When the Congressional hearings are held to confirm Alison Macfarlane as Chair of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Yucca Mountain Project for storing spent nuclear fuel is bound to come up. After more than $10 billion was spent on the project, it was canceled because the people of Nevada didn’t want it.

But the residents of Cumbria, UK, look likely to approve an underground repository in their area. Forsmark, Sweden, won a competition with another town for a repository (diagram). Finland is building a repository on Olkiluoto Island. Carlsbad, New Mexico, proudly advertises its Waste Isolation Pilot Plant.

So what went wrong in Nevada?

Originally, five potential repository sites were chosen in the United States. Technical considerations narrowed those down to three, and then Congress short-circuited the process by declaring that Nevada was it, the other two sites being located in more voter-rich areas. The people of Nevada were not pleased.

Couple that with a traditionally we-know-best attitude on the part of ERDA and the DOE (the process took a very long time), with little willingness to allow local people to participate in the decision-making, and the people of Nevada were very irritated. Harry Reid (D) is one of Nevada’s senators, and he managed to convince President Obama to shut down the Yucca Mountain Project. It’s not clear that this was the legal way to shut down the project, and that will be tested in the courts.

Gregory Jaczko was Senator Reid’s choice for Chair of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). Jaczko was accused of mismanagement and is resigning. President Obama rapidly nominated Alison Macfarlane to replace him. He coupled her nomination with the renewal of Christine Svinicki’s position on the Commission, which should speed both through Congress.

Macfarlane was a member of the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future. She is from outside the nuclear industry, so questions will be raised about her suitability for the position of Chair. Some of those questions will focus on the possibility of restarting Yucca Mountain.

The big difference seems to be that the repositories now in operation or being developed are sited in places where the neighbors had their input and decided they wanted the repositories there. Yucca Mountain was shoved down Nevada’s throat.

Macfarlane seems to recognize that.

“There were selection criteria” for geological, tectonic and geochemical suitability, noted Allison Macfarlane, a George Mason University geologist who served on the symposium panel, “but they were abandoned.”

Macfarlane, recently appointed to Obama’s Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future, said upcoming decisions in the U.S. should include geologists “in a decision-making role” and allow communities to reject sites.

Multiple repositories will be needed, not only because there is too much waste for Yucca alone, even if it were to be revived, but also, she said, “to restore a sense of fairness and share the burden.”

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