Friday, November 14, 2014

Final Nuclear Storage -- U.S. and Japanese Switch Policy Approaches

One of the long standing questions with nuclear power generation is -- where will the waste be stored for the tens of hundreds of thousands of years until it becomes harmless?

This policy issue has both a technical and a political aspect.

USA OLD POLICY.  In the U.S., the long-preferred site was Yucca Mountain, Nevada, where the geological features apparently give an excellent prospect for the required very-long-term stability.  The Federal government long ago began promoting the site for these reasons, as reflected in many U.S. policies.  Unfortunately, the State of Nevada and its residents were not asked first, and they have not been particularly welcoming.  And then the senior Senator from Nevada, Harry Reid, became Senate Majority Leader, and following the election of President Obama in 2008 he obtained the appointment of one of his Nevada proteges as head of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.  All this was not so positive for the idea of using Yucca Mountain as a permanent waste depository. Another decade or more of delay and back to the drawing board.
Yucca Mountain -- The Outside
JAPAN OLD POLICY.  In Japan, the government also has been looking for a permanent waste depository.  (Actually, not permanent, assuming human beings are still around in the very, very distant future.  Just very, very long term).  In Japan, the approach to siting nuclear projects has typically involved more carrots than sticks.  So the Japanese government long followed a strategy of waiting for someplace to "raise its hand" and volunteer to serve as a waste disposal.  After all, the waste will be buried so deep that no one will need to worry about it for hundreds or thousands of years.  But no community in Japan has raised its hand.

USA NEW POLICY.  In the U.S., the government realized its mistake in trying to force Nevada to accept Yucca Mountain, and inspiring the mobilization of a vocal and effective opposition.  So the U.S. is now switching to a policy of looking for someplace to "raise its hand" -- someplace that wants the investment, jobs, stability and "carrots" that will come with this role.
Yucca Mountain -- The Inside
JAPAN NEW POLICY.  In Japan, the government realized that if it kept waiting for a community to "raise its hand", this might never happen.  The lack of a final waste depository hurts the nuclear restart campaign, so the government will now go ahead and study the question from a technical/geological perspective, and try to identify the best site or sites for the depository based on technical grounds.

So Japan has pretty much adopted the former U.S. approach.
And the U.S. has pretty much adopted the former Japanese approach.

And despite this issue floating around (at least in the U.S.) for the past 40 years or more ... it is still not resolved.  The problem is not, primarily, technical, though the technological questions are complex.  It is a political challenge.  Can a representative democracy actually do this?  When?  And what will it take to get it done?

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