Statements from Boise and Washington DC hint that participants in the nuclear waste debate might be taking their eye off the ball – which is to protect the human biosphere from the long term harm nuclear waste could cause.  We should not forget what the last quarter century has taught.

A fundamental principle underlying all efforts to address the nuclear waste problem is that the most dangerous waste – spent nuclear fuel and high-level waste left over from reprocessing it – must be disposed of in technically sound deep geologic repositories.  The repositories themselves and the programs used to develop them must have broad, well-informed public support.  Yucca Mountain did not measure up on technical or democratic grounds.

Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), who will soon retire, introduced legislation in July called the Nuclear Waste Administration Act.  The bill maintains the importance of a permanent deep geologic repository.  It recognizes that it is important that a coherent regulatory environmental framework be in place before a specific site is sought.  But the bill also contains a provision that would undoubtedly impede a longterm solution.  It would allow the federal government to open an “interim” storage site for up to 10,000 metric tons of spent fuel before a deep geologic repository was established.

Mr. Bingaman himself acknowledges that “once the government builds a temporary storage facility and takes the waste off the utilities’ hands, the economic and political pressure to build a permanent repository will lessen and the chances that the waste will be left at the storage facility indefinitely, even permanently, will increase.”  It is precisely that possibility that has animated Idahoans’ opposition to “interim” storage for the past decades and is why current law prohibits the government building a temporary site before a permanent one.

But at least Mr. Bingaman sees a need for a coherent framework.  Others seem to favor an unregulated auction where nuclear waste is explicitly linked with possible financial gain.  An instance of officialdom encouraging a bidding war in place of a careful program focused on a longterm solution came on August 7 in Boise.  The Department of Energy’s Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy, Peter Lyons, spoke before Governor Otter’s Leadership in Nuclear Energy commission.  Long before any criteria for any consolidation of nuclear waste (or, frankly, any cogent rationale why that would be necessary or desirable), Mr. Lyons very explicitly warned that the future mission and budgets of the Idaho National Laboratory might be linked to Idahoans’ willingness to take more commercial spent fuel under the open-ended circumstances we have tried to avoid.

These two big hitters in the nuclear waste debate aren’t the only ones who seem set to revert back to the opaque, scientifically and ethically indefensible process that has already stalled.  It is still up to all the rest of us to remain determined to find a better longterm response to the nuclear waste dilemma.