Episode 1

http://Nuclear%20waste%20expert%20Arjun%20Makhijani.

Arjun Makhijani

President of Science Matters, LLC

Nuclear Waste Disposal Difficulties Plague the Industry

In this episode, Arjun Makhijani, an electrical and nuclear engineer, speaks candidly about the weaknesses of various nuclear waste disposal methods.

Note: This transcript is the raw transcript of this podcast. Minimal edits have been made only for clarity purposes.

Arjun Makhijani (00:11):

If we don’t do that, if we just leave this near rivers and lakes forever, it’s going to ruin the water. It’s going to ruin the land with a very high likelihood. So we need to do geologic isolation.

Narrator (00:25):

Hello, and welcome to Nuclear Waste: The Whole Story. A series designed to explore perspectives of nuclear waste disposal. About half a million metric tons of high-level nuclear waste is temporarily stored at hundreds of sites worldwide. No country has established a permanent home for spent commercial fuel. In the US alone, one in three people live within 50 miles of a storage site. That fact may be surprising, but it’s not for lack of technical solutions. Experts worldwide agree that a deep geological repository would be the best final resting place for this hazardous substance. So what’s the delay you ask? The answers are complex and controversial. In this series, we’re interviewing experts and stakeholders representing pieces of this complicated puzzle to give you a clearer picture of Nuclear Waste: The Whole Story.

In this episode, Emmy award-winning documentary, filmmaker, and Deep Isolation adviser, David Hoffman talks to Arjun Makhijani, President of Science Matters, LLC. Arjun is an electrical and nuclear engineer who speaks candidly about the weaknesses of various nuclear waste disposal methods. At Deep isolation, we believe that listening is one of the most important elements of a successful nuclear waste disposal program. A core company value is to seek and listen to different perspectives on the matter of nuclear waste, nuclear energy, and disposal solutions.

Narrator (02:06):

The opinions expressed in this series are those of the participants and do not represent Deep Isolation’s position.

David Hoffman (02:15):

So Arjun. High level nuclear fuel waste. What are the facts? What is the situation today?

Arjun Makhijani (02:23):

So when you generate energy in the nuclear power reactor, you put uranium fuel in it, and then it fissions. That’s how you produce energy. And it creates very highly radioactive fission products. The two pieces of the fission are very radioactive, most of it. This stuff is so radioactive that if Evel Knievel drove his motorcycle at 60 miles an hour over the 12 feet or so of the spent fuel rod bundles, right after it was taken out of the reactor, you would be dead before he reached the end. This stuff also contains plutonium, but 1% of the spent fuel is plutonium. And if it’s separated from the spent fuel, it can be used to make bombs. And so this material presents very peculiar hazards. It’s both extremely radioactive and dangerous to health. If people come in close contact with it, and then it also has nuclear bomb usable material in large quantities. We’ve got 80,000 tons of this stuff in the USA, and a lot more, a few times more around the world.

David Hoffman (03:42):

Where is it Arjun? Where is it?

Arjun Makhijani (03:45):

So we have 60 odd sites where we have nuclear reactors and the spent fuel is stored at the reactor site. Because it’s so hot when it comes out of the reactor, they’re pools like swimming pools where the spent fuel must be stored and cooled. Underwater spent fuel pools weren’t designed to hold used fuel worth decades. They were designed for a small amount, spent fuel, and then the spent fuel was supposed to be valuable for its plutonium and uranium content. And that turned out not to be the case. So now what we have is a kind of a very special situation. The spent fuel pools are very densely packed. They put more and more spent fuel in them, 10, 20, 25, years worth. And then when they’re really packed full, they take out some of the spent fuel and store it in giant casks that are dry casks.

David Hoffman (04:46):

Why is this so difficult for the government? You’d think that it’s science that would solve the problem, but apparently, that’s not the case.

Arjun Makhijani (04:55):

The problem with this stuff is so long as it’s stored, you know, it’s, it’s okay. It’s not hurting anybody. The workers you have to take care of. Of course, the workers who are maintaining all that, but all of these materials are corrodable. They don’t last forever. And so the idea was to dispose of it in a deep geologic mine which you know, where it might do less damage.

David Hoffman (05:26):

One, would putting it into something below ground tell me would be safer? And two, everybody knows about Yucca Mountain. I thought that was the idea we’re going to somehow trailer it or truck it, or train it, all this stuff out to Yucca mountain and put it in a big hole.

Arjun Makhijani (05:42):

After looking at all the options for what you could do with this stuff that lasts for thousands or tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of years, was to put it in a deep mine. In my opinion, there’s nothing good to do with it. There’s no safe solution. So when some, when you’re trying to predict for hundreds of thousands of years, your formulas will fail at a certain point. Your containers will also fail. And as we studied this more, as good geologists got involved, rather than physicists, they realize that these containers will leak. So the problem became, how should we package this stuff? And how should we minimize the damage over the long term because we know they’re going to leak. And so where should we put it? Should we put it in Yucca mountain? Should we put it in Hanford? Should we put it in the salt, salt domes in Texas or New Mexico?

David Hoffman (06:39):

What happened? Did that solve the problem? Not perfect as you say, but better.

Arjun Makhijani (06:46):

So the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, I think is a good example of science and politics that were married reasonably well for a very difficult problem. So far so good. But then things started to get screwed up and politics started to enter in a bad way. Partly nobody wants the stuff in their backyard. So in the West, there were nine sites and there were supposed to be narrowed down to three. And then the three were supposed to be investigated intensively and compared, so we could find the best one. Now, as it turned out that many of the sites were in areas, you know, like in the panhandle of Texas, there was a tremendous amount of resistance from the farmers. It’s about the largest aquifer in the country. So there was a lot of opposition.

David Hoffman (07:45):

Was it crazy opposition was sane opposition, in your opinion?

David Hoffman (07:50):

You know, I wouldn’t say crazy opposition. I think there is no, because every site is going to have some problems. And we’re talking about very long period of time. People get very concerned and then you’ve got to bring this stuff by truck or train, as you were saying. And today we are even more aware that, you know, there can be terrorist attacks on these trucks and trains. You could, you could have a real mess. The problem became is that as the pressure on the Department of Energy opposition from politically sensitive places like Texas grew it picked three sites, one in Texas and one in Nevada, the Yucca Mountain site, and Hanford. And the Hanford and Yucca mountain sites had been already scientifically shown to be inappropriate by the National Academy.

Arjun Makhijani (08:43):

So this became a pretty big problem. I, somebody like me who supports geologic disposal, although reluctantly as the least bad thing to do. It became a problem for me because I could not support Hanford and I could not support Yucca mountain because they were transparently bad sites, politically selected. In my opinion, Yucca mountain is the worst single site that has been investigated in the United States. And now I’m not a geologist. So I thought before I say that more publicly as I am doing now, I should ask an eminent geologist whom I know quite well. And I say, what do you think if I say this? Do you think, if you say that I’m wrong, I’ll stop saying it. And he said, well, let me put it this way. If a freshman geology student said Yucca mountain was a good site, I would flunk them.

David Hoffman (09:45):

Well, then I’m glad that scientists are looking at alternatives. And I know you’re an expert at least on explaining these burial ideas.

Arjun Makhijani (09:56):

So we have three concepts now. We had two before and now we have three concepts of how you might geologically isolate this waste. One was this building a mine and, you know, putting waste canisters in it, Yucca Mountain, or Hanford, or some other place. And the other has been since the 1980s known they’re called vertical boreholes. You basically drill a hole thousands and thousands of feet, a couple of miles. And then you put a canister of waste and then you seal that you put another canister waste on top of it. And you have a, basically a vertical pile of canisters that the topmost canister would be quite deep. And so then you kind of seal the rest of it and you have a vertical geologic disposal. The advantages are you don’t have to build a mine. You have one borehole. We know how to make boreholes. The disadvantages, you can’t put a lot of waste in one borehole. So now you need hundreds and hundreds of boreholes. Each one of which has a little bit of damage around which you have to seal, and you have to seal a lot of places and characterize a lot of places. So now the number of places that can be have multiplied, but the amount of waste that we can store at each place has gone down. So become a different kind of problem. Now, as you know, this company, Deep Isolation had come up with a new idea based on fracking technology without the fracking. So fracking technologies. First, you make drill a hole vertically, and then you have a horizontal deviation of that hole that could go out a mile or so.

Arjun Makhijani (11:47):

And they thought, well, we won’t do the fracking. We’ll just take a bundle of spent fuel, put it in a canister and put it in the horizontal part. Now I think that has certain advantages over vertical boreholes.

David Hoffman (12:01):

Why would horizontal be any better than vertical?

Arjun Makhijani (12:04):

Well, because I think the, the path of the waste back up is more complicated. And also the amount of waste per canister is smaller. So this waste is hot. Remember temperature hot. In a mine, when you put a large amount of waste in one drift in a mine, it causes the water around it to boil that’s, that’s how hot it is. Now. You boil, you condense you, boil, you corrode everything. That’s part of the mechanism of leakage. One of the mechanisms. If you have a horizontal borehole with one spent fuel bundle per canister, the thermal stresses on the rocks are going to be lower. So they may not crack as easily, but now you need a very large number of horizontal boreholes.

David Hoffman (12:58):

It seems like something has to be done. Everything is not perfect. You’ve made that clear. There’s expense here. We’re not stopping building nuclear weapons, although God, most listeners of this podcast, hope we do. That’s not where we are. You have children. What do you hope for here?

Arjun Makhijani (13:20):

So the added waste from nuclear weapons is no longer an issue. We’re not making more plutonium for nuclear weapons. The United States, Russia, they all have more plutonium from on the weapons side than they know what to do with. The main problem with plutonium and spent fuel, now new problems is waste from, from reactors. Right now, the spent fuel casks, the dry casks are visible from offsite. They are, they are more or less targetable. They’re not in buildings. They have a very prominent infrared signature, you know, to make it more targetable.

David Hoffman (14:04):

Well, you have people like Bill Gates and others that I believe in supporting nuclear power as one of the solutions to our current energy crisis. Right? So let’s assume that’s not going to go away. Should America, and is anybody in the world going to these newer borehole solutions?

Arjun Makhijani (14:29):

So, you know, geologic isolation is the least bad approach by far. So if we don’t do that, if we just leave this near rivers and lakes forever, it’s going to ruin the water. It’s going to ruin the land with a very high likelihood. So we need to do geologic isolation. We have three approaches. We have the one that has been most investigated, big mines and sealing up the mines, there vertical boreholes and this new horizontal borehole. I think we should investigate all three. It’s quite possible that all three would be needed for different kinds of waste because we have the spent fuel, but we also have plutonium-contaminated waste. We have high-level waste that’s in glass logs. So I think we need a fresh start with the idea that geologic isolation is necessary. And then let’s compare these three things there are pluses and minuses. Let’s make some investment in the new things. Vertical boreholes, I think the government has invested some money. Oak Ridge National Lab has done some studies as to what it will take. And the horizontal boreholes has had very little investment and I think we should invest without putting waste in it. We should invest some real money in looking at the geology, looking at the pluses and minuses, drilling some boreholes, seeing whether we can get the cylinders in and out, how much damage there is around the boreholes, what kind of sealing methods we would use.

David Hoffman (16:12):

There’s always need to be another priority. There’s always a priority that’s ahead of this priority. Should we move up the priority or is this sort of something we should take care of when we have the money?

Arjun Makhijani (16:23):

No, the money is there. So the government’s been collecting the money from nuclear power ratepayers since 1982. And it stopped a few years ago when the Yucca Mountain project was canceled. So the government has a lot of money that is, should be dedicated to nuclear spent fuel disposal, but it is not being dedicated to that. More on top of that, because the government promised to start taking the spent fuel away from reactor sites, starting January 1998 and defaulted on its promise, the utilities have sued the government, and now we, the taxpayers, you and me, and, you know, millions of others are paying fines to the nuclear power plant owners because the government defaulted on that promise and those fines are non-trivial. So we need to stop paying those fines. Start doing, start actually moving forward. We need to get off the Yucca mountain. It’s a bad site. Let’s get a fresh start. Let’s look at these three approaches that we have had and with some dispatch and some real resources going forward.

David Hoffman (17:41):

I want to thank you for doing this with me. Your opinion is very well appreciated by me and I hope by the audiences listening. So thank you, Arjun.

Arjun Makhijani (17:49):

I hope so, David, thank you very much for being on, for having me on your show.

Narrator (17:55):

Thank you for listening. We hope you’ll share this podcast with others and feel free to send any comments or suggestions to podcast@deepisolation.com. You can visit deepisolation.com to learn more. At Deep Isolation, we believe that listening is one of the most important elements of a successful nuclear waste disposal program. A core company value is to seek and listen to different perspectives on the matter of nuclear waste, nuclear energy, and disposal solutions. The opinions expressed in this series are those of the participants and do not represent Deep Isolation’s position.

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Episode 2

http://Rod%20McCullum,%20NEI

Rod McCullum

Senior Director, Used Fuel and Decommissioning Nuclear Energy Institute

Disposal Impasse Impacts the Future of Next Generation Reactors

In this interview, Rod McCullum offers an insider’s perspective on commercial nuclear waste disposal and explains why any failure to solve this problem could threaten the development of the next generation of nuclear energy reactors.

Note: This transcript is the raw transcript of this podcast. Minimal edits have been made only for clarity purposes.

Rod McCullum (00:00):

The good news with the nuclear industry is we contain all of our wastes. All of our by-product waste. The bad news for the nuclear industry is we still got them.

Narrator (00:21):

Hello and welcome to Nuclear Waste: The Whole Story. A series designed to explore perspectives of nuclear waste disposal. About half a million metric tons of high-level nuclear waste is temporarily stored at hundreds of sites worldwide. No country has established a permanent home for spend commercial fuel. In the US alone, one in three people live within 50 miles of a storage site. That fact may be surprising, but it’s not for lack of technical solutions. Experts worldwide agree that a deep geological repository would be the best final resting place for this hazardous substance. So what’s the delay you ask? The answers are complex and controversial. In this series, we’re interviewing experts and stakeholders representing pieces of this complicated puzzle to give you a clearer picture of nuclear waste, the whole story.

In this episode, Emmy award-winning documentary filmmaker and Deep Isolation advisor, David Hoffman, talks to Rod McCullum, Senior Director of Used Fuel and Decommissioning of the Nuclear Energy Institute. Rod gives us an insider’s perspective on commercial nuclear waste disposal and explains why any failure to solve this problem could affect the development of the next generation of nuclear energy reactors.

At Deep Isolation, we believe that listening is one of the most important elements of a successful nuclear waste disposal program. A core company value is to seek and listen to different perspectives on the matter of nuclear waste, nuclear energy, and disposal solutions. The opinions expressed in this series are those of the participants and do not represent Deep Isolation’s position.

David Hoffman (02:17):

So Rod, I’d first like you to tell me in your own words, even though you represent an organization, how you feel, what is the situation today in terms of nuclear waste. What’s going on in the United States today?

Rod McCullum (02:31):

Well, the situation is it’s, it’s like the beginning of that Dickens novel, the best of times, the worst of times. We have a very effective industrial infrastructure to manage nuclear waste, the dry cask storage industry. We’ve loaded 3000 of these dry cask storage systems at virtually every nuclear plant in the country. They’re safe. They’re, they’re tested. This has been incident-free. They are licensed for as long as 60 years, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has said that they’re good for at least a hundred. That being said, they’re all still at the plant sites, including the decommissioned sites. So that’s, that’s the best of times is that we have this tremendous industrial success story here.

Rod McCullum (03:13):

Dry cask storage didn’t exist before 1986 and now we have 3000 of them and they’ve been very effective and that lets us keep discharging waste from the plants and safely storing it. I’ve always said the good news with the nuclear industry is we contain all of our wastes. All of our by-product waste. The bad news for the nuclear industry is we’ve still got them. So here we have this dilemma where we’re very good at storing it but we need to move it and free up these sites as the older plants shut down so we can build the next-generation plants.

David Hoffman (03:44):

Is this costing the industry money? That is, how does the industry feel about the fact that year after year, the public is paying to keep these things above ground, which I don’t think was the idea initially. So if you could just say, tell me, how does the industry feel about the fact that billions of dollars are being spent?

Rod McCullum (04:05):

The industry is very frustrated and quite frankly, the billions of dollars that is being spent, the government just came out yesterday or last week with a new report that, that there’s already been $8 billion in damages collected for the federal government’s failure to remove nuclear waste from these, these are litigation settlements. Now, these reimburse the utilities for their costs. The greatest cost to the industry is the reputational damage we suffer. Here at NEI, we are heavily invested in the next generation of reactors. We have two dozen new reactor vendors. They’ve got great things on the drawing board. When I meet with them, the story I hear is one of the big constraints we have on getting investment capital for this. And that investment capital is private capital investment capital was also to what extent can the government get involved and that’s political. So when you have this issue, the reputational damage of not having a final solution, it doesn’t matter how successful we are at storing it in dry cask systems. It doesn’t matter how long we can store it in dry cask systems. Nuclear is the nation’s biggest form of carbon-free energy. In order for us to move nuclear forward, instead of preserving the existing fleet we have today when we want to do that, we want to build the fleet of tomorrow, and we’ve got to be able to tell investors, we’ve got to be able to tell Congress, we got a final solution to the waste problem. We still have all our wastes.

David Hoffman (05:28):

You’re saying the industry today is looking at new opportunities, new possibilities, making this work better. Tell me a bit more about that.

