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The US nuclear waste issue – solved

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Much of the problem stems from an anachronistic policy enacted in 1982. The policy essentially stipulated that used fuel should be disposed of in a geologic repository as soon as one becomes available. But, if used fuel is allowed to sit in safe storage for 90 years, much of the heat and radioactivity decays away. This reduces the size, complexity, and cost of underground disposal. It also buys time. During the cool-down period, used fuel could be transformed from waste into a major source of energy if we can satisfy the tough engineering, cost, and security challenges involved in reprocessing it.

To reverse the current outdated policy, we need to set up four regional used-fuel storage facilities to act as transfer stations. These would provide geographic equity and allow relocation of the backlog of used fuel to locations where it can be stored safely, securely, and efficiently for up to 90 years before reprocessing or permanent disposal. This can be done with existing revenue and provides the time to implement the second part of the plan: developing and demonstrating an acceptable approach for permanent geologic disposal.

The key to making interim storage work is to make informed consent, equity, and fair compensation the basis for temporary storage. One possibility is to use a "reverse auction" to enable prospective host communities to win regional support for the sites: Under the president's leadership, the federal government would allot, say, a billion dollars, and request bids from interested communities detailing how they would spend it to address the local impacts of and statewide concerns about the proposed facility. Large-tract federal sites would be especially attractive.

If such compensation is combined with a program that includes local representatives in facility oversight, and that accurately informs citizens of the safety systems and the crucial national interests served, many communities and states are likely to welcome these facilities.

At the same time, the US needs to continue locating permanent disposal sites that the nation will eventually need. The search should be modified to ensure that the facilities are both safe and welcomed by the host community and state.

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