But the pursuit of the perfect solution (assuming deep geologic disposal even could be perfected) has ignored a realistic solution. And when the perfect fails, as now seems likely, we will be left with something no rational person would have chosen: waste sites scattered from coast to coast, in places where reactors used to be, each with its own security force, maintenance crew, and exclusion zone. “We’re here to run a business as efficiently as possible,” says John Sanchez, the project manager who oversaw the planning for the pad at Indian Point when he worked at Consolidated Edison, the site’s former owner. “In a perfect world, you would not have 60 of anything, if you could have one.” But after 20 years of pursuing geologic disposal, and 15 years of chasing Yucca and avoiding any mention of a plan B, just such an ad hoc, and suboptimal, solution is emerging.
And it’s emerging without the support of the Energy Department. Testifying before the Senate Energy Committee over the summer, Kyle McSlarrow, the Energy Department’s deputy secretary, said that “continued progress toward establishing a high-level waste repository at the Yucca Mountain site is absolutely essential.” He told another committee on the same day that with progress toward Yucca’s opening, “industry saw clearly that the nuclear-power option was truly back on the table.” (The department would not make McSlarrow or other officials available for comment for this article.)
Cask storage is not pretty, but what’s wrong with the idea of an industrial repository, a few hectares set aside for the next century or so, a single, guarded location in a little-populated area, a location that in ten years or so will be remarkable only because it’s a place where the snow doesn’t stick? Macfarlane of MIT says making such site secure and terrorist-proof would cost $6.5 billion, at most. “Isn’t that worth it? How much have we spent on Iraq? Look what we got for that money. And there’s more at risk here,” she says.
Finding a central site poses obvious challenges; nobody wants any type of radioactive waste site in his or her backyard. But after extended negotiations, a group of utility engineers, including Sanchez, cut a deal with the Skull Valley band of the Goshute Indian tribe for a long lease on part of its reservation 80 kilometers west of Salt Lake City. The area already hosts an air-force bombing range, a nerve gas depot and incinerator, and a dump for low-level radioactive waste; the Goshutes figure they can use the rent to buy themselves land in a nicer neighborhood.
Some experts think the federal government could take over the Goshute project and push it to completion, but there is a snag – an ironic one, given the fears of a September 11-style attack on a nuclear site. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has determined that an F-16’s crashing into the casks on its way to or from the test site is a “credible accident.” But while such a crash would doubtless be disastrous, casks do provide some safety advantages over today’s fuel pools. The fuel in casks is much more spread out and does not require a flow of cooling water to prevent spontaneous, spreading fire. Thus the worst-case effects are more limited. In any case, one remote central site would be easier to protect with air defenses than numerous scattered sites.
Those scattered sites are already creating local problems. The casks from the former reactor in Wiscasset, ME, are blocking the redevelopment of the peninsula where they’re stored, a valuable industrial site. A cask site near the Prairie Island Nuclear Generating Plant in Welch, MN, is adjacent to a tribal day-care center and casino, which is nobody’s idea of a long-term solution. Inevitably, in the wake of September 11, the Indian Point casks will be a locus of fear. These outcomes will seem even sillier in 30 years, when many of the reactors that made the waste are gone.
Sanchez recalls carrying a picnic lunch to the stand of maples and black-walnut trees now being replaced with a concrete pad for storing nuclear waste. As the years roll by, fewer and fewer people will know those trees existed. Several decades from now, as today’s aging nuclear power plants are decommissioned, people may not remember that the reactors themselves existed. If we don’t take action soon, however, casks of waste will stand alone on that bluff above the Hudson River – and in dozens of other places across the country.