Rod McCullum (05:35):

The first nuclear reactors were designed to be cooled by water to drive steam turbines, just like every other thermal power plant. You heat up water. You make steam drive turbines. That’s cause how we knew how to build power plants. Well, it turns out that maybe when you’re talking about how neutrons move around inside a reactor when you’re talking about how steam interacts with the materials that we put around nuclear fuel in a reactor, and I’m not taking you over towards what happened at Fukushima and what happened at Three Mile Island, you know, maybe water cools. So you’ve, you’ve got some molten salt designs, sodium designs, you’ve got different gas-cooled designs, different types of fuels, even in the existing fleet. We are now innovating and putting in what we call accident tolerant fuels, which have different coatings, different cladding, and can really up the game of the existing reactors, both in terms of safety and in being able to, to produce more power. In 2018, we had our best year ever. We generated more nuclear, carbon-free energy than the industry ever had. Only 97 reactors. We had as many as 104, and we’re going to up the gain on those existing reactors. But we also, we’re looking at the next fleet and it gets down to the reputational damage. How do we address that?

David Hoffman (06:49):

You have children. Do you believe personally?

Rod McCullum (06:53):

I can tell you that when I was in high school in 1970s, I wanted to be a lawyer because that was where all the money was. And maybe I’ll get to be president someday. You know, I was big and idealistic. I was not big. I was just idealistic. I had big ideas and thoughts, so I wanted to be a lawyer. So because I wanted to be a lawyer, I was on the high school debate team. One year, the debate topic for that year was energy policy. And so I got to debate both sides of nuclear energy. And I decided, this is where I want to be, because I was thinking about the environment. I had a senior class project, right? Built a solar collector and heated water for, for a trade school in town, you know? And so I was all about, and this was before global warming, but I just saw the stuff. I was in a Midwestern, dirty industrial town. I wanted a clean Midwestern town. And so, you know, I was all about this cleaner energy. And I, after debating the topic of nuclear for such a period of time on both sides for a whole year, I decided, I decided I wanted to be a nuclear engineer. What really cinched the deal for me was Three Mile Island happened during my senior year of high school. And so not only did I believe we needed carbon-free nuclear energy, I believed that we needed a lot more engineers to make it work.

David Hoffman (08:01):

Put yourself personally, and your family near one of these towns. I’m not talking about Hanford and Savannah. I’m talking about one of these places where it’s now above ground in these casks.

Rod McCullum (08:11):

I put my family in the shadow of nuclear facilities, a lot of my career because I’ve worked in nuclear plants. My wife, who’s a nurse, has trained on how to handle radioactive patients. You know, so yes, I, I am comfortable with nuclear safety enough that I don’t mind putting my family near it. But I also know that either my kids who both didn’t choose to become engineers, they’re both something else in their young adult lives. They would see a dry cask storage facility and think of it differently if they drove by and saw something that was just a surface facility for something I told them was, you know, 2000 feet below the ground.

David Hoffman (08:51):

When I visited one of the plants, you see guys with machine guns out in front and fences, it’s kind of scary. You’re absolutely right below ground, it’s no longer as scary, I mean, life goes on. In fact, there’s real estate people who are looking to do something with that land once it’s, once it’s below ground.

Rod McCullum (09:11):

Yes. Which plant did you visit?

David Hoffman (09:13):

I visited one in Maine. Maine Yankee.

Rod McCullum (09:16):

Yeah, that’s the only one in Maine. And so what you saw there was, was the epitome of why we need to put solutions in place for this problem because you have a beautiful coastal site in Maine. The reactor has been completely demolished. The only facility left there is the dry cask and they are surrounded by intimidating fences. And there are intimidating looking people with intimidating weapons standing around those fences. So, but if you took those casks away, which could easily be done, those casts all are licensed for transportation. Or, and I don’t, I don’t want to say the people of Maine would be happy with Deep Isolation going into their ground. I’m not saying they’re not, but if, you know, if you could do something with that material, other than store it in those casks, that site would be back to, it would be just as beautiful as any other that stretch that coastline.

David Hoffman (10:06):

Most people felt they wanted to get rid of it. Yet, whenever you say “truck it to Yucca Mountain“, they didn’t want to do that either. So there’s a lot of fear about this and there’s a lot of misunderstanding and I want to thank you for your honesty, your clarity and your personal view towards this. It gives me a certain faith that going forward, and I want to know if you have that faith, things can improve once the government stops locking everything up.

Rod McCullum (10:33):

Yes. If we get past the politics, I believe enough is known by the scientists. The geologic disposal is easy. If the politics isn’t so hard and I’m hopeful that the more solutions we can put on the table here, whether we’re, we’re moving it a little bit, whether we’re moving it halfway across the country, transportations well-established, but we need a solution that the scientists have confidence in, but the politicians don’t obstruct.

Narrator (11:02):

Thank you for listening. We hope you’ll share this podcast with others and feel free to send any comments or suggestions to podcast@deepisolation.com. You can visit deepisolation.com to learn more. At Deep Isolation, we believe that listening is one of the most important elements of a successful nuclear waste disposal program. A core company value is to seek and listen to different perspectives on the matter of nuclear waste, nuclear energy and disposal solutions. The opinions expressed in this series are those of the participants and do not represent Deep Isolation’s position.

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Understand more about nuclear waste and its implications for you and your community.

About Nuclear Waste

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Episode 3

http://Dr.%20Thomas%20Webler

Thomas Webler

Research Fellow, Social and Environmental Research Institute and Associate Professor of Environmental Studies Keene State College

Community Consent is Key to Waste Disposal

In this interview, Tom Webler, an expert in community consent and how it relates to nuclear waste disposal, shares how stakeholders play a critical role choosing a site for nuclear waste disposal.

Note: This transcript is the raw transcript of this podcast. Minimal edits have been made only for clarity purposes.

Thomas Webler (00:00):

We don’t have everybody on board with saying, okay, we want to build one deep geological disposal site. We want to build five sites. We want geographical equity. We want, you know, to manage defense waste differently from civilian waste. There’s all these kinds of questions related to this that we, as a country, haven’t come together on.

Narrator (00:35):

Hello and welcome to Nuclear Waste: The Whole Story. A series designed to explore perspectives of nuclear waste disposal. About half a million metric tons of high-level nuclear waste is temporarily stored at hundreds of sites worldwide. No country has established a permanent home for spent commercial fuel. In the US alone, one in three people live within 50 miles of a storage site. That fact may be surprising, but it’s not for lack of technical solutions. Experts worldwide agree that a deep geological repository would be the best final resting place for this hazardous substance. So what’s the delay you as?. The answers are complex and controversial. In this series, we’re interviewing experts and stakeholders representing pieces of this complicated puzzle to give you a clearer picture of Nuclear Waste: The Whole Story.

In this episode, Deep Isolation Communications Manager, Kari Hulac, interviews Thomas Webler, an expert in the social science of collaborative and democratic ways of making decisions that affect the environment. Tom Webler is also an expert in community consent and how it relates to nuclear waste disposal.

At Deep Isolation, we believe that listening is one of the most important elements of a successful nuclear waste disposal program. A core company value is to seek and listen to different perspectives on the matter of nuclear waste, nuclear energy, and disposal solutions.

Narrator (02:19):

The opinions expressed in this series are those of the participants and do not represent Deep Isolation’s position.

Kari Hulac (02:26):

Hello. I’m Kari Hulac, host of Nuclear Waste: The Whole Story. Today, I’m talking to Tom Webler, an expert in the social science of collaborative and democratic ways of making decisions that affect the environment. Tom Webler coauthored papers and did analysis for the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future. He offers suggestions on how to effectively engage stakeholders on how the US government can do a better job informing members of the public when making decisions about the storage and management of spent nuclear fuel and high-level waste. Tom also provided input to the Department of Energy, analyzing consent related to the siting of nuclear waste disposal facilities. Hello, Tom, and thank you so much for joining us today.

Thomas Webler (03:14):

Hello, Kari. I’m glad to be here.

Kari Hulac (03:17):

All right. First off, explain to us the fundamental elements of what consent based decision making means as it applies to nuclear waste disposal.

Thomas Webler (03:27):

Well, that’s certainly diving right into it. I think the first thing we need to keep in mind, that the kind of problem we’re talking about here is what we call collective action problem, right? It’s like, what should we do? We’ve got this problem we want to solve, however you want to define it, but we have to somehow decide what to do. And we have to decide that together, right? So it’s a collective action problem, but it doesn’t mean we need a hundred percent consensus. It doesn’t mean that everybody has to agree on everything, but you know, we have to have enough of an idea of what, how to move ahead with this. And a lot of people need to be involved in making these, this kind of decision or the decisions around how to manage spent nuclear fuel and high-level waste. Right?

Thomas Webler (04:18):

And there’s a lot of different decisions that have to be made if we’re talking about locating a facility in a certain community, that’s usually what we mean by siting. So when we talk about consent-based siting, usually thinking mostly about that community, right. And what they need to, what they need to signify in order to allow a project developer to move ahead with actually implementing a technical solution. I mean, there’s a lot of, a lot of associated questions that have to do with that, right? Like who should be involved in giving consent? That’s a big question. Should it be the community that has the political jurisdiction in which the project cement is actually poured in? What about the transportation communities along the way, if the waste has to move through other communities to get there, what kind of consent should they give? Where should they be in the process? What about neighboring communities? What about the source communities where the spent nuclear fuel is currently located? Right. So there’s a lot of questions about this.

Kari Hulac (05:32):

Okay. That makes sense. That makes sense. So one of the key pieces you wrote for Obama’s Blue Ribbon Commission, the BRC for short, was a report that made recommendations for how to develop public engagement around nuclear waste disposal. So I think if we dive into that, that will help give a nice example of collective action as you’ve just discussed. So can you summarize those recommendations that you made to the BRC? And then I’m sure in doing that, you looked at some past failures in stakeholder engagement. So let us know how that informed your recommendations for how we can do better in the future.

Thomas Webler (06:15):

Right. So my work for the BRC was done in collusion with my colleague, Seth Tuler and Eugene Rosa. We kind of all communicated together about this. And we also, with a bunch of other social scientists had a piece in Science Magazine called Nuclear Waste: Knowledge Waste? about this issue. So a lot of people have been thinking about it, not just me. I build on a lot of work from other people. We advise them that there needs to be some sort of national consensus on the definition of the problem and the preferred technical solution. So we’ve seen this and a lot of countries have said, we want the geological disposal, right? This is the solution that’s been preferred, but we haven’t had in this country a kind of national conversation about, about this. And seems to me that this is one of the biggest problems we face right now is that we don’t have everybody on board with saying, okay, we want to build one deep geological disposal site. We want to build five sites. We want geographical equity. We want, you know, to manage defense waste differently from civilian waste. There’s all these kinds of questions related to this, that we have a country, as a country haven’t come together on yet. And without that, it’s really hard to envision how to move forward. And we were really hoping that the BRC would have done that. But it didn’t really recommend how to move forward with that.

Kari Hulac (07:59):

Would you say that’s how the BRC kind of missed its mark, so to speak? It should have gone more further, laid out a more specific plan for next steps.

Thomas Webler (08:12):

Yeah, I think it is. And we’ve seen, you know, recent legislation proposed by Dianne Feinstein, for example, they defined consent just as support by the local elected leaders. Right? This is, and this is not thinking very deeply about consent. I mean, that’s kind of where you would go with your first answer, right? What does consent mean? Oh, the County commissioners or the city council voted for it, that’s what they mean by consent, but we have to think, realize that that’s probably not sufficient for a problem of this magnitude, not just magnitude in terms of potential risks and hazard, but also longevity. The commitment that a community is making to host this facility for basically as long as we can imagine human civilization continuing. So the elected officials we’ve got now were probably elected because of whatever, a school board mission or a bond question or a new highway development, something like that.

Thomas Webler (09:23):

They weren’t elected to make decisions about permanent high-level, deep, high-level nuclear waste disposal facilities. So I think we need to think a little more deeply about who can give consent than just saying it’s the elected officials. So that’s one place the BRC I think could have taken it further. Another thing about the BRC that we’ve talked about was trust that we tried to emphasize the failures of previous efforts by the Department of Energy and focusing on nuclear issues, really the DOE or including their weapons production programs, you know, the nuclear weapons production sites and the cleanups on those sites. And of course the attempts to site, you know, under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act. So there have been a lot of efforts by their Department of Energy over time. And many of these have been, let’s say underperforming, right?

Thomas Webler (10:33):

They have often ended up decreasing public trust in the Department of Energy and in the federal government at large, they’ve created a lot of stakeholder opposition. They’ve created a tremendous amount of locally driven activist-oriented, highly educated activists and local sites who now basically don’t trust anything that the DOE or the Nuclear Regulatory Commission say, right. They are constantly on their backs and it’s created an environment of extreme distrust. And that’s very hard to get out of this. Something we call the asymmetry of trust. Trust is very easy to lose and it’s very hard to gain. And so the experiences that we’ve seen in the past, while DOE has done some good things, especially with the site-specific advisory boards of the nuclear waste production sites. We’ve seen some, we saw some nice progress there and how they interacted with those boards more effectively over time and did came community trust, but that took years and years and years. And I’m sorry to say that a lot of the history has not been that positive.

Kari Hulac (11:51):

That is tough, especially for companies like Deep Isolation and who want to do something about this problem. I mean, what advice would you give to us and to others in the communities who do want to resolve this issue? I mean, what, what is the path forward to, to get past this lack of trust?

Thomas Webler (12:17):

Well, moving forward into… The most important things we can do… Well, trust basically is composed of several characteristics. One is caring. You’ve got to demonstrate that you truly care about the other parties with whom you’re interacting. So the most important thing there is obviously to demonstrate the safety case. This is utterly important that there be safety criteria that are never violated, that are transparent, and clearly are not violated. So caring, that’s number one. Number two is commitment, which means a commitment to a shared definition of the problem, a commitment to the same values set that we’re going to operate while we’re trying to solve this problem, which is mutual effect. Mutual respect, I mean. And making, making decisions on technical evidence, not on emotions or ideologically driven decisions. And so on. The third thing is …caring, committed… competence, which means doing what you do well, right?

Thomas Webler (13:35):

And fourth is prediction. Predictability. These are the four characteristics of trust. Predictability means that you follow through with what you say you would do, that the parties can anticipate your next move because you’ve been consistent. It doesn’t mean that you’re stuck into one mode of thinking and acting and you never learn or change. It does mean you can learn and change, but that your actions are predictable in the sense that what another party would consider a reasonable, reasonable thing to do. So these four things make up trust. We don’t have that today. We’re lacking that. So anybody who wants to move ahead with this, whether it’s DI, Deep Isolation, or it’s some other Department of Energy or government independent institution, it’s going to have to specifically understand that it needs to make progress on all those things and it needs to do so in an environment that’s highly distrust, full of distrust. And so we have this asymmetry of trust. It’s easy to lose. It’s hard to get. The most important thing that a institution could do to earn trust is to give the community the power and authority to close down, turn off an operation, a facility with no penalties or negative consequences. But having a strong corporate culture of integrity and honesty would be vital.

Kari Hulac (15:11):

Well, and you touched on that earlier about the lack of national consensus on a solution. Deep Isolation’s perspective is there is scientific consensus on the deep geological burial, but like you say, that has to be embraced by the nation, the government, and all the other stakeholders. What, what have you seen, or what would you recommend in trying to reach that consensus on the technological solution to get there? I mean, that’s, it seems like a big step.

Thomas Webler (15:44):

Yeah. Well, this was the first thing that Canada did. That they had what’s called the Seaborn Panel. And Seaborn was a guy who ran the panel and they went around Canada and held public meetings to talk about here’s our problem. We’ve got all this stuff we’ve made. We don’t want to keep it above ground anymore. What should we do with it? Shoot it into the sun, whatever, you know, put it in the bottom of the ocean. You know, they go through all the possible solutions and they talked about it. They brought in experts and they listened to people and people kind of sat around and said, you know what? This is what makes most sense for Canada, a deep geological repository. And I think, you know, what we recommended to the BRC that the United States should have a similar discussion like that. I think if you give everyone a chance to have their say, and then you come to a reasonable decision together, the kind of it’s, it allows a lot of groups to say, we’re moving on. Okay. We talked about that. We decided we’re not going back there.

Kari Hulac (16:53):

So here we are eight years after the BRC report was issued and still we’re still struggling with this. Can you give us any perspective and bring us up to speed? Why there hasn’t been any implementation? It sounds like, you know, with the Canadian example, there’s good, you know, a good case right there for at least getting the discussion started about the solution. So what’s going on there?

Thomas Webler (17:18):

So the Department of Energy actually set up a consensus-based siting program in the Office of Nuclear Waste, right? And they were developing this. I did a little work for them in order to try to think about how we start to put these ideas into practice. They started holding community-based meetings to hear what the public thought about consent-based siting. And I thought they were doing a pretty good job of that, going out, listening. They weren’t saying, Hey, we’ve sat in our offices in Washington and we’ve decided this is consent-based siting, right? They said we’ve got some ideas. We’re going to come out, listen to the public, listen to stakeholders, do a lot of listening. That’s what the Seaborn Panel in Canada did. I thought they were on the right track with that. But then of course we have an election in 2016, then like so many things, we retrograded back to old solutions and they closed down that whole office. All those webpages are gone. All the learning that happened on consent-based siting has been either erased or mothballed somewhere in the archives of the Department of Energy. So again, what are we doing? What are we agreeing to do as a country?

