Isaacs of DOE speaks on High-level Radioactive Waste Disposal Strategy

September 17, 1993

By Lynn Yarris,

"Walk before you run" is the strategy for high-level radioactive waste disposal that a task force chaired by Tom Isaacs recommended to Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary. Speaking last Thursday (September 9) before a capacity audience at the Building 66 auditorium, Isaacs, DOE's Director of Strategic Planning and International Programs for Radioactive Waste, said that a change in the current strategy could permit the Energy Department to begin permanent disposal of high-level radioactive waste by the year 2010 as the current schedule calls for.

"Instead of aiming for a full-scale permanent underground waste repository immediately, our task force proposes a phased development in which we first build a research and development facility, then a pilot plant and only afterwards a full-scale repository," said Isaacs. "Phased development of a repository, along with a robust safety concept and a demonstration of site suitability, would make DOE's current schedule realistic."

Isaacs was invited by LBL Director Charles V. Shank to discuss with Laboratory employees the recommendations of his task force. Organized by former Secretary of Energy James Watkins during his last days in office, the task force was charged with developing an alternative strategy for the United States to dispose of its high-level radioactive waste.

"This country has already generated about 24,000 metric tons of high-level radioactive waste and continues to add to the volume each year," said Isaacs. "Even if no new nuclear power plants are built, by the next century we will have accumulated some 85,000 metric tons."

According to the Nuclear Waste Policy Act (NWPA) of 1982, DOE is to begin collecting and disposing of high level radioactive waste in 1998. Toward this end, utility companies across the nation have contributed $7 billion, of which nearly $4 billion has already been spent.

Commenting as to whether such a schedule is realistic, Isaacs said, "Not a chance in the world."

The problems are both technical and political, he said. For example, the waste must be sealed in containers that will last at least 1,000 years. These containers must in turn be buried within geologic barriers that will isolate the waste for at least 10,000 years -- a time span ranging from before construction of the Egyptian pyramids until the year 5,000 AD.

"Demonstrating such performances is unprecedented," says Isaacs, "however, there is substantial scientific evidence that a repository could indeed be constructed to meet these criteria."

The political situation has been very much exacerbated by a rampant not-in-my-backyard attitude amongst politicians and residents of states considered as potential repository sites. While evaluating sites as candidates for the nation's first repository, DOE also began the search for a second site in accordance with a process specified by the NWPA.

"The uprising of public opinion was enormous," Isaacs said. "No matter where we went, the reaction of the local population was overwhelmingly negative."

Political opposition led to a stalemate in the program and finally resulted in the NWPA Amendment of 1987, in which "the decision regarding the need for a second repository was put off until the next century," Isaacs said.

The NWPA Amendment of 1987 did affirm Yucca Mountain in Nevada as the candidate site of the first repository and mandated a geologic and hydrologic characterization study that is expected to cost about $6 billion. Isaacs said that under the current DOE strategy, another several billion dollars would probably be spent before any waste could be buried there.

"This is the problem that you face with a single large-step licensing strategy," said Isaacs. "Our task force questioned whether we need to build a full-scale repository now. It may be more practical to demonstrate a capability for the future."

Until a permanent underground waste repository could be put in place, Isaacs' task force suggested the construction and use of a centralized retrievable surface storage facility.

"Otherwise," Isaacs said, "the waste will remain in 33 states next to more than 100 operating nuclear power plants, many of which are running out of storage space in their pools."

Isaacs maintained that for any radioactive waste disposal strategy to be effective there must be a strong measure of public trust.

"We will not succeed unless we involve people and win their support," he said.

Copies of Isaacs' task force recommendations to Secretary O'Leary can be obtained from him. He is currently splitting his time between LBL and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory under the Intergovernmental Personnel Act. His LBL extension is 7109.