The Obama administration should ensure that science informs the US strategy on nuclear waste.
The fall from grace of Yucca Mountain as the site for a giant government nuclear-waste repository has been a long time coming. Ever since it was named as the sole site for the final disposal of high-level waste in 1987, political opposition has been growing, as has the population of nearby Las Vegas.
That opposition found strength in the weakness of the scientific case for the repository. Lawmakers originally chose Yucca Mountain on the basis of Nevada's low population and political vulnerability, leaving scientists to find a justification after the fact. But much of what the researchers found undercut the decision. The seemingly quiet desert around the mountain went through a spate of volcanic activity as recently as 75,000 years ago, and although the region seems dry, rain seeps surprisingly quickly through fissures in the rock.
These facts have eroded the once-solid political case for Yucca, and, together with questions of data integrity and technical independence, created a climate favourable to its cancellation. This year, with Barack Obama as president and Harry Reid (Democrat, Nevada) as Senate majority leader, the project could well be dealt a final blow.
Obama says that his administration will devise a new strategy for nuclear-waste disposal. Policy-makers will presumably be looking at various options including geological disposal, reprocessing of spent fuel and long-term storage at reactor sites. Each option has its advantages and drawbacks, but whatever decision is made, the administration must ensure that the scientific rationale is established beforehand, not the other way around.
In particular, the White House should include scientists in its policy discussions from the start. It should allow its ideas to be peer reviewed, both in the open scientific literature and by independent bodies such as the National Academy of Sciences. Finally, it should work with Congress to ensure that whatever legislation is needed to enact its strategy is similarly underpinned by strong science.
None of this means that the government's nuclear-waste strategy should be determined by science alone. The final decision will have to balance the conflicting commercial, military and public interests in waste disposal — and the political process, not science, is the only way to do that. In striking that balance, US policy-makers could look to Sweden and Finland, which are shepherding their own, scientifically sound proposals for long-term storage facilities through lengthy political and safety reviews.
That process will take those nations years to complete, and it could take even longer in the decentralized US political system. But as the 20-year, $9.5-billion Yucca Mountain experiment proved, choosing political expedience over scientific integrity will ultimately lead to a solution that satisfies no one.