Kari Hulac (18:36):

So given all this that we’ve discussed today, is it hard to feel optimistic about their future? Or what do you, what work are you doing right now with this? What, what do you advise as the next best steps for us as a nation or for us, Deep Isolation, in private industry? What, what do you think moving forward?

Thomas Webler (18:59):

Look, one of the big problems is you’ve got to make sure that there’s not going to be political gamesmanship. You know, we have, you know, there was some reasonable plan under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, which just all went awry after the politicians got involved in it, right. They were supposed to propose several deep repository sites and in different parts of the country, there was this idea of equity. Somehow that they’d been, you know, wasn’t just going to be one site at Yucca Mountain, right, there were going to be several of them. And then all that got changed when Congress got involved. So, you know, you need a promise that Congress is not going to get involved. And, you know, personally, I think Congress needs to set up, tell the DOE to do something, set up an independent body. That’s isolated from any congressional or presidential executive branch manipulations. Operates completely independently, even more independently than the Fed, but nowadays we don’t even see any independence at the Fed or any of these places. Right. Everything’s kind of been controlled now by the executive branch. So ideally you’d want to set up some sort of independent body and then that body would have to move forward with establishing national consensus and kind of a plan for action.

Kari Hulac (20:26):

Well, thank you so much for joining us today, Tom, and I want to thank everyone who tuned in to this episode of Nuclear Waste: The Whole Story.

Thomas Webler (20:36):

Thanks Kari. Nice talking to you.

Narrator (20:40):

Thank you for listening. We hope you’ll share this podcast with others and feel free to send any comments or suggestions to podcast@deepisolation.com. You can visit deepisolation.com to learn more. At Deep Isolation, we believe that listening is one of the most important elements of a successful nuclear waste disposal program. A core company value is to seek and listen to different perspectives on the matter of nuclear waste, nuclear energy, and disposal solutions.

Narrator (21:24):

The opinions expressed in this series are those of the participants and do not represent Deep Isolation’s position.

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Episode 4

http://James%20Taylor%20of%20Bechtel

James Taylor

General Manager of the environmental division of Bechtel's Nuclear, Security, & Environmental global business unit

Temporary Waste Storage Costs Keep Rising

In this episode, James Taylor speaks about the long term costs of temporarily storing nuclear waste above ground.

Note: This transcript is the raw transcript of this podcast. Minimal edits have been made only for clarity purposes.

James Taylor (00:10):

When I started out in college in 1987, the problem existed. And as I’ve worked the last 33 years, it’s still a problem for the country with no disposition in place.

Narrator (00:24):

Hello, and welcome to Nuclear Waste: The Whole Story, a series designed to explore perspectives of nuclear waste disposal. About half a million metric tons of high-level nuclear waste is temporarily stored at hundreds of sites worldwide. No country has established a permanent home for spent commercial fuel. In the US alone, one in three people live within 50 miles of a storage site. That fact may be surprising, but it’s not for lack of technical solutions. Experts worldwide agree that a deep geological repository would be the best final resting place for this hazardous substance. So what’s the delay you ask? The answers are complex and controversial. In this series, we’re interviewing experts and stakeholders representing pieces of this complicated puzzle to give you a clearer picture of Nuclear Waste: The Whole Story.

In this episode, Emmy award-winning documentary filmmaker and Deep Isolation adviser, David Hoffman talks to James Taylor, General Manager of the Environmental Division of Bechtel’s Nuclear Security and Environmental Global Business Unit about the long-term costs of temporarily storing nuclear waste above ground.

At Deep Isolation, we believe that listening is one of the most important elements of a successful nuclear waste disposal program. A core company value is to seek and listen to different perspectives on the matter of nuclear waste, nuclear energy, and disposal solutions.

Narrator (02:05):

The opinions expressed in this series are those of the participants and do not represent Deep Isolation’s position.

David Hoffman (02:13):

First question. Just give me a sense of your background, how you got to do this, and you’ve been in it a long time, right?

James Taylor (02:23):

I’ve been in the nuclear industry now for over 33 years. I spent my entire career around waste and nuclear waste, both commercially and with the Department of Energy. I’m currently the General Manager with Bechtel Corporation running our environmental business, which is basically all of the Department of Energy, environmental management contracts, and responsible for the work we’re doing in the UK for the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority. All of that work is related to waste and waste disposition.

David Hoffman (02:52):

It seems like the government said certain things. They were going to take care of this and the industry said, okay, government, you’re going to take care of this. But that hasn’t happened. What is the issue that’s causing the stuff to just stay above ground without any ultimate solution? Do you feel, what’s going on?

James Taylor (03:12):

Part of the problem is they canceled the program that was supposed to take care of the high-level waste and the spent nuclear fuel. Back in 1982, 83, timeframe, Congress passed the waste, the Nuclear Waste Policy Act. And that, in that act, it put the Department of Energy responsible for this material and its ultimate disposition. So right now, since they do not have a disposal path for this material, it’s sitting across the Department of Energy sites. That’s the site in Hanford, Washington. There’s a site in Savannah, Riverside in South Carolina, and there’s another site in Idaho. So currently, the spent nuclear fuel and the high-level waste generated from our nuclear weapons programs is sitting in storage. And the same thing has happened with the spent nuclear fuel that our commercial nuclear power plants use to produce, produce power for the nation or a significant amount of power. And that material is sitting at where it was generated, at about 70 different nuclear power plant sites in 30 different States.

David Hoffman (04:26):

That sounds like a mess. And the question I want to ask you is a long-term one. When you started, you must have been concerned about this issue. This is an environmental issue. What do we do with the waste from this incredible power that we get from nuclear power and military waste as well? And you’ve spent your whole life so far, 30 plus years without a resolution. Tell me, is that correct? And how does that feel for you as a person who obviously cares about this issue and knows a lot about it?

James Taylor (04:55):

Yes. When I started out of college in 1987 the problem existed and as I’ve worked the last 33 years, it’s still a problem for the country with no disposition in place. It certainly had programs and plans to establish these facilities, but they, but that was canceled when they canceled the Yucca project back in, I guess it was 2011, I think 2011. So we still are sitting here with no site and available for disposal of this material.

David Hoffman (05:36):

Bechtel supports a lot of companies, as well as the government in this issue. What effect is that having on the nuclear power companies who didn’t think they’d have this problem and just, how do they feel about this? Are they frustrated? Are they glad that the problem exists? Are they making money or losing money? What’s the situation for the companies?

James Taylor (05:58):

It’s a big business because the material has to be stored safely. So in the interim, this material is having to be placed in canisters and in canisters placed in safe storage above ground. And that’s big business because not only do you have to store the material in these canisters and at these sites, and that’s about a million dollars per canister to give you an idea. And then the annual costs to manage these facilities is about six to 8 million per year. So it’s big business. And of course the utilities since the Department of Energy and the government’s responsible for this material, they simply sue the government and it goes to court and they win. And then the government has to reimburse those costs. Then that’s currently at about 800 million per year. The taxpayers are paying to manage the storage of the material that’s generated today.

James Taylor (06:55):

Of course, there’s a lot more material that will be generated over the next 40 years that again, they’ll have to sue, the government will have to reimburse them. And it’s going to turn into something in the order of, let’s say 3 billion per year in annual costs. And of course, for the defense-related materials, materials that are Department of Energy sites, that has to be stored safely as well. And they’re having to build new facilities. They’re having to store this material in these facilities. They have to do the operation and maintenance of these facilities at similar costs. So when you really look at it, you know, the government’s collected a bunch of money and I probably need to talk about that. So since they put the Nuclear Waste Policy Act in place, the government collected about one 10th of a cent per kilowatt produced of power from these utilities. So that’s about one mile per kilowatt-hour. So, and they’ve collected now about 43 or so billion dollars to dispose of this material. And of course, the bad part about that is now that they’re having, they don’t have a disposal site to put the material. All these increased costs that I just talked about are building up and in my calculation, the fact that they don’t have disposal just doubled the cost of disposition, if they have to store it for the next 50 years in these safe interim locations.

David Hoffman (08:27):

Are we talking about an American problem or is it a global problem? I mean, Bechtel’s a global corporation. So I assume, is every country the same as us? So are they all dealing with the same thing all at the same time of disposal above ground and interim storage?

James Taylor (08:42):

All the countries that are having trouble finding a location to put the material, mainly because no one wants it in their backyard, you know, not in my backyard. That’s a fact. So every country who has several nuclear power plants and defense-related sites that generate high-level waste and spent fuel, they all need to dispose of this material safely. Right now, most of them are storing it and they have programs that are being developed just like the States, where they’re trying to locate a site, get consensus on where to site, where to put the site, and then build it and move the material to that site. So most countries are not very far along. I think the French are pretty far along. I think some of the other countries in Europe are moving their programs forward. And of course, in some of the countries in Asia, like Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, they’re very, very early on in the process of getting a deep repository in place for disposal, this material. So all of the countries that have nuclear power and defense waste have this issue and are in various stages of getting a, you know, a disposal site in place. But, but just like the States, they’re all struggling.

David Hoffman (10:00):

You don’t hardly ever hear about nuclear waste in the general news, but in one of the industry news, I just was reading recently that it is less safe than it should be. We, we never think about the safety issue. Really. You do, I’m sure, but general public doesn’t in general. Does this make you nervous? Are we, is this uncomfortable, to say the least, to have this interim unresolved situation?

James Taylor (10:27):

I think the bigger issue is not the safety of the material, because whether it’s stored in fuel pools at these commercial reactors or whether they remove it and put it in dry storage above ground or in buildings, they have all been designed from a safety standpoint to keep that material secure and safe. So I don’t think that’s the issue. The bigger issue is if those facilities are only designed to last so many years, let’s say 50 years to maybe a hundred on the outside. So eventually you’re going to have to be able to build new facilities to put that material in or find a repository to place the material in a permanent location. And all that’s going to do is increase the cost of this, of managing this material, which ultimately increases the cost to the ratepayers and to the taxpayers. And, and that is what is really worrisome.

David Hoffman (11:24):

If you have children and you’re going to retire someday, you have a hope here that things will be different. Or do you suspect this is going to go on and on and on and on you’ll retire and the next guy will come into your job and he’ll face the same issue as you do, essentially unchanged on a global scale?

James Taylor (11:42):

Certainly from my standpoint, I do have a son. My son, Preston, and he’s, he’s at the Boston university now going to college. And I certainly guided him to stay away from the nuclear industry because it’s, it’s dying and that’s unfortunate. And I’d like to see that turned around. And I think the first thing that has to happen is we have to get rid of the backend problem with this waste. The waste, we need to have an answer for that. It needs to be disposed of, and it needs to be disposed of in a cost-effective way. And I think that’s the only thing that’s going to turn the nuclear industry around here in the US and so, you know, I, I think this is a big problem. I think this problem needs to be solved and it needs to be solved now because as I said, as time moves on we’re, we’re going to continue to pay an extreme amount of money.

James Taylor (12:33):

And I think eventually in that, and soon the taxpayers and the government should step forward and realize that they’re spending vast amounts of money without solving the problem. And, you know, the 43 billion they’ve set aside, they still have to spend. And in between now and spending it, you know, they’re going to, you know, it’s doubling the cost. So it’s just not, not a healthy place to be. So I do think this problem needs to be solved and solved now, which is, which is why Bechtel supporting Deep Isolation because I think, you know, their main approach is consensus siting. So it, that solves the problem of not in my backyard, because most of the companies and the government that has all of this waste, they need to get rid of it. And, you know, we’ve done some work and it looks like you can actually dispose of this material at half of what DOE, Department of Energy, had estimated the cost to be.

James Taylor (13:35):

So, you know, I think it, it deserves a closer look. I think there’s a lot of work to be done, both in licensing and developing the facilities and maturing the technology. There’s a lot of work to be done, but I think in the next five to 10 years they can advance it to the point that it’s a viable solution that can be implemented and save everyone a lot of money and solve this back-end problem.

David Hoffman (14:00):

I want to thank you for James Taylor for the honesty and the clarity and the 30 some years you’ve put into this thing. And I do hope for your son Preston, that when he graduates and whenever he graduates with and steps into the world, that we’ve managed to put some of it down under the ground far under the ground in safe places. And we stopped spending the money as you say, and whatever risk there is, gets reduced by that process too. So thank you very much for doing this with me. You go on and have your day and good luck.

James Taylor (14:32):

Hi David. Thank you.

Narrator (14:35):

Thank you for listening. We hope you’ll share this podcast with others and feel free to send any comments or suggestions to podcast@deepisolation.com. You can visit deepisolation.com to learn more. At Deep Isolation, we believe that listening is one of the most important elements of a successful nuclear waste disposal program. A core company value is to seek and listen to different perspectives on the matter of nuclear waste, nuclear energy, and disposal solutions. The opinions expressed in this series are those of the participants and do not represent Deep Isolation’s position.

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Episode 5

David Victor

Chair of the Community Engagement Panel for the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station

San Onofre: A Lesson in Nuclear Power Plant Decommissioning

In this episode, David Victor offers insight into how stakeholders and the utility work together on the decommissioning process.

Note: This transcript is the raw transcript of this podcast. Minimal edits have been made only for clarity purposes.

Dr. David Victor (00:00):

The other challenge that’s present is a lack of a nuclear waste strategy for the country. So I think, to me, what one of the most striking things in this whole process was how many people when the plant shut down, recognized that even though the plant is shut down and they’ll remove the domes and so on, the spent fuel is going to be there forever unless we have a strategy.

Narrator (00:35):

Hello, and welcome to Nuclear Waste: The Whole Story, a series designed to explore perspectives of nuclear waste disposal. About half a million metric tons of high-level nuclear waste is temporarily stored at hundreds of sites worldwide. No country has established a permanent home for spent commercial fuel. In the U.S. Alone, one in three people live within 50 miles of a storage site. That fact may be surprising, but it’s not for lack of technical solutions. Experts worldwide agree that a deep geological repository would be the best final resting place for this hazardous substance. So what’s the delay you ask? The answers are complex and controversial. In this series, we’re interviewing experts and stakeholders representing pieces of this complicated puzzle to give you a clearer picture of Nuclear Waste: The Whole Story.

Narrator (01:33):

In this episode, Deep Isolation Communications Manager, Kari Hulac, interviews, Dr. David Victor, Chair of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station Community Engagement Panel. San Onofre is a former nuclear energy plant on the coast of Southern California that’s being decommissioned.

At Deep Isolation, we believe that listening is one of the most important elements of a successful nuclear waste disposal program. A core company value is to seek and listen to different perspectives on the matter of nuclear waste, nuclear energy, and disposal solutions. The opinions expressed in this series are those of the participants and do not represent Deep Isolation’s position.

Kari Hulac (02:25):

I’m Kari Hulac, and I’m here today with Dr. David Victor, Chair of the Community Engagement Panel for the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station in Southern California. The station stopped producing electricity in 2012 and began decommissioning in 2013. The facility is home to 1600 tons of spent nuclear fuel, located just feet from the Pacific Ocean. Welcome Dr. Victor, and thank you so much for joining us.

Dr. David Victor (02:54):

Well, it’s my pleasure to be with you.

Kari Hulac (02:55):

We’ll just get started with something really basic. Can you just explain what it means to decommission a nuclear power plant?

Dr. David Victor (03:03):

Well, right in this country right now, it means taking all the fuel out of the reactor and out of the spent fuel pools, putting it into dry cask storage, leaving that on-site because we have no place for that fuel to go. That is the central political challenge for this country, around this challenge that other countries have addressed, frankly, better than we have. And then it also involves dismantling the site, which is almost as complex and expensive as building a nuclear plant. It involves figuring out which pieces you remove first, involves decontaminating a lot of stuff, figuring out how to take the most radioactive parts, reactor vessels, and so on, cut them up robotically, put them into their own dry cask storage systems and store them basically in the same way you’d store spent nuclear fuel. And then huge, huge volumes of lower-level waste that needs to go to special repositories. In the case of the San Onofre plant, most of that will go to Clive Utah, which is a facility just west of Salt Lake City.

Kari Hulac (04:06):

So what is the role of the community engagement panel exactly in this process?

Dr. David Victor (04:12):

Well, we were set up as a conduit between Edison, the operator of the site, and like most plants in this country. There are multiple partial owners, but there’s one dominant owner and operator of the site that’s Southern California Edison. And when they went into it, when they knew they were going to the decommissioning process, they also knew that they needed some better mechanism to talk to the public and understand what the public cares about, our public frankly care about because there are lots of different communities with lots of different interests. We help Edison understand what the public cares about and also help the public understand what Edison cares about and also frankly, what Edison is actually doing on the site. And that’s what we do is we’re a two-way conduit. We’re not a decision-making body. There are lots of other decision-making bodies: oversight of trust funds, oversight of safety, and oversight of all kinds of things.

Dr. David Victor (05:01):

There wasn’t a need for another oversight mechanism or a formally deciding mechanism, but there was a need for a mechanism that would make everybody more aware of each other. And I think the backdrop to that is for some parts of this community, there were contentious relations when the plant was operational and that a lot of that was brought out by Fukushima, but it had been there long before. The plant was built in an area that was more remote in California when, when it was originally planned. And then, you know, people discover they like California, so lots of people moved and now you’ve got a pretty substantial population near the plant. A lot of those members of that community are highly engaged, not all of them thrilled about nuclear power. And so, so that’s the political backdrop to this and it was an effort to kind of reset those relations with the communities. And I think for the most part has been successful in that regard.

