Blog by Mary Woollen, September 10, 2019

Acknowledging a Need for Change at the RadWaste Summit

Las Vegas Sign

It is said of Las Vegas that “whatever happens here, stays here”.  Vegas—a city of lights, sin, dreams, casinos, pop-up marriages, gambling