. Earle, "Environmental Hazards and the Public," Journal of Social Issues 48 (1992), pp. 1-20; M.R. Edelstein, Contaminated Communities: The Social and Psychological Impacts of Residential Toxic Exposure (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1988); W.R. Freudenburg, "Risk and Recreancy: Weber, the Division of Labor, and the Rationality of Risk Perceptions," Social Forces 71 (1993), pp. 909-932; J. Pearson, "Hazard Visibility and Occupational Health Problem Solving: The Case of the Uranium Industry," Journal of Community Health 6 (1980), pp. 136-147; H.M. Vyner, Invisible Trauma: The Psychosocial Effects of the Invisible Environmental Contaminants (Lex-
ington, MA: Lexington Books, 1988); R.S. Krannich, and S.L. Albrecht, "Opportunity Threat Responses to Nuclear Waste Disposal Facilities: Survey Evidence from Nevada and Nebraska," Rural Sociology 60 (1995), pp. 435-453.

11. Dunlap et al., Public Reactions to Nuclear Waste.

12. Albrecht, "Equity and Justice in Environmental Decision Making"; R.D. Bullard, and B. Wright, "The Politics of Pollution: Implications for the Black Community," Phylon 47 (1986), pp. 71-78; S. Masterson-Allen and P. Brown, "Public Reaction to Toxic Waste Contamination: Analysis of a Social Movement," International Journal of Health Services 20 (1990), pp. 485-500; D. Taylor, "The Environmental Justice Movement," EPA Journal (March/April, 1992), pp. 23-24.

13. W.R. Freudenburg, and R. Gramling, Oil in Troubled Waters: Perceptions, Politics, and the Battle over Offshore Drilling (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1994); W.R. Freudenburg, and Robert Gramling, "Community Impacts of Technological Change: Toward a Longitudinal Perspective," Social Forces 70 (1992), pp. 937-955.

14. Freudenburg and Gramling, Oil in Troubled Waters.

15. R.C. Kearney and A.A. Smith, "The Low-Level Radioactive Waste Siting Process in Connecticut: Anatomy of a Failure," Policy Studies Journal 22 (1994), pp. 617-630.

16. Albrecht, "Equity and Justice in Environmental Decision Making"; A.E. Luloff, S.L. Albrecht, and L. Bourke, "NIMBY and the Hazardous and Toxic Waste Siting Dilemma: The Need for Concept Clarification," Society and Natural Resources 11 (1998), pp. 81-89; J. Martinez-Alier and E. Hershberg, "Environmentalism and the Poor: The Ecology of Survival," Items 42, Social Science Research Council (1992), pp. 1-5.

17. Flynn et al., "Time to Rethink Nuclear Waste Storage"; Erikson, A New Species of Trouble.

18. Rosa et al., "Prospects for Public Acceptance of a High-Level Nuclear Waste Repository in the United States."

19. Work reported in this paper was supported in part by a grant from the US Environmental Protection Agency. Opinions reported here are solely those of the author.

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