Kari Hulac (05:50):

So, you would say that was the panel’s key objectives to kind of get that relationship, that communication going between the community and the utility.

Dr. David Victor (05:59):

Yeah. And there were ways for people to communicate before. There were, you know, all the towns and cities around the plant would have meetings of various types and councils and so on. And so, people would go to those, but they weren’t a forum that was dedicated just to San Onofre. One of the things I think was so important about the decision to set up the Community Engagement Panel and the membership of the panel is that more than half of the members are elected officials. And so they’re mayors and members of city council; they’re on school boards. And so you get, I’ve learned – I’m a professional political scientist – And I learned a lot about politics from this process, because you see all these people who are used to dealing with conflicting, local interests and managing that and we’re very good at it.

Dr. David Victor (06:50):

And they’ve just played an invaluable role on the panel and helping us understand how to, how to appreciate what different people are saying, what the concerns are, how to manage those concerns or help Edison manage those concerns better, or at least give some advice. And that’s been crucial and it’s been crucial to delivering on this two-way conduit so that people in the communities don’t just feel that Edison’s there telling them what’s about to happen, but that they’re actually able to speak up, organize themselves. And then in many cases now, have a pretty substantial impact on what happens during the decommissioning process.

Kari Hulac (07:23):

Is this a kind of unique panel? I mean, there’s many other decommissioning plants throughout the U.S. and the world. Is this unique? What have you seen happen in other communities? Maybe that hasn’t gone so well or other? How would you compare?

Dr. David Victor (07:39):

We’re not unique in the sense that there had been panels like this before. In fact, Vermont Yankee [correction: Maine Yankee] is a very important study that Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) did on best practices. That was one of the reference points for the communication panel when it was set up. And those best practices included looking at what was happening for Vermont [Maine] Yankee. It was a very important experience, where it was a panel like this. It helped guide the process; played a pretty substantial role. And they are in, in, you know, fully decommissioned with now just the spent fuel pattern is placed onsite. There was a similar panel that was set up after ours in Vermont. There are panels – there’s a nuclear plant just north of Chicago that had, that had a panel that’s similar, that was preexisting to ours. And so in that sense, we’re not unique.

Dr. David Victor (08:28):

I think what’s made us a little more unique is the size and engagement of the populations around the San Onofre site. This is a site that is between the I-5 highway, which is a major thoroughfare between San Diego and Los Angeles, highly-populated area, just north of a military base. And the plant is between the 5 and the ocean. So it’s a very small size, a long thin site. It’s kinda like the Manhattan of sites it’s a long narrow site, and then sandwiched around it is a military base. There are a lot of populations, very active communities, a huge amount of attention to the plant. Also, frankly, a number of fairly unique technical challenges and particularly the seismic risks. And so, that’s what makes the whole situation a little more hyper-charged and a little more unique compared to other plants. I think Diablo Canyon, north of here, which is another California site, that’ll be decommissioned in a few years, will have something similar – but the difference between Diablo Canyon and the San Onofre plant is that Diablo Canyon is out in a much more remote area, has a different ownership structure in terms of the land around there on a much, much larger site.

Dr. David Victor (09:42):

So, so this is really, it’s a very special case. And I think people need to look at our experience with that in mind and not everything from what we’ve done is going to be applicable to other places. But a lot of it is.

Kari Hulac (09:53):

So, would you say that those are some of your challenges and obstacles in dealing with such a complicated landscape with the population and all the different facilities around there and the base? Are there other obstacles you’d like to mention or challenges that you’ve, that you’ve tried to overcome?

Dr. David Victor (10:11):

I will say that there are really two looming challenges that make all of this hard and maybe particularly hard at a site like this. The San Onofre site where there’s so much attention to it. One of them is the issue of trust. You know, when you look across trust in all institutions has been going down, it’s related to a lot of things: polarization politics, and different sources of information, you know, on and on. And that’s a dissertation in itself, many dissertations in themselves about why people don’t trust institutions, the way they used to. But that’s particularly true of government and particularly true of big companies. And so, if people are looking at the plant and skeptical of what’s going on and are also not trusting in institutions, then everything seems suspicious. So that’s one challenge that is just omnipresent. The other challenge that’s omnipresent is a lack of a nuclear waste strategy for the country.

Dr. David Victor (11:04):

And so I think, to me, one of the most striking things in this whole process was how many people when the plant shut down, recognized that even though the plant is shut down and they’ll remove the domes and so on, the spent fuel is going to be there forever unless we have a strategy. So, we’ve spent the bulk of our time actually on that strategy. What do we need to do in Washington? I’ve gone to testify a lot of time, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, other people building political support, spent a lot of political support for this, but we don’t have enough to carry us over the finish line – that was before the pandemic has now changed political priorities and focus. And so that’s that other, this lack of a, of a waste strategy, high-level nuclear waste strategy, is a really serious problem because it means that all the debates about what to do at this site and at SONGS in particular, in the spent fuel pad, those debates are much more intense because not everybody can reliably see some end of this process.

Dr. David Victor (12:02):

I think one of the things that is interesting is that there’s a, almost a cultural disconnect. So in the engineering world, you build something like a spent fuel storage system, made out of stainless steel, do the best job possible. The system at San Onofre is especially hardened against seismic risk, it’s underground, or it’s in a highly reinforced concrete bunker basically. And the evidence in the industry so far with canister systems that are now more than 40 years old, is that there’s no significant risk of canisters failing of this kind of corrosion, but you need to monitor them. And so from a, when an engineer looks at that, they’re comfortable with that idea cause he has to have a monitoring system, we have multiple layers of monitoring, you have an idea of what you’re going to do. If you find a crack, although nobody’s found the spent fuel systems cracks, I found cracks in that stainless steel and other kinds of applications, which are much more prone to cracking, but that’s all kind of comfortable in the technical world.

Dr. David Victor (13:00):

And then for people who are not in that technical community or don’t trust what’s going on, all that seems scary. And it all seems like it relies on inventing technologies in the future and what happens if we don’t invent them and so on. So that’s the, you know, once again, we come back to this problem of this kind of disconnect in how people are seeing things at the plant because of their level of comfort with the institutions that are overseeing this. And because they see that we’re going to have to be dealing with this potentially for a very long period of time. To me, the most important interim storage questions right now have to do with these sites happens that right now. There are three sites.

Dr. David Victor (13:37):

There are three that have moved forward. 1. A long time ago in Utah that for political reasons has cratered. It seems the PFS. Two that are now emerging, actually very close to each other, but there’s the border between Texas and New Mexico between them. So one’s in New Mexico and one’s in Texas and that’s probably a pretty good thing since we’ve got some diversity and political systems there and see, see what happens. So those are moving forward. And I think those are going to be very, very important because if you’re at a site like San Onofre, there really is no reason to have spent fuel across dozens and dozens of different sites. When the reactors are operational, it doesn’t really matter very much cause you have to have some fuel onsite and for operational reactors, but when the reactors are closed, that’s not something we ought to be at least moving that to an interim storage facility.

Dr. David Victor (14:22):

I think that’s the right way to go. And I think at the same time, we need to take a completely fresh look at what the long-term strategy is going to be. Yucca, I think the ship may have sailed on the Yucca. You’ve got now in the current electoral cycle, you have the presidents on the Republican side, Anti-Yucca, you have the Democrats, most of them for the most part, Anti-Yucca and the Republicans in favor of Yucca. Now they’re kind of everyone agrees that Yucca’s a problem and not everyone, but a lot of people. And that’s, I don’t, I don’t, in that world, I don’t know if, how, I don’t know if it matters what the actual technical characteristics are of the Yucca site. Politically, it’s a poisoned prospect. And so that’s why deep borehole is so interesting. That’s why following the kind of Finland model or the Canada model and other countries, even what we do in siting of hazardous sites elsewhere in the United States of getting different communities to in effect bid for the opportunity to host a site like that, we ought to be more creative about it, and it’s not rocket science.

Dr. David Victor (15:26):

We’ve done this lots of other areas. We just have done a horrible job on the nuclear side.

Kari Hulac (15:31):

Your local Congressman assembled a task force to address federal policy and technical challenges around SONGS (San Onofre Nuclear Generation Station). I know they just released a report recently making 30 policy recommendations. Are there any highlights of this report that you’d like to call out? And what kind of role will the report play in your work with the SONGS panel?

Dr. David Victor (15:52):

I think the good parts of the task force report are the attention to the need for a long-term strategy here and the need for a good monitoring and assessment program at the SPC and so on, which is what is going on already. So that’s great, but the political solutions to this – interim storage, long-term storage – as political solutions are not there yet. I thought it was a little mystifying that there wasn’t more attention to interim storage. And I think that may reflect the politics. It may also reflect is to co-chairs who seem skeptical of everything related to nuclear power and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. I’m not sure that’s actually helpful because skepticism is a great thing in life, but you also have to get things done. And so you ought to have some vision of where and how you can work with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and other players.

Dr. David Victor (16:42):

So, I think it was kind of a mixed bag and involved a huge number of people for a long period of time. I think it may be hard for that report to get a huge amount of traction because we’re in a different political environment right now with the pandemic and stimulus and so on. I guess I’d say that there some parts of the report that are really disturbing and they’re actually the parts of the report that did not get as much consensus as the first chapter, the opening chapter, which was on the political strategy, and those parts of the report have to do with the technical issues around monitoring and cracking of canisters and things like that. Where I think the record, frankly, drifted away from the reality of the science. And that’s unfortunate, always, to see that the report wasn’t peer-reviewed. It, when you hear taskforce, you think it’s going to be a consensus task force, but in reality, when you look carefully, a substantial number of people didn’t agree with some, at least some significant parts of the report. Having been on many consensus task forces in my life and having chaired a few, I found that part pretty unusual cause we would never, as, as a rule, you’d never carry a task force, that’s supposed to be a consensus activity, to a conclusion without actually having a consensus or understanding why you don’t. So that part of it, I think was unfortunate. But I think overall I’m delighted to see more attention to this, to this topic and in particular to the political changes that we need.

Kari Hulac (18:10):

Well, let’s see. To close out today, is there a question I didn’t ask that you think is really important to kind of the general public type of listener to understand? Any closing thoughts you’d like to leave us with today?

Dr. David Victor (18:21):

Yeah. I think there’s a couple of things that are very interesting. We have a tendency to focus on the most visible and politically-charged aspects of nuclear power plants and their decommissioning process. And thus today we’ve talked about, you know, spent fuel and interim storage and so on very, very important topics. I think it’s also really important to recognize that these plants are a critical part of a community. They’re major employers and they’re major tax suppliers to the tax base and when a plant shuts that changes quickly. And then when a plant gets through the decommissioning process, that changes yet again in a much more extreme way. And I am concerned that we have over-weighted the highly emotive aspects of decommissioning and underweighted these economic and local relationship questions, frankly, with the local, with the local communities. And one of the reasons that the community engagement panel was set up the way it is with, with elected officials, with people from lots of different walks of life sitting on the panel, was so that we can make sure, including organized labor, so that we could make sure that those different perspectives are reflected.

Dr. David Victor (19:32):

And you see that in terms of the economic impact of these plants when they decommission. You also see in terms of relationship with the first responders communities, because the people often don’t recognize that while there may be onsite first responses: security, fire, medical, and so on, the defense in depth comes from a plant being able also to rely on a larger community and first responders in the larger community. And, and they’re a big part of building up those capabilities, and then when a plant shuts that can change very quickly. A big chunk of what we’ve dealt with on our panel has been around that. Bringing attention to that topic and then helping the first responders and Edison come to reasonable agreements. So that there’s a better glide path from the operational plant to the non-operational.

Kari Hulac (20:20):

And how long are we talking? I mean, you’ve already been doing this for quite a few years. What, what, is there an end in sight? Like 10 more years, or when is that unknown right now?

Dr. David Victor (20:30):

Helping manage a really important process of decommissioning has a big impact on the communities and doing it in a way that’s fact-based and has a much higher flow of information than we’ve seen in any of the other plants that have gone through something, something similar. I think that’s first and foremost really important for the local communities. But, it’s also important, hopefully, cause we might be establishing some models or best practices or contributing to models and best practices that can be followed in other places, especially where plants are, or New York communities that are highly focused and engaged on that. That was more than six years ago. And this summer, the Edison folks will finish the last of the offloading of this, of the fuel from the spent fuel pools. That’ll be a big, that’ll be a big moment because then it’ll shift basically from the offloading campaign to a full bore D and D campaign. That’ll run roughly a decade after that.

Dr. David Victor (21:33):

And there will be some [Taylon] activities. At some point, this site will go back to the Navy. They own the land, they’re already started taking back the site on the other side of the I-5 highway. I will say one thing about the schedule, which I think has been very interesting and we learned this among other places by visiting the plant North of, North of Chicago, is now that you have private contractors that are specialists in decommissioning, there’s been a lot of learning. And so they’re doing it faster. They’re doing it plausibly safer. They’re doing it at a lower cost than would have been the case. If you had a bunch of individual electric utilities that are specialized specialists in running electric plants, decommissioning their own plants. And so I think that’s a big deal. I think that I hope that we will see some big benefits from that kind of specialization for the San Onofre site because they’ve contracted with one of those specialist companies and I would not be at all surprised to see that it’s got to run faster.

Kari Hulac (22:33):

Great, great. Well, thank you so much for joining me today. I learned a lot and I wish you the best in your work there. And I hope to get down there and visit it in person.

Dr. David Victor (22:43):

Well, please, please come visit. It’ll be a, right now all of our meetings, by the way, are by Skype and all of our meetings, even when they were in person are all up on the website and we’ve invested, a whole lot of people have invested a whole lot of time in making SONGScommunity.com, a highly informative site, a lot of information about the decommissioning process. And so please do come visit.

Kari Hulac (23:06):

Great. Thank you so much. Have a great day.

Narrator (23:10):

Thank you for listening. We hope you’ll share this podcast with others and feel free to send any comments or suggestions to podcast@deepisolation.com. You can visit deepisolation.com to learn more. At Deep Isolation, we believe that listening is one of the most important elements of a successful nuclear waste disposal program. A core company value is to seek and listen to different perspectives on the matter of nuclear waste, nuclear energy, and disposal solutions. The opinions expressed in this series are those of the participants and do not represent Deep Isolation’s position.

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Episode 6

http://Kara%20Colton

Kara Colton

Director of Nuclear Energy Policy at Energy Communities Alliance

A Look at Communities Affected by Federal Nuclear Waste

In this episode, Kara Colton, Director of Nuclear Energy Policy at Energy Communities Alliance, discusses the problem of how to dispose of federal nuclear waste at 16 locations nationwide.

Note: This transcript is the raw transcript of this podcast. Minimal edits have been made only for clarity purposes.

Kara Colton (00:10):

So the objectives for these communities are basically that they want to make sure that the waste is being dealt with responsibly, that they’re being engaged meaningfully, and that it’s not a federal policy of decide, announce, defend, which unfortunately has existed in the past.

Narrator (00:29):

Did you know that there are half a million metric tons of nuclear waste temporarily stored at hundreds of sites worldwide? In the U.S. alone, one in three people live within 50 miles of a storage site. No country has yet successfully disposed of commercial spent nuclear fuel, but it’s not for lack of a solution. So what’s the delay? The answers are complex and controversial. In this series, we explore the nuclear waste issue with people representing various pieces of this complicated puzzle. We hope this podcast will give you a clearer picture of Nuclear Waste: The Whole Story. We believe that listening is an important element of a successful nuclear waste disposal program. A core company value is to seek and listen to different perspectives. Opinions expressed by the interviewers and their subjects are not necessarily representative of the company. If there’s a topic discussed in the podcast that is unfamiliar to you, or you’d like to more closely review what was said, please see the show notes at deepisolation.com/podcasts.

Sam Brinton (01:49):

Hello everyone. My name is Sam Brinton. I use they/them as my pronouns and I get to serve as the Director of Legislative Affairs for Deep Isolation. Our guest today is Kara Colton, Director of Nuclear Energy Policy for the Energy Communities Alliance, ECA. ECA represents the local governments of the communities hosting or immediately adjacent to the US Department of Energy’s federal sites involved in government-sponsored nuclear weapons production, and nuclear energy research. At some of these sites, DOE produced defense high-level waste through its reprocessing programs. This is the most radioactive waste and along with the used or spent nuclear fuel produced by the nation’s commercial nuclear power reactors, it is due to be disposed of in a permanent geologic repository. Welcome Kara, thank you so much for joining us today and it’s so good to see you again.

Kara Colton (02:43):

Thank you for asking Sam.

Sam Brinton (02:44):

So tell us a little bit about the Energy Communities Alliance. How did it get started and why is it so important?

Kara Colton (02:52):

So the Energy Communities Alliance was originally founded in 1992, and it basically was created to ensure that the communities that are hosting DOE federal facilities have a say and are engaged in the decisions that the Department is making in nuclear waste cleanup and these communities, they are the communities that have supported the national security mission from World War II to help create our defenses. And they are the communities that make sure that these facilities are still being run. And they’re in charge of making sure that their citizens in the communities, that they’re protected their health, their safety, the environment. So they make sure that the community’s priorities are expressed to the Department of Energy and that the Department of Energy and Congress, as they’re looking at different policies, that they understand what the communities that are most directly impacted, what those communities see the impacts of a policy might be.

Sam Brinton (03:51):

Can you tell us a little bit about the history of the relationship between these communities and the Department of Energy?

Kara Colton (03:57):

They didn’t have a lot of say about where these facilities were originally set up, if any, say at all. I would recommend anyone going and doing a tour of the Hanford site, for example, that explains the government came in, said to some of the people that were living out there growing stone fruits, you got, you got to, you got to go. And when I say you got to go, we’re going to come in with a truck and we’re going to raze your house to the ground because we’re building something and we can’t tell you about it, but it’s very, very important. And so you have these communities that have grown from that being the beginning of their experience with the Department of Energy and the weapons complex to being who they are now.

Kara Colton (04:36):

That I think the interesting thing about these communities is that so many of these people, they watch their mom or dad work out at the site. And then they went to school for again, at Hanford, where the team name at the high school are “The Bombers”, you know, there’s a sense of pride that they really did help forward the national security mission. And they need to be remembered because that waste is still there and we don’t have a policy to deal with it, and we don’t have agreement on how to deal with it. And so these guys were told originally, we’re going to clean it all up, don’t you worry. But frankly, it’s a little concerning because we’re not quite sure how we’re going to clean it all up.

Sam Brinton (05:17):

So what is the Energy Communities Alliance main objectives when it comes to nuclear waste management?

Kara Colton (05:23):

So the objectives for these communities are basically that they want to make sure that the waste is being dealt with responsibly, that they’re being engaged meaningfully, and that it’s not a federal policy of decide, announce, defend, which unfortunately has existed in the past. But also they want to take advantage of the fact that these are nuclear familiar communities, they understand what it is to be living around a site. They understand how many different players are involved and need to be involved, tribes that are being impacted, state governments, state legislatures, regions of the country, not just the state, then obviously the permission of building new nuclear is a huge thing, as well as we consider whether or not we’re going to take, put into place policies that are addressing climate change in a low carbon future. And nuclear needs to be part of that mix, but you’re going to have plenty of detractors.

Kara Colton (06:24):

And you’ve had States that have moratoriums on new nuclear development if we can’t figure out the waste piece. And you know, one of the things I find most interesting about that this whole issue is that it’s not really a technical problem. It’s more of a political problem, but when you hear nuclear or nuclear waste, people might think about Chernobyl or Three Mile Island and they decide it’s the green glowing gook from the Simpsons. And they don’t realize like a piece of nuclear waste could be easily identified as a glove or a broom, for example. And so there’s so many preconceived notions and you know, the communities that we represent, they, they recognize that that’s how people might look at them too, or their kids that are going to school around the site. So, you know, these are, there’s such an interesting issue here because you really are finding beyond the technical, which should make people feel better, but it’s political, it’s the trust factors, it’s the relationship building, it’s the engagement. And it’s flexibility, which is an issue, huge issue, I think, that needs to be talked about.

Sam Brinton (07:38):

There are a hundred directions that nuclear waste disposal could go. And you and I know that, but local governments have a lot of different impacts and you have to try to focus them. So what other ways that you personally have been able to bring some kind of focus?

Kara Colton (07:53):

It’s building trust. It is not a technical challenge. It is literally getting people to speak to one another and allow flexibility in the conversation and respecting each party and the perspective that they have. So, you know, what a tribe might say in Idaho, for example, around INL could be 180 degrees from what the local community says, which could be 180 degrees from what the AG [State attorney general] says when they say, Nope, sorry, no, no small amount of reactor fuel can come in for us to do tests with. And I think that the way that ECA has been trying to address it is honestly getting the right people to the table. And sometimes right people to the table could be 250 people in a room talking about a new initiative. And sometimes the right thing could be a meeting around a site specifically where you’ve spoken with the different community representatives.

Kara Colton (08:55):

And, you know, there’s going to be all different perspectives, even within that one community, and make sure that people have the time to express where their concerns are, what their priorities are, what they’re afraid of. And there has to be a common understanding. This is tricky, a common understanding that there is no common understanding of risk. And so when everybody comes to the table, it’s important that each group gets to say, look to us, this is risky. At the community, nobody wants to hear anything coming straight out of headquarters without knowing that headquarters and site staff, that people that are living in the community from DOE are also engaged in that conversation. So there, you know, there’s so many different parties, like you said, and I think sometimes it’s as simple as getting the right parties at the table. And, you know, the federal government has a little bit of an extra responsibility because they need to make sure that the resources are out to all of the different groups that will be impacted by the policy decisions that they make so that those groups can participate.

Kara Colton (10:03):

I mean, you have some newly elected mayor of a town who doesn’t know that much about nuclear waste. So, make sure that those groups have the resources they need to get educated. And sometimes the Department should put aside resources so that the community can say, you know what, we’re going to hire an independent third party to look at the data. Not that we don’t trust the DOE, but it’s easier for us to advocate for a new project if we can say, look, we got this, we trusted, and we also were able to verify it and DOE needs to understand that’s just as much part of the process to build support.

Sam Brinton (10:41):

You talked about tribal governments, you talked about local communities, you mentioned site staff. So it’s not actually just the Department of Energy complex. It’s actually a lot of people living, breathing, working there and there, of course, you’ll have the industry. You probably have other organizations who also are having concerns, right? So what would help improve the lack of trust and open the line of communication between all these different parties and different people?

Kara Colton (11:07):

Well, I think definitely there just needs to be, and it’s simple, it sounds so simplistic, but there needs to be more engagement. There needs to be more engagement all the time, frankly. And you know, you mentioned all the other groups, I would also add to that, you know, you said industry, industry/contractors. So you need, like, there needs to be messaging that flows down and flows up, right? So if we’re talking about picking a new site for a nuclear waste facility, you need to make sure that the community is interested. And this is something we just recently, ECA, just recently was talking about, and that is, we’ve had conversations with the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future. We know that Yucca Mountain is pretty much stuck in a stalemate. And so the countries that are like let’s, re-look at this again, it was not, it wasn’t even the first relook. It was, I don’t even remember, how many relooks we’ve had since ’87.

Kara Colton (12:09):

So we brought everybody together, but they didn’t only do it in Washington DC. They did it around the sites. They went to larger commercial centers. They went into the areas where these facilities exist, which aren’t super well populated. I think those things need to happen. We need to make sure we get around the country. And also there needs to be, there needs to be some love given to the country, to the communities, and the States that are hosting these facilities already. There needs to be recognition that you’ve done something for the country thus far. And it’s worth listening to you. In contrast, when the Department of Energy is looking at doing new contracts, you know, there should be a community commitment clause in there that says the contractors that are doing these work, this work, you know, value the community where you’re working. Value the community that is supporting the national effort to not only clean up the waste but, you know, without a facility like INL, the nuclear Navy, where’s that gonna go?

Kara Colton (13:17):

Where’s that waste going to go? And if they don’t get it out, do we still have a nuclear navy running around for as long as we might need it or want it? And also, are we looking at the nuclear Navy and how they’ve been able to have a fleet that’s run so well for so long? I mean, there’s so many different examples of things, and I don’t know that we have done a great job telling that story of success. It’s very often a pitch like, “Yup, new nuclear would be great because it could reduce carbon emissions, but oh, the waste problem. Okay. Maybe not.” And I think there needs to be better, good stories of what can be done, Deep Isolation and being able to, to put it underground and then pull it back up. I mean, technologically, like, like we talked about, it can be done.

Kara Colton (14:12):

And it’s important to look back at those lessons learned, especially now, because at least on the cleanup of the defense weapons complex, we’re now at the point where it’s the hardest work. Right, work has been going on. It’s been 30 years of the Office of Environmental Management and successes there and successes our community celebrates right along with the Department of Energy. But now we’re, now we’re at the harder stuff, so it’s gonna be more difficult. And so we do need to find a way to express what our different concerns are, but demonstrate that there are a lot of people on the same page, that there’s a good path forward. There’s an opportunity here that shouldn’t be missed. And then to get back to what I forgot I was going to say earlier was, you know, looking at siting new facilities, one of the things that was always considered was how are you going to find a community that’s interested who, you know, I think during the Blue Ribbon Commission, you had a lot of people say like, really who’s, who’s chomping at the bit to have one of these facilities in their community.

Kara Colton (15:18):

Maybe we don’t need to start from scratch. Maybe we look at the communities that are already comfortable with nuclear and say, “Hey, you guys have a skilled workforce. You have a lot of retirement across the DOE complex coming right now, the silver tsunami. You have COVID has led to obvious job issues. And you have a lot of focus on STEM and the Department’s been great at getting resources out into the schools for STEM education.” And let’s wrap all of those things together and deal with economic development opportunities. And let’s look at the communities where you’re not starting from square one. And when the Department of Energy suggested the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership back in the early 2000s, ’06, ’07, you had 11 communities raise their hand and say, “Hey, you know, we, we, we might be interested in hosting a reprocessing facility”, and then go a step further and say, “Okay, that’s great. What would you, what is it that the community sees as the opportunity?” And the communities say, they say, “Well, we would love to have the reprocessing facility. And we’d love if you guys could maybe introduce a new national nuclear mission at the lab that’s here.” So there are a lot of win-win opportunities here that go all the way down from ensuring that the environment is being, is being managed, that the stewardship is there, to training the next generation of nuclear workers, be it on a waste facility or a generation facility.

Sam Brinton (16:48):

So when you’re talking about high-level waste in the communities you’re dealing with, what is the language that you use to describe it? And why is it called that in the first place? I know that it’s important to have a common definition when you’re trying to build consensus.

Kara Colton (17:01):

High-level waste from the defense perspective is the waste that results from reprocessing activities, basically, plutonium-related reprocessing activities as part of the weapons production. It is the stuff that needs to be isolated for thousands of years in order to protect human health and the environment. And the way that the Department of Energy in the United States defines it, and this is an ECA initiative that we’ve really been pushing on, I think we started maybe 2014, 2015 talking about, is that we have learned, going back to what we talked about before, over time, it has become scientifically clear that some of this waste that was considered high-level waste, based on the fact that it was a result of some sort of reprocessing activity, it’s actually not based on constituents level. It doesn’t need to be isolated in a deep geologic repository anymore.

Kara Colton (18:05):

And that is what the waste classification discussion is, that we in the communities have been having. And it’s one of these alternatives. It’s one of these, let’s look at what we’ve learned over time and see whether or not there are new alternatives for safely dealing with this waste. So most countries that are dealing with high-level waste and nuclear waste period, define their waste categories based on what the constituents are, how radiological are these constituents, and do they need to be isolated? How do they need to be isolated? And in our country, the defense high-level waste is defined by where it was produced, where its origin was. That’s not how it works in the United States. We now have it where something that’s in a tank in South Carolina versus something in a tank in Washington, regardless of whether or not they’re the same level of radioactivity, they’re going to have to be dealt with the same way, even though they really don’t need to be dealt with exactly the same way.

Kara Colton (19:10):

And that limits the ability to make decisions about waste. Somebody in South Carolina, where this waste interpretation is being applied right now, it’s going to be eight gallons. It’s a very small amount, but they’re pretty darn sure, I dare not say a hundred percent, but it could be a hundred percent sure, that the waste that’s been removed from some of these tanks in South Carolina are not high-level waste based on what their constituency, their constituent levels are. And then it could potentially go to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico (WIPP). The people in WIPP, the people in Carlsbad that host that facility, they’d love it. They’d love to have this continuing mission. They know what they’ve gotten by being basically the crown jewel of the DOE facility and, and handling waste. And then you get into the problem, of course, does the state want it, do the surrounding communities want it, and then we get back into the political argument, but technically speaking, it should be able to go down very safely there or to Waste Control Specialists or out to Utah.

Kara Colton (20:19):

And the way the Department is talking about doing this, and we support them looking at the alternatives, we support a full evaluation of it. We’re not saying, go do it. We’re saying evaluate it. Let the communities that will be impacted, understand what those impacts are going to be. Let’s have a long discussion about what happens, but ultimately, it would allow, if the evaluation proves out what we think it will, it will allow waste to be moved off-site more quickly. It will save money. Right now, the high-level waste issue is the governments. Well, maybe before COVID, before COVID, I feel comfortable saying it was the third-largest federal liability, for the country was dealing with this way. So we could cut that money and the taxpayer liability, we can move some of that waste. There’s been progress on the ground, but we keep paying more because we’re not moving waste.

Kara Colton (21:13):

We now create storage areas for this waste that would have been moved long ago. And we can then focus on other, other aspects of either building new nuclear facilities or just focusing more on a harder cleanup project that needs to be dealt with when we know that this one is a safe alternative, that can work. So the Department is moving slowly, steadily. They have made an absolute commitment. Kudos to DOE on this one, they’ve made a commitment to engaging with the local communities and not making any change in any, any program or the way that they’re dealing with high-level waste at any of these sites until there’s been full-on discussion with, with the parties that are going to be impacted, which will be the local communities. And the States will obviously get involved as well.

Sam Brinton (22:02):

How does this reclassification issue raise concerns for the communities?

Kara Colton (22:07):

Gets back to the very basic trust is a huge one and the need for flexibility. So for example, you have people who think that it’s a lesser cleanup. Why was this considered high-level waste before? But now you’re telling me it’s, it’s just like, transuranic waste. Why did you say that before we have to bury it in the ground for thousands of years? And now you’re telling me it can go in salts. These are real examples of what DOE is negotiating with the same with communities over time. And sometimes going back to the fact that over time, things can change, they might be in agreement that, Hey, you know, cleaning this up to industrial, to an industrial park is exactly what we, the community, now think will be really good for us. Or the Department of Energy, for example, on the high-level waste thing says we would spend so much more money.

Kara Colton (23:01):

Another one of the things is the technical definition, is about breaking out certain constituents from waste. And so the agreement in some places is that it all goes, it all absolutely goes. We break it up and it all has to go. But it turns out that you may be risking a worker’s safety if you try and take out the most radiological components, instead of keeping them together where they will be buried together. Right? So does the risk go up if you’re, if you’re splitting these hairs. Again, it gets back to, like I said, the trust issue. So if people are looking at the site over time and they say, “Oh, well, you were supposed to have Yucca Mountain open and accepting waste in 1998. And now it’s 2020. Why am I going to trust that you guys are going to do what you’re saying you’re going to do?”

Kara Colton (24:01):

Even if you have the state support, you could have a change in administration. You can have a change in policy, and there you go, you’re back to square one with somebody saying, well, that’s the last time I’m going to go down this path with you guys. And that’s, that’s an unfortunate, scary thing I think, because political it’s the politics that have made this very difficult and the politics isn’t going anywhere. So the trust it has to be trust. And it has to be we have to allow, and there has to be trust that the resources exist for us to relook at some of these things. And everybody needs to be prepared to come to the table and say, this is what I don’t trust. And this is how I could trust it. This is who I would want to hear it.

Sam Brinton (24:49):

So for our last question, tell me a little bit about the future of nuclear waste and engagement and how we can honestly all make it more successful.

Kara Colton (24:59):

Everybody I’ve met wants to do the right thing. I really believe that of all of the different conversations. Not everybody agrees on what that right thing is, but people want to be responsible and clean this stuff up. And many people want to see a new nuclear mission across the country. And so I think first and foremost is you gotta, you gotta get to that community. You gotta get in there, you gotta get the right people. And that might be the person running the science museum. It might be a teacher in the local school that, you know, sees this massive employment opportunity for their students and wants to see young people stay within their community and find out what it is that that community is, is looking to do and who they want to be.

Kara Colton (25:50):

Zion, for example, they don’t want the waste there anymore. They don’t want it. And it’s just taking up space. So they’re probably not the best community in the world to say, “Hey, you know, we thought maybe a borehole could be cool here.” I think people have to listen. I think you have to get the people in the room. You have to have an iterative process. I mean,y it’s not going to be one meeting and we’ve covered it all. And it’s not going to be one meeting with one group and you covered it all. You have to be honest about what the potential pitfalls are. What are the challenges? How do you speak to those challenges? You have to talk about emergency planning. I mean, things that, that do make people a little bit antsy, they have to be addressed. You can’t pretend that emergency planning doesn’t need to be part of the conversation, but you also have to look at this community.

Kara Colton (26:41):

Let’s take, let’s take Yucca Mountain, for example. So the community of Nye County, they want it, they see all the economic opportunity. They feel like there’s, there’s no other piece of land on earth that’s been more studied. The NRC did all of its safety evaluations. And yet you have the communities outside of the people, right adjacent to Yucca Mountain, who don’t feel that way. They’re scared about the transportation routes. They’re scared about what if waste going to be liquid? Is it going to be solid? What if a plane hits it? What if there’s terrorism? Like all of these things, which are very uncomfortable to think about because nuclear, ah! But we’ve been doing it. Like there are waste shipments moving across the country all the time safely, and we just need to get all of the facts out and trust each other.

Kara Colton (27:32):

Trust each other that I’m going to listen to what you’re saying, and I want you to hear me also, and we may not agree, but let’s meet again in three weeks. And while that happens, identify champions, identify champions in Congress, identify champions in the Department, identify champions in your community, identify champions in your region. It’s an exciting time. And it’s good that we now start looking for the new champions. And I think it’s we, you at Deep lsolation, me, the communities, the States, everybody, it’s, it’s going to be on us to help educate new lawmakers. It’s going to be up to us to educate new elected officials at all of the different levels of people who are involved and the time is now. And I think we all need to understand that the waste and the new nuclear, they, they’re very related. And one shouldn’t inhibit the other. They should, we should work together in a holistic approach to nuclear.

Sam Brinton (28:38):

Thank you so much for joining us today, Kara, for pointing out the problems, but also putting them into context and offering solutions. Really grateful to have you here.

Kara Colton (28:48):

Thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it. Sam always.

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Episode 7

http://Judy%20Treichel

Judy Treichel

Executive Director of the nonprofit Nevada Nuclear Waste Task Force, a citizens’ advocacy group

http://Steve%20Frishman

Steve Frishman

Geologist and nuclear technical and policy consultant to the state of Nevada

Beyond Yucca Mountain: The Future of Nuclear Waste

In this episode, Judy Treichel and Steve Frishman reflect on their experience with the state of Nevada and with citizen groups nationwide to get the message across that they do not believe Yucca Mountain is suitable for permanent nuclear waste disposal.

Note: This transcript is the raw transcript of this podcast. Minimal edits have been made only for clarity purposes.

Steve Frishman (0:10):

And as long as Yucca Mountain is out there on the table, there are going to be people who don’t want to think about anything else. In fact, what we need to do is essentially start over again.

Narrator (00:23):

Did you know that there are half a million metric tons of nuclear waste temporarily stored at hundreds of sites worldwide? In the U.S. alone, one in three people live within 50 miles of a storage site. No country has yet successfully disposed of commercial spent nuclear fuel, but it’s not for lack of a solution. So what’s the delay? The answers are complex and controversial. In this series, we explore the nuclear waste issue with people representing various pieces of this complicated puzzle. We hope this podcast will give you a clearer picture of Nuclear Waste: The Whole Story. We believe that listening is an important element of a successful nuclear waste disposal program. A core company value is to seek and listen to different perspectives. Opinions expressed by the interviewers and their subjects are not necessarily representative of the company. If there’s a topic discussed in the podcast that is unfamiliar to you, or you’d like to more closely review what was said, please see the show notes at deepisolation.com/podcasts.

Kari Hulac (1:42):

Hello. I’m Kari Hulac, Deep Isolation’s Communication Manager Today I’m talking to Judy Treichel, Executive Director of the nonprofit Nevada Nuclear Waste Task Force, a citizens advocacy group, and Steve Frishman, a geologist and nuclear technical and policy consultant to the state of Nevada. The task force was founded to represent citizens concerned about the US government’s plans to build a mined repository at Yucca Mountain for the disposal of high-level radioactive waste. Judy and Steve have worked for decades with the state of Nevada and with citizen groups nationwide to get the message across that they do not believe the site is suitable for permanent nuclear waste disposal. Welcome, Judy and Steve. Thank you so much for joining us today on our podcast.

Judy Treichel (2:33):

Thank you. We’re happy to be here.

Kari Hulac (2:36):

Awesome. Awesome. Great. Well, I hope you’re doing well today. So first off you’ve been working on the issue of what to do with nuclear waste longer than most people, 30 years. What sparked your initial interest? And was there a point when you decided this would be your life’s work?

Judy Treichel (2:52):

Well before I ever got into nuclear waste in any kind of an official way, I worked for years to try to end nuclear weapons testing at the Nevada test site. And while I was still doing that, I went to a meeting and it was about testing at the test site. And one of the speakers, there was a man named Luther Carter who’s gone now, but at that time he was built as an environmentalist. And I wasn’t very pleased about his environmental reactions to testing. And during that meeting, he came over where I was and started a conversation and he knew that I was opposed to testing completely. And he said, what would you think about the idea of having us and testing at the Nevada nuclear testing site and instead have the state be willing to accept the nation’s nuclear waste and I’d thought, wow, this is crazy.

Judy Treichel (3:56):

And it immediately sounded to me like a game of nuclear poker where you were very likely to wind up with both. And at that point, I realized that we were in for a real battle if they were willing to even suggest things like that. And as a matter of fact, we did wind up with both testing going on and being targeted for nuclear waste because testing didn’t stop until in the nineties. And we were off to the races on Yucca Mountain before that time. So I think that’s when I realized it was going to start.

Kari Hulac (4:33):

And Steve, did you have a similar experience or anything you’d like to add there?

Steve Frishman (4:38):

Mine was quite different. In the late seventies, I was the research director and Vice President of the Texas Environmental Coalition. And I knew that the government was looking at varying salt deposits in Texas as possible repository sites. And there was an Environmental Impact Statement that ended up being the 1980 Environmental Impact Statement for Management of Commercial High-level Nuclear Waste. So I did the Environmental Coalitions comments on that EIS. And from that, I ended up being on a state agency advisory board, advising the Texas delegation on the writing of the Nuclear Waste Policy, because that environmental impact statement became the basis for the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, which established deep geologic disposal as the policy for this country. So from there, I ended up being Director of the Texas Oversight Program for the Department of Energy’s work in Texas for the repository siting. I guess I just got stuck. I learned so much that I was involved in some other things at the same time, but I figured that I know so much about this now, I can’t let it go. So when the Nevada site became the only site for consideration in 1987, I was invited to come to Nevada as a consultant, and here I am 30 years later.

Kari Hulac (6:10):

So over that time, I know it’s a long time, so it might be hard to pick a few highlights, but if you can, which accomplishments around nuclear waste disposal, are you most proud of and why?

Judy Treichel (6:34):

Well, very little is going on right now, but at the very beginning, when Nevada was first singled out, there was a flurry of activity and the task force was formed by two other people and myself, and we jumped in with both feet and started working really hard at the beginning of 1988. And we went all over the state of Nevada then to rural towns, we did first of a kind meetings in the big cities and we just worked like crazy. And we weren’t trying to build opposition to Yucca mountain. What we were trying to do is just inform people so that they had a basis for being able to participate in public meetings and being able to make formal comments when they were allowed to do so. And so after 1988, Nevada’s legislature only comes into session in every odd year. So in 1989, we had built up so much recognition of the whole project and people were so into it that the legislature had all the cover, they needed to pass legislation against it. 

Steve Frishman (7:40):

And the thing that is, is settled, which was, we thought a good thing is that we established in 1989, the state policy that says that nuclear waste will not be stored or disposed in the state of Nevada. And we had good reason based on what we knew about Yucca mountain at the time, but what it really helped us settle was that all over the world or wherever you have controversies over nuclear waste, you end up with real social problems for people and families and even communities turn against each other for all the different possible reasons. And what we did by having legislation that settled the state policy that allowed the state agency, the Agency for Nuclear Projects to have policy guidance for the type of scientific and socio-economic work that was being done on behalf of the state.

Steve Frishman (8:38):

And occasionally through the years, we’ve had people try to force the state to say, but this, but that, and in each case, the policy has stood. And in fact, twice, our legislature has essentially reinforced that policy by passing resolution, supporting that policy. So other places have had major divisive issues and real problems. And in the state here, we very, we have a very large majority of people who support the state policy, which is that Yucca Mountain is not only unsafe, but it would be very bad for our economy. So we, that, that legislation was probably the most important thing that has happened within the state regarding this issue because we settled the policy.

Kari Hulac (9:35):

What do you think the change in administration is going to mean for the back end of the fuel cycle and permanent nuclear waste disposal? I imagine it’s, it’s just happened recently. You’ve been kind of sorting through all of the results as everyone else has, but what, you know, what are you thinking of for 2021 and beyond?

Judy Treichel (9:53):

Well, I guess I’m hoping that we have something that’s consistent where there’s a policy laid out or an attempt to make a policy. With the current administration, we’ve had problems because when President Trump was here in Nevada, he said that he opposed the project and that caught his Secretary of Energy and other advisers completely off guard. They had no idea. And they were actually in support of the project. So it’s just been kind of a confusing sort of thing. But we’re hoping that they decide that, or they realize that there was something very wrong about Yucca Mountain and go back to the drawing board, which is Steve’s expertise.

Steve Frishman (10:47):

And there, through the years, there have been various attempts to change the Waste Policy Act. And for some people, and, you know, adamantly propose that we must continue with licensing Yucca Mountain and the license application. That procedure has been suspended since 2010. So we’re 10 years with nothing going on at all, but there are still people who say, Oh, you got to go forward with it. And the reason it doesn’t go forward is because every year Congress has been convinced to not appropriate any money to go forward. So we’re sitting here 10 years of suspension. And as long as Yucca mountain is out there on the table, there are going to be people who don’t want to think about anything else. In fact, what we need to do is essentially start over again. We know the basics of the original Nuclear Waste Policy Act that talked about having regulations that were generally applicable to all general sites. You know, having radiation protection standards, having a, you know, site screening process that looks at different types of geology, but unfortunately 30 years later, we’re in a situation where we have to start again, if we’re ever going to make any progress, because as long as Yucca Mountain is on the table, you know, it’s a site that Nevada is not going to quit posing.

Steve Frishman (12:22):

And we have mountains of scientific information in the licensing proceeding before it stopped just the state of Nevada, nevermind, 18 other interveners, just the state of Nevada as 219 individual objections that are going to have to be mitigated. And that’s totally unheard of in nuclear facility licensing. So, and we’re prepared at the state level, we’re prepared to adjudicate every one of those 219. And in fact, in the past 10 years, we’ve developed about 25 more objections because of new information, new scientific information that has been developed since the license application. So until Yucca Mountain is off the table, I don’t think there is a chance that we’re going to get any durable policy regarding the ultimate disposal. There are moves right now for centralized interim storage, but interim to what if you don’t have a repository. And the way the Waste Policy Act was written to work, you don’t do interim storage between consolidated used fuel from reactors into one place or a couple of places.

Steve Frishman (13:40):

You don’t do that unless you know that you have a repository that is in the process because otherwise, it’s not interim. And this is what’s happening right now with a couple of sites in the country. Yeah. They’re private sector companies that are trying to become interim storage and they’re just saying, because of the way the law’s written, it’ll go to Yucca Mountain. Well, it’s not going Yucca Mountain, so it’s not interim storage. So what we need to do is face facts, start over again. We’ve learned an awful lot in the last thirty years about the technical basis for what we need to know in order to have, as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission says, reasonable assurance of safety over about a million-year period. And we know a lot more than we did in 1987. And I think there’s a possibility of people are willing to use some intellectual power rather than political power. I think there’s a possibility that we can ultimately get to safe isolation of this waste.

Kari Hulac (14:51):

So you’re a geologist, Steve. You mentioned deep geologic disposal. Is that what you view as the most credible solution to the problem?

Steve Frishman (14:59):

There’s no perfect solution, but as I said before, the Waste Policy Act of 1982 established deep geologic disposal as a policy, and that’s the policy in every other country in the world looking at what to do with the waste from their nuclear power reactors. And I think it is possible. And I think we can develop probably sufficient reasonable assurance if we do the geology properly. And, in order to do that, we first have to have a set of technically based standards that say that there’s a whole bunch of geology that we don’t want to look at. It’s an exclusionary process first. And then now what are the characteristics of geology that we do want to look at? And because we’re part of a large continent, we have a variety of geology and some that is worth looking at, some that we know is not worth looking at.

Steve Frishman (16:07):

So if we started out with, first of all, generally accepted criteria for what could ultimately be a geologic setting that we wanted to use, then siting comes after that. And one of the problems we had with Yucca Mountain is we had generally acceptable standards, Yucca Mountain didn’t meet the standards, so they didn’t ditch Yucca Mountain, they changed the standards. We probably need about 10 years to just do the scientific work before we ever talk about what this site is better than this site. We need to fully understand the geologic criteria we want and whether they’re geologic settings in the country that might fit those criteria, before we ever go down to, we’re going to look at this site and this site. And I think if, you know, we need to become sort of politically mature enough to be able to spend about whatever, maybe 10 years doing something that is first of all, unfixable, if you’re pretty good and second, needs to last for about a million years. So we can’t go for instant gratification. And in fact, as we’ll talk later, the system does not require instant gratification.

Judy Treichel (17:30):

I think it’s also important to have public consent or have the public on your side before you start anything too. Once the public, like Nevada, understands that this is just not in their best interest, and once you’ve got a lot of public opposition, it’s just not going to work. So if they have, as Steve said if they have standards and they have regulations that have to be met and the public believes that those are trustworthy and safe enough and goes along with that, and then is willing to work with the agency or whoever it is that’s doing the work. I think you can get towards success much more than you could ever this way.

Kari Hulac (18:21):

Are you familiar with any successful examples globally for how to deal with nuclear waste?

Steve Frishman (18:26):

Well, nobody’s done really well. There are two, at least two examples globally that are coming close and that’s in Finland and in Sweden and they’ve gone, both countries have gone through long, long process and yeah, have developed a technical basis to where their licensing agencies are satisfied that they can go forward, but they’re continuing to look at some problems that are still known to exist, but in Sweden now they have a site and through decades of a siting process, that people are pretty well satisfied that they have been sufficiently involved in the whole process over the decades. And they’re probably going to eventually end up with a repository. In Finland, they’re a little bit farther ahead. And they again have the public support for what they’re doing.

Steve Frishman (19:33):

They also have a relatively small amount of waste, and they don’t have a big bureaucracy that is pushing and pulling their whole processes. The whole thing has been, the technical work has been done by a relatively small group of people over decades, and they have public support for it. So those two are leading towards what you might say is not success, but at least supportable progress to the isolation, the permanent isolation of waste. And I think it’s very likely that they will succeed at least in being able to feel satisfied that they’re done the very best that they can. And that’s about all we can expect from something where we have no control over the next million years.

Kari Hulac (20:36):

That makes sense. Judy, any thoughts on that topic as well?

Judy Treichel (20:41):

Well, in both of the sites that he’s talking about in Sweden and Finland, those are both either in or near communities where there was a major nuclear power plants that were going, and the people had experience with those. They had not had any bad experiences that I’ve heard of. And so they kind of were, it began with a trust in the, in, in nuclear as, as it was. And in Nevada, the huge contrast here is that Nevada has never had a nuclear reactor and we’re thousands of miles away from the majority of the reactors. So it just seemed so crazy that the stuff would start out on the East coast and come all the way across the country to a place that really had no experience with them and had no interest.

Steve Frishman (21:32):

Other than having been bombed.

Kari Hulac (21:33):

So, so Nevada’s experience with the nuclear weapons development created a very different feeling among the communities there about the waste itself.

Judy Treichel (21:44):

Well, and it started out with atmospheric testing where you had mushroom clouds coming out of the Nevada test site and mostly heading East to Northeast. So you’ve got downwind victims that a lot of people died. A lot of people were injured and there was a lot of damage to ranchers and farmers and, and the, if there was ever any trust, it was totally gone when the government refused to acknowledge that they had hurt people. It was insane. People were getting under their desks at school to be spared danger, danger from Russian bombs, but we had our own blasting off. And so it was just an inconceivable way to move into something like nuclear waste.

Steve Frishman (22:36):

And the only reason we have Yucca Mountain is because the Energy Department’s predecessors for 20 years spent looking around the country quietly for nuclear waste disposal sites and every time they got caught, because they didn’t tell the governors or the states what they were doing every time they get caught, they essentially got run out of the state.

Steve Frishman (23:00):

And the only reason we have Yucca Mountain is because in 1977, the General Accounting Office suggested to the Department that maybe you want to look at places that already have defense nuclear facilities, because they’re more accepting of nuclear facilities just primarily because it’s a lot of jobs. So the only reason we have Yucca Mountain at the Nevada test site is because the Department started looking at places where the government had already done nuclear or already had nuclear facilities. And so they expected that the people in Nevada would be very accepting of this next thing. Well, they kind of missed the point because the people in Nevada didn’t like getting bombed. So the whole thing backfired on them. 

Kari Hulac (23:54):

So what I’m hearing, you know, some of the elements of a successful nuclear waste disposal, siting process, I mean, I hear the importance of trust, being open about, you know, the fact that an agency is looking for a location, kinda being transparent. Any other elements to mention?

Judy Treichel (24:15):

Well, I think you hit it right there because when they tried to go from nuclear weapons to nuclear waste, we either were lied to, or we were told it was a matter of national security and people got real tired of hearing that something that was hurting them or that they needed to know, they just couldn’t know because they didn’t have security clearances. So if you can’t have something like that. And I guess another thing that the country needs to look at is whether this should be done privately or through the government, because there’s problems either way, or there may be advantages either way. And I don’t know about that, but that’s one of the things that I think should be talked about too.

Kari Hulac (25:02):

Do you think in Nevada, the door’s closed for Nevada, do you think if there was a process that was handled in an open way and there was a safe, deep geological option and Nevada’s geology was appropriate, is the door closed for Nevada at this point?

Judy Treichel (25:20):

Nevada is probably out, and you could find almost any place in the United States that had less earthquakes. Then we have, you could cut out California and cut out Alaska and Nevada is third in the number of earthquakes that we have. And we’ve got a few old volcanoes that are completely off the scope too, when you’re looking at a million years. So I think you could probably find somewhere, you didn’t have to worry about so many earthquakes and the possibility of volcanoes.

Steve Frishman (25:54):

Well, before 1987, there was a bumper sticker when we knew that Yucca Mountain was on the table. There’s a bumper sticker that still shows up all over the place whenever people start talking about Yucca mountain and that’s, that is not a wasteland and the rest of the country seems to think we might be, but we’ve decided that we are not.

Kari Hulac (26:17):

I have one other question I want to add, how do you get people to realize this is a serious environmental problem that does need a solution? Have you, you know, come up with a way to educate people or any ideas about how do you get people to kind of care really, and, and realize that this needs to be solved.

Judy Treichel (26:38):

One of things you have to do is to understand that people have already a sense of what they want and what they don’t want. And I know that when every, whatever the Department of Energy would hit a wall, they’d say, well, this is insane, we’ve got to get out there and educate these people. And it really meant that you had to get out and do some arm twisting and that’s why you find a lot of the lousy projects in this countries going to very poor areas where people need the money or need the jobs or something. But if you’re going to try and sell something, I’m thinking about, there’s almost the same situation right now in this country with the virus that we have running wild. And the thought that the solution is the vaccine. And you’re seeing a whole lot of people in the country who aren’t going to trust a vaccine.

Judy Treichel (27:38):

If something comes down the road next week and they say, okay, we found it, we’ve got this vaccine, give me your arm. You find a lot of resistance. And before a vaccine is going to work and going to work by work I mean, a lot of people will accept it, they’re going to have to see evidence that it’s there. They’re going to have to see people who they trust saying, I think this is good. Here’s my arm. And I think the same thing goes along with nuclear waste, there are people who the general public will listen to and maybe are not friends of the government, or they’re not believed to be the experts, but people have to have their own way of seeing something that they can trust. And it all comes down to trust. 

Steve Frishman (28:28):

There’s also, one of the things that would build the element of trust. And that’s that, you know, right now, because of the way Waste Policy Act was amended, we only have one solution, and that one solution is unacceptable. And so part of building trust is that those who are decision-makers actually have alternatives to look at and can hear the real discussion of the pros and cons of alternatives. And this is why I’m very glad right now to know that there are people thinking of alternatives other than just a big underground mine. I think that’s beneficial to the whole process of maybe getting us to an acceptable point at some time. So we, in our, in our lives, we always face problems, but rarely are we forced to say there is only one solution. We need to be able to look at alternatives and make informed choices.

Steve Frishman (29:44):

And part of the reason we’re in the condition we’re in right now is that Yucca Mountain is not the result of an informed choice. So I think it’s good that there are people thinking, well, you know, geology might be the way to go, but a great big underground mine may not be the only way to use geology. It’s all the problem that we’re facing. So I think it’s, again, it always comes back to trust. And in this case, trust involves decision-making. That is the way we normally make decisions rather than being pulled. You’re the one. So there you have it.

Kari Hulac (30:27):

Great. Well, thank you, Judy and Steve so much for joining us today. I really learned a lot and I appreciate you taking the time to speak with us.

Judy Treichel (30:37):

Okay. Thank you. Thank you.  

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Episode 8

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John Lindberg

Public Affairs Manager, World Nuclear Association

How Public Perception Can Impact Nuclear Energy

In this episode, John Lindberg, Public Affairs Manager at the World Nuclear Association, speaks about the impacts of radiophobia and the public's perception of nuclear on the nuclear industry.

Note: This transcript is the raw transcript of this podcast. Minimal edits have been made only for clarity purposes.

John Lindberg (0:10):

We need to make sure that in the climate change conversation that nuclear isn’t just in a peripheral role, but rather, how do we place nuclear energy center stage given the everything that nuclear can do in terms of fighting climate change?

Narrator (0:26): 

Did you know that there are half a million metric tons of nuclear waste temporarily stored at hundreds of sites worldwide? In the U.S. alone, one in three people live within 50 miles of a storage site. No country has yet successfully disposed of commercial spent nuclear fuel, but it’s not for lack of a solution. So what’s the delay? The answers are complex and controversial. In this series, we explore the nuclear waste issue with people representing various pieces of this complicated puzzle. We hope this podcast will give you a clearer picture of Nuclear Waste: The Whole Story. We believe that listening is an important element of a successful nuclear waste disposal program. A core company value is to seek and listen to different perspectives. 

Opinions expressed by the interviewers and their subjects are not necessarily representative of the company. If there’s a topic discussed in the podcast that is unfamiliar to you, or you’d like to more closely review what was said, please see the show notes at deepisolation.com/podcasts.

Kari Hulac (1:46):

Today, we’re talking to John Linberg, Public Affairs Manager at the World Nuclear Association. John is a radiation and nuclear power communications expert who focuses on the impacts of radiophobia and the public’s perception of nuclear energy, which is also the subject of his doctoral studies at King’s College London and Imperial College. Thank you for joining us today, John.

John Lindberg (2:11):

Ah, pleasure is all mine. Greetings from a very wet and gloomy London.

Kari Hulac (2:16):

Great, well stay warm and dry there. First off, I know you’re interested in how pop culture shapes the public’s opinion of anything with the word “nuclear” in it and how their fear has helped coin the term “radiophobia”. Please define that term and share a bit about its history.

John Lindberg (2:35):

Radiophobia is essentially the very clear disconnect that exists between what people perceive radiation to be and what radiation science tells us that it actually is. So most people would think that radiation is something that is uniquely dangerous, something that poses a threat, not only to ourselves but also threats to future generations. Whereas science tells us that of the many sorts of environmental threats that we face, radiation really isn’t something to get too concerned about. And radiophobia is really that, it isn’t a phobia in the clinical sense. And pop culture has to say, has played a major role in this. You know, all of us, most of us, have watched the Simpsons where we’re all thinking about Homer Simpson sitting and eating nuclear waste out of a, of a big barrel with a warning sign on it, or, or indeed HBO’s Chernobyl service that came out not that long ago.

John Lindberg (3:36):

And pop culture essentially helps us to put images to something that we cannot see because after all radiation is invisible to all our senses. We can’t smell it, we can’t hear it, we can’t taste it. So the only way for us to really make sense of radiation is to use images that’s given to us by pop culture or be it something that we were reading or even the history. And when it comes to radiation, if you look at the history of radiation, we started off thinking that it is the coolest thing on the planet. We would use radiation for everything, anything from painting your watches to, if you wanted to get it started nicer skin complexion, you could use slightly radioactive skin creams. It’s only then really after the second world war, that radiation starts to become something quite different, something more ominous we started connected with cancer.

John Lindberg (4:34):

And then obviously, the bomb and the bomb starts to play a really, really big role in the way that we start to make sense of radiation. And really at that point, making the connection from the nuclear bomb to a nuclear reactor and they both are radioactive, all the sudden we start to see these sort of bridges being built, “Oh, God, radiation is everywhere.” Which means a nuclear reactor is probably something quite close to a nuclear bomb, and that’s really why the history of radiation and the way that radiophobia impacts our lives today is so important to understand. And indeed, how pop culture played a major role in that.

Kari Hulac (5:17):

Have you seen people’s perceptions changing at all? I can completely understand the fears of the past. You know, and, and, and you deal with people worldwide. You’re educating people worldwide. Do you see differences in attitudes by countries, say, you know, where you are in the United Kingdom or Japan, US? 

John Lindberg (5:37):

Yeah. I mean, you can definitely see that there is a difference in attitudes. But let’s just say on a, on a country basis, I come back to that in a second. It’s also a lot to do with when were you born? So for instance, my generation, so I’m going after the end of the cold war, my generation, we never grew up with this sort of visceral fear of nuclear war. For me, nuclear war is an abstract concept that doesn’t really mean anything on an emotional level, whereas my parents and my grandparents, for them nuclear war and the impact of the war, was very, very real. Conversely, the history and memory of Chernobyl is nothing that I remember. But my grandma still remembers to this day, how she feared the clouds and because the clouds are carrying radiation from Chernobyl.

John Lindberg (6:34):

So whenever we talk nuclear at home, she automatically starts thinking about these clouds. And on a country-to-country basis. You also see a major difference. So here in the UK, people have a much more relaxed relationship with nuclear power. It hasn’t really been any major incidents or, or anything that’s really given rise to that level of fear. In America, you would find that a lot was connected to the nuclear bomb and to fall out from the weapons. And Chernobyl didn’t really play a role in America, full stop. Whereas in Japan, you have this sort of unique perception challenge where you have the nuclear bombs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the sort of cultural trauma that that brought. But also you have the accidents at Fukushima Daiichi not even 10 years ago. So in Japan, you find that this sort of radiophobia is, is much more present in people’s minds. And it doesn’t take much for that to manifest, be that in increasing anxiety, social stigma, or any of the other well-known side effects of radiophobia.

Kari Hulac (7:51):

So tell me a little bit about your organization. The World Nuclear Association is an international organization that promotes nuclear power and supports companies that are part of that industry. So what are your most pressing goals and challenges in your role there at the moment?

John Lindberg (8:07):

So, as you say, the World Nuclear Association represents all parts of the nuclear industry from uranium mining to reactor vendors, operators, to waste management companies. So for us, we really spread the important message of why nuclear energy matters. And there’s a couple of really big challenges that we’re facing, I suppose, as an industry, and by extension, WNA faces some as well. Climate change is clearly one of them. We need to make sure that in the climate change conversation that nuclear isn’t just in a peripheral, but rather how do we place nuclear energy center stage given the everything that nuclear can do in terms of fighting climate change? We have the challenges and the opportunities presented by the UN sustainable development goals. Clearly clean, affordable, and reliable energy is crucial to everything that we do.

John Lindberg (9:12):

Doesn’t matter if we’re talking about food production, education, women’s empowerment, you name it, energy will be there, and energy will be crucial. And it is a tragic matter of fact, that we still see just under 1 billion people around the world, not having access to electricity, let alone any sort of clean electricity and nuclear can play a crucial role, both building large reactors, and, and small reactors. So we are engaging with national governments and international bodies, UN, the International Energy Agency, so on and so forth. Making sure that nuclear is represented at all levels of conversation. And thirdly, I suppose more pertinent today, is the issue around nuclear waste and the European Union’s whole work around the taxonomy where nuclear, as things currently stand, would be excluded from sustainable financing initiatives because of this perception of nuclear isn’t sustainable, whereas far less sustainable energy sources such as natural gas is included. So we are spending a lot of time engaging with stakeholders around the world, highlighting just how sustainable nuclear is and just how important nuclear is to building a truly sustainable future.

Kari Hulac (10:40):

So the key thing about moving forward with nuclear energy is that there’s the problem of the waste that hasn’t been permanently disposed of. What do you see the conversation around nuclear waste changing, given the value of nuclear energy as a carbon-neutral energy source? How does that play into your work? And do you hear that raised as an objection to supporting nuclear energy?

John Lindberg (11:05):

I mean, absolutely. Nuclear waste surfaces in more or less any conversation that we are having around nuclear’s role in, in fighting climate change. The challenge here is really that it is a perception issue as much as anything else. It is perceived that we haven’t resolved the question or the problem of nuclear waste, but the thing is, ever since the civil nuclear industry emerged, we have been looking after the waste in a very responsible fashion. Civil waste has never harmed anyone and we know how to handle it. Yes, there is the question of final disposal. But it’s also, if we’re comparing nuclear with other energy sources, nuclear waste is very small in quantity. And in terms of handling it, it’s, it’s relatively simple, especially if you compare to a gas, gas, or coal-fired power plant, it’s pretty hard to, to, to handle the CO2 or the ash that comes out of the, of the, of the chimneys. Whereas nuclear waste is ceramic or metallic. In some cases, it’s easy enough, you stick it into a pond and then you have it on-site, but yes.

Kari Hulac (12:26):

Right. I bet most people may not even realize it’s just a little pellets, correct.

John Lindberg (12:29):

Oh yeah, totally. I mean, I feel that they’re about that size and you, and you get an absolutely incredible amount of energy out of it. And that’s the key because there’s so much energy and so little raw material, the amount of waste that comes out it’s teeny tiny. Yes, we, we need to make more progress on, on establishing if you like repositories or recycling, because at the end of the day, what comes out of the reactor, most of that is still uranium. And we can, there’s plenty of energy in that. There’s plutonium, which we can use for electricity generation and the other elements as well. So it’s getting policymakers, I think, to, to, to realize that we resolved the question that the technical questions around nuclear waste management decades ago, it’s really a political one. They need to decide. Do you want to recycle some of it? Do you want to recycle all of it, or do you want to just use it once and dispose of it in repositories or cohorts? So it’s a political question, not a technical one.

Kari Hulac (13:38):

Now you’re studying for a doctorate in philosophy focused on risk, communication, and radiation, and you’re completing a master’s degree in medical radiation sciences. So in your spare time, you seem like you’re probably pretty busy there, but tell me, what are you learning in the course of your studies? Are there some facts you can share to help the public understand the risks of radiation associated with nuclear waste?

John Lindberg (14:01):

Yeah, so, I think the one thing that becomes abundantly clear when you start to, to, to really study and research questions around radiation is that we as a community, be it with the radiation community or the community, we learned to talk about radiation risks in isolation from other risks. We don’t put it into context and we don’t put it into perspective, and that’s a huge problem. You know, we don’t talk about any other risks that way. So why would we do that by radiation? You know, nothing in life is without risk. And I, I don’t cycle in London because the risk of being run over by a bus is pretty high. It was perceived as high. Whereas living in London in itself is probably even worse because of air pollution.  

John Lindberg (14:49): 

And that’s something that, especially in my Ph.D., has spent a lot of time looking into the way that we, we make sense of the world if you like. Cause at the end of the day, we are all emotional bias creatures. Most of the way that we make sense of the world is really gut feeling and there’s nothing wrong with that. But what’s important is to understand that because we often, especially in the nuclear community, we make this sort of flawed argument that we’re all rational. So, and given that we’re all rational, we just need to give people facts about nuclear power or radiation, or nuclear waste. So it comes down to that, you know, we need to change the way that we talk about ourselves, and in doing so, we need to, if you like become more human. I think that’s really what, what I’ve found, which is so important to get out to people in, in, in the nuclear community.

Kari Hulac (15:44):

You know you make me think about just the generational thing again, in terms of how people will change. You know, I see a lot of millennials really passionate about nuclear energy in the context of climate change. And maybe, do you think there’s a possibility that just the growing understanding of climate change will kind of lead to more acceptance of the fact that nuclear energy could be a solution, could be part of the solution to that, and maybe coming to terms with, yes, there is radioactive waste, but we can deal with it safely and responsibly with a really low risk, then maybe nuclear energy can be part of the mix.

John Lindberg (16:25):

Yeah. I mean, that’s a brilliant question. And in many ways that strikes right to the heart of many of the conversations that we’re having. Nuclear power and climate change is a tricky conversation to have. Some evidence points towards what’s called reluctant acceptance, that people understand that we might need nuclear for a while, but then as soon as we find something better, we can ditch nuclear for whatever that solution is. So it’s a double-edged sword. So on the one hand I think that the bigger challenge really is to get people to get comfortable with nuclear. And we can do that in a number of different ways. Climate change is really scary. You know, I remember when I started to really understand climate change, it scared the living daylights out of me. And for a long time, I was just too afraid to engage with it.

John Lindberg (17:20):

I disconnected and a lot of people have done that. So talking about nuclear in the climate change context is it can be helpful, but I think we’ve really need to be having a much broader conversation about what makes nuclear power such a valuable power source, be that fighting poverty, be that addressing energy poverty, be it creating artificial fuels, be it powering a more equitable society. I think that that’s really where we can build coalitions for nuclear, but it’s going to be positive. Cause I think that’s what we need to do. We need to build a positive momentum around nuclear. That will then start to get into the conversations around climate change because if we put all of our bets into the climate change basket, we’ll struggle because if we look at how the energy arena is being perceived, solar and wind are having very, very high favorability ratings.

John Lindberg (18:28):

People think about these energy sources and they get feelings of hope that this is something that’s going to bring, literally in the case of solar, a brighter future. The problem is obviously that we can’t do it with just solar and wind, there just isn’t a way, and the only way to do it in a low carbon way is with nuclear. And that’s why I think we need to bring the conversation around nuclear to, in a much broader arena again, and talk about all the things that nuclear can do rather than focusing on that tiny, tiny sliver that’s climate change. And that, and that’s a challenge. And I don’t think the industry has gotten that balance right, just yet, but we will live and we learn right.

Kari Hulac (19:17):

What does the World Nuclear Association do in terms of educating people about the waste? Like, do you have, I mean, do you have favorite solutions that you support? I mean, I know in, you know, closer to where you are, Finland and Sweden have had some success moving forward with their permanent disposal solutions. You know, what, what have you learned about those countries or other alternative sources of disposal?

John Lindberg (19:45):

So the World Nuclear Association is completely agnostic when it comes to waste management solutions. We recognize that certain countries have certain historical or legislative histories that make certain solutions seem more favorable than others. Some countries will want to recycle some of it. We see that for instance, in France and in Russia, but Germany has also been recycling parts of its waste. Some countries want to recycle all of it. Again, Russia is very much leading the way and a lot of that sort of R&D work, but in the United States, you see a lot of very exciting startups looking at reactor concepts that essentially can recycle theoretically up until about 97% of all the waste. Equally some countries like the ones you mentioned, Sweden, Finland, they have gone down for a different philosophy, which is that you use the fuel in the reactor, and you do that once, and then you send it off to, to a final repository.

John Lindberg (20:50):

And it’s really up to governments to decide what suits them the best. And again building repositories has for a long time been seen as the only solution. And I would obviously take, take issue with that. For instance, some countries might find it that it is too expensive to build a repository, especially for smaller countries. They might only have one, two reactors. Building a full site, a proper repository might just be too expensive. So some companies look then upon steps like international repositories, where you send waste from different countries into a central repository. And then we have other solutions like deep boreholes solutions. And really as far as we’re concerned, you know, off you go in terms of, find as many exciting solutions as possible, we are happy to write about them. We got some really, really, really good information papers cause you spoke earlier about education.

John Lindberg (21:55):

And, and for me, I think it’s really exciting that Finland has made such good headway on its repository. And when Onkalo opens up for the first waste or spent fuel to be shipped off and placed in the repository, I think at that point, we will be able to say to anyone that challenges the nuclear industry, by saying, well, look guys, you don’t have a solution to waste because well, yes we do, we have the repository of which is open and we have all of these other exciting solutions that we are currently developing. And I think that’s really going to be a game-changer. And it’s going to make it easier for the nuclear industry, I think to bring its case as well. On the climate change arena, given the waste keeps cropping up time and time again.

Kari Hulac (22:45):

Thank you so much John I’ve learned a lot talking with you today and I look forward to learning more from your organization. 

John Lindberg (22:55)

Thank you so much.

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Episode 9

http://Jessica%20Lovering%20Headshot

Jessica Lovering

Co-Founder of the Good Energy Collective

Combating the Climate Crisis: Advanced Nuclear Energy Policy

In this episode, Jessica Lovering explains why she co-founded the Good Energy Collective and how she hopes it will impact advanced nuclear policy in the United States.

Note: This transcript is the raw transcript of this podcast. Minimal edits have been made only for clarity purposes.

Jessica Lovering (0:11):

We’re not asking for anything special just for nuclear to be valued for the carbon free electricity that it provides the way that renewables are. 

Narrator (0:19): 

Did you know that there are half a million metric tons of nuclear waste temporarily stored at hundreds of sites worldwide? In the U.S. alone, one in three people live within 50 miles of a storage site. No country has yet successfully disposed of commercial spent nuclear fuel, but it’s not for lack of a solution. So what’s the delay? The answers are complex and controversial. In this series, we explore the nuclear waste issue with people representing various pieces of this complicated puzzle. We hope this podcast will give you a clearer picture of Nuclear Waste: The Whole Story

We believe that listening is an important element of a successful nuclear waste disposal program. A core company value is to seek and listen to different perspectives. Opinions expressed by the interviewers and their subjects are not necessarily representative of the company. If there’s a topic discussed in the podcast that is unfamiliar to you, or you’d like to more closely review what was said, please see the show notes at deepisolation.com/podcasts.

Kari Hulac (1:39):

Hello, I’m Kari Hulac, Deep Isolation’s Communication Manager. Today I’m talking to one of the founders of Good Energy Collective. The Good Energy Collective is a policy research organization that says it’s building the progressive case for nuclear energy as an essential part of the broader climate change agenda. Jessica Lovering has a doctorate in engineering and public policy and has expertise in advanced nuclear technologies and nuclear innovation policy. Welcome Jessica. Thank you so much for joining us today.

Jessica Lovering (2:12):

Yeah. Wonderful to be here. Thanks for having me.

Kari Hulac (2:15):

Great. Great. So you recently co-founded the Good Energy Collective in August of 2020, so fairly recently. What led you to create a nuclear policy organization?

Jessica Lovering (2:27):

We were really motivated by this movement we were seeing around big climate legislation, particularly things like the Green New Deal, and that they were coming from a new source, really these young, progressive climate groups. A lot of new groups popping up with a lot of energy and activism and just this feeling of momentum that, that things were changing. And you know, they were getting politicians to start thinking more seriously about climate change. And we were really excited about that, but we were noticing that nuclear was really missing from that conversation. And we wanted to see, you know, why that was and, and, and is there a way to get nuclear in there? And one of the challenges is that progressives have been historically not very supportive of nuclear. But with these younger groups you know, they don’t have a lot of the, the baggage and the perceptions that are sort of biased against nuclear. So we saw an opening there, but it really needed to come from a group that had sort of genuine groundings in progressives. So, you know, personally me and my co-founder Suzy and our board chair, Rachel Slaybaugh, agree with progressive values and consider ourselves progressive. So we wanted to start a new organization that could really do sort of the research around policies that would actually get nuclear to align with this progressive climate agenda.

Kari Hulac (4:05):

So talk a little bit about your goals for what the organization could do. Kind of following up on what you just said on researching policies and, and finding solutions to move forward.

Jessica Lovering (4:16):

Yeah, so we really want to see advanced nuclear in particular move forward you know, get some, some demonstrations and some commercial reactors built and, and to do that, that’s the goal, but to do that, we really need to get nuclear integrated into this climate policy agenda. So rather than have, you know, separate nuclear policies or nuclear legislation, that’s just supporting nuclear, it really needs to be integrated to get that broader support for sort of these big investments. And we have all these exciting innovations in advanced nuclear, you know, over 60 companies in the U.S, working to commercialize designs. And there really is a lot of policy work that needs to be done. Answering questions around, you know, how they’ll be built, how they’ll be financed, where does the fuel come from? What happens to the waste?

Jessica Lovering (5:08):

And so we wanted to start a new organization and kind of help flesh out that policy agenda. And then the other thing that is unique about our organization is we’re really focused on bringing in social science into nuclear policy. You know, there’s wonderful work being done on the technical side at the Department of Energy. There’s all this funding for R&D that’s led to some amazing technological innovations, but we need a lot of innovations on the social science side about business models, of financing models you know, how to get, do community engagement in a different way. What can, you know, the literature studies that have been done tell us about risk perception and things like that. So we’re coming at it from, from a few different angles but that sort of our main drive.

Kari Hulac (5:58):

And what inspired you personally, Jessica, to be an advocate for nuclear energy? Do you count yourself among that younger, progressive group that has a little less baggage around the, anything with the word nuclear in it?

Jessica Lovering (6:14):

Well, I, I can’t really remember being anti-nuclear ever myself, but I definitely came from a more of a, I don’t know, hippie environmental background. I was living in Colorado when I first got interested in nuclear. I was studying for a master’s degree in environmental studies and environmental policy. And you know, I was really interested in renewables. I was, you know, gardening and making my own yogurt and these sorts of things that just sort of go with that lifestyle. And I got interested in energy because of climate change and some classes around, you know, what it really takes to decarbonize. And studying more on the energy side, I did this exercise in one class where we were all assigned a country and we had to make a plan of how they would fully decarbonize, I think 80% reduction in emissions by 2050.

Jessica Lovering (7:12):

And I had Poland and it was so hard to do because they have so much coal. And even if you do it with nuclear, it’s still really hard, but if you do it with wind and solar, it’s just crazy. And that’s what originally got me interested in nuclear. And then I spent the rest of my master’s degree kind of, you know, doing term papers and assignments on nuclear, wherever I could. And then sort of built up that sort of the, I was like the nuclear person in my program where everyone else was very renewables focused. So, yeah, and then I got hired by the Breakthrough Institute to really flesh out their nuclear policy program.

Kari Hulac (7:53):

So advanced nuclear is described as more efficient, safer, and more flexible in terms of how it’s deployed. It looks way different than the nuclear that my generation grew up with. So what are you most excited about regarding this new technology?

Jessica Lovering (8:07):

I think there’s a lot of things wrapped up in there, but the, the thing I’m most excited about is factory fabrication and whether the whole reactor is factory fabricated or, you know, major components. I think that’s a big game changer in terms of costs, and there’s a lot of reasons that advanced reactors are able to be more modularly produced than the past reactors. So for one, they tend to be much smaller in capacity, but also these advanced designs, you know, these different coolants, different fuels allow the reactor to be much simpler from an engineering perspective. You know, they don’t have as many redundant safety systems. They rely more on physics for their safety and that makes it easier to manufacture a commercial product. So I think that’s the most exciting thing because for me, or for what I see the biggest obstacle for nuclear is really the cost and the time to build. So factory fabrication could really help with that.

Kari Hulac (9:11):

Right, so that was kind of going to be my next question is, you know, people claim that they’re too expensive and too unproven to make a meaningful impact in the fight against climate change. So it sounds like from what you’ve described as your studies, you know, back in Colorado and what you see are, you know, are the benefits of the technology you feel like it could combat those concerns about it or, or kind of counterbalance the objections.

Jessica Lovering (9:37):

Yeah. I mean, nuclear definitely is expensive, but it also provides a lot of value that’s hard to get from other energy sources. And so it’s just important to remember that, you know, solar started out like 300 times more expensive than it is today. And it was good smart policy and investment from the government that brought that cost down and that’s what’s needed for a nuclear, you know, we’re not asking for anything special. Just for nuclear to be valued for the carbon free electricity that it provides the way that renewables are. And you know, nuclear has a lot of unique challenges, but I don’t think it’s impossible to make it you know, cheap and fast.

Kari Hulac (10:16):

Speak to some of those challenges a little bit more whether, you know, in the U.S. or abroad and then maybe what, what you’re recommending to mitigate some of those.

Jessica Lovering (10:26):

Yeah. So it’s just hard to build big things. In particular in the U S and Western Europe, actually all of Europe. So large construction projects, large infrastructure projects you know, not just nuclear, but lots of different things in the U.S. are much more expensive than they are in other countries, take much longer, a lot more delays and, and going over budget. And this is really seen quite dramatically in the recent nuclear builds, particularly the plant in Georgia and the one in South Carolina that was canceled. And these plans are huge. You know, they take a lot of bespoke components or at least these first ones are sort of first of a kind. So that’s really challenging and also estimating costs for the first reactors. You know, nuclear gets a lot of flack for always being more expensive and it’s not that the projects get more expensive, it’s that we didn’t have good projections of what they were going to cost at the start. And so I think for technologies that are much simpler, it might be a little easier to contain the costs. And also if you’re doing more of the fabrication in a factory rather than onsite and you remove a lot of the, the human element to that construction process, that could reduce costs a lot.

Kari Hulac (11:59):

Great. Thank you. So you very briefly mentioned waste as a concern, and obviously that’s one of our focuses at our company. And many people oppose nuclear energy due to their fears about the waste, because it hasn’t been solved yet. It hasn’t been permanently disposed of yet. And I understand one of your objectives is to see the U.S. update the Nuclear Waste Policy Act to reflect a need for multiple pathways for storage and spent fuel management and ultimate disposition. So could, could you share a little bit more about that?

Jessica Lovering (12:30):

Something that I mentioned around, you know, we’ve had a lot of innovation in reactors and we definitely need to see more innovation, you know, like what Deep Isolation is doing around the waste, but also the whole fuel cycle really. And we’re just starting to see that coming, but there needs to be more of a sort of objective or mission from, from the Department of Energy or from the nuclear industry of what they need. But I think right now, since we don’t, we don’t have a solution for nuclear waste. We don’t know what we’re doing with it. I think more options, the better, more diversity of options and not just thinking about, okay, we moved these dry casks to a different place but different ways that we can utilize spent fuel. I think, you know, just for me personally, I think it’s such a waste that all that energy is still in there.

Jessica Lovering (13:25):

If there was a better way to use it, ways to recycle it you know, there’s a lot of challenges on, on reprocessing as well, but it seems to me like, you know, it would be so great if we could utilize it. That being said, of course, no matter what we do, even if advanced reactors, you know, use fuel more efficiently or use spent fuel in some capacity, we’re still going to have something leftover. Even if it’s a smaller amount, even if it’s less long lived or it’s shorter lived, so we still need a place to put it and we still need innovations around how we place it and where we put it. And that’s really both a technical problem and a social problem, getting you know, the social license to put waste in places. So it’s a really thorny problem. But I think there needs to be sort of leadership on it and I’m kind of hopeful that we can maybe make progress in the next administration.

Kari Hulac (14:23):

Speaking of leadership the Good Energy Collective released a policy report, “Our Progressive Policy Agenda for Advanced Nuclear Energy”. I took a look at that. Can you summarize your goals for putting the report out and maybe share some of the recommendations that you’re hopeful about or that are kind of close to your heart? 

Jessica Lovering (14:42):

Yeah, we have, it’s a very broad agenda. We have recommendations for you know, the executive branch of the government, for Congress, and for industry. But it’s really all towards getting nuclear deployed as a means to help reduce emissions. But in a way that’s very responsible and gets true social license from the communities that are hosting these facilities. And so some of the early things we asked for and, and some of them, you know, we’ve, we’ve seen little bits of, but establishing a climate office in the White House, sort of prioritizing climate from the executive branch. We’ve already seen really good exciting stuff there. On the legislative side, you know, we’d love to see a really big increase in funding for the Office of Nuclear Energy and particularly for more sort of mission oriented R&D.

Jessica Lovering (15:40):

So bringing the cost down for nuclear is a big one. But the big thing we want to see from, from Congress and from bills is this thing I mentioned earlier of integrating nuclear into climate bills. So we’ve had a lot of really exciting legislation passed in the last five years around advanced nuclear, but it’s been very nuclear specific. So seeing a broader climate package maybe with some, some compromises between renewables and nuclear and efficiency and electric vehicles and all that going into one thing I think would be really powerful. For the social license side, you know, that’s, that’s tricky, but we’d love to see some, some funding from the government to do pilot programs on more community focused processes for siting these advanced reactors. So more, so more investment going into, you know, not just, okay, how do we fund the construction of the first demonstrations, but how do we fund genuine engagement process early with these potential host communities to really get them to buy into the project to be really supportive.

Jessica Lovering (16:55):

Some of the things that we’ve asked of the nuclear industry are really to, to work with climate groups and try to build bridges you know, don’t, don’t be harping on renewables. Talk more about how nuclear can work with renewables to decarbonize and just be supportive of renewable policies. You can see that in sort of how the industry, you know, releases press statements on potential legislation. It’s a small thing, but it can make a big difference in sort of showing that like we’re all in this together. And also you know, the thing policy-wise, nuclear has a lot of legacy issues you know, from the weapons complex from uranium mining and you know, sometimes there’s this feeling of like, wow, that was a long time ago, that was weapons.

Jessica Lovering (17:46):

That was, you know, not having a civilian nuclear industry, but I think from whether it comes from the Department of Energy or from legislation, we would really love to see accelerated cleanup of a lot of these sites, more investment in mitigation of harms from these legacy sites. More consideration of, of where uranium is mined. There’s a, you know, a push right now to get more domestic uranium production. But we have to be very careful about how that’s done. And so more of a sort of acknowledgement of these injustices of the past, but actual policy to help alleviate them faster and accelerate those, those cleanups and, and other sort of remediations.

Kari Hulac (18:38):

So just recently the U.S. Department of Energy announced 30 million in funding for one of its new advanced reactor demonstration programs. And I guess it’s expected to contribute more than 600 million in the coming years. What are your reactions to this and what do you think it means?

Jessica Lovering (18:56):

I’m really excited about it, particularly the diversity of projects they’ve been funding. It’s not just, okay, we’re all going all in on this one design. They’re really trying to build out this kind of diverse ecosystem of potential reactors and, you know, there’s very different designs. So I think that’s, that’s what I’m excited about. It’s gonna probably take, you know, more money to get these actually demonstrated, but it definitely signals to the private sector that this is an exciting space that’s moving forward. And so hopefully this will bring in a lot more private investment to get some of these projects built.

Kari Hulac (19:35):

So finally, looking forward, I know you gave a keynote speech for the American Nuclear Society titled “What’s In Store for Nuclear in a Biden Administration”. And here we are with one. So, can you give some examples of how the changes made by the new administration might impact advanced nuclear reactor companies and the landscape in general that you’ve been working on with your Good Energy Collective?

Jessica Lovering (19:59):

Yeah, so, so we’ve seen some really positive signs in what the Biden campaign had been pushing around their climate plan. And now seeing, you know, what the, the transition and, and what President Elect Biden has done since he was elected is also really promising. So just some of the things that he’s done already are, you know, appoint people to high-level positions in the White House that are focused on climate. Those were some of the first announcements that were made. So that’s really signaling where his priorities were going to be. Now, obviously there’s this big crisis of coronavirus and the economic downturn that’s been associated with that, but he’s really tying recovery to climate in a very, you know, novel way of saying, you know, we can do green recovery, build back better.

Jessica Lovering (20:55):

So I think there’s going to be some sort of push to have you know stimulus or recovery that’s tied to environmental goals and that’s, that’s really exciting. You know, there’s a lot of jobs in nuclear, so that could be something very promising in some sort of package, but on his climate plan side, there’s a couple of really positive things. So one is that you know, right when Biden won the primary you know, his main competitor in the end was Bernie Sanders who’s, who’s quite anti-nuclear historically, but they, Biden and Sanders did this series of unity task forces to kind of bridge the different factions within the democratic party. And their recommendations on climate change were really interesting because they actually mentioned advanced nuclear several times. And just to have something with, you know, Sanders, AOC’s name on it, that talks about needing advanced nuclear, it was very exciting.

Jessica Lovering (21:51):

And they have some in Biden’s climate plan. He has some language around SMRs and specific things like he wants to make an ARPA for climate. So an “ARPA-C” and one of the first suggestions that he has for what that could do would be a program to reduce the cost of SMRs by 50%. So that’s like a very clear target that, you know, has really been lacking in sort of the federal government’s response or policy on nuclear so far. So those are some very positive hints that not just that Biden is taking climate seriously, but that he understands that it’s really about building things you know, building a lot of renewables, building a lot of nuclear, building a lot of transmission lines. And so that, that focus on, on infrastructure and jobs with respect to climate, I think is really positive. And it is going to get a lot broader of a coalition to come together around potential legislation.

Kari Hulac (22:55):

Well, great. Well, thank you so much for joining us today and best of luck too, with your work. 

Jessica Lovering (23:01):

Thank you. Have a great day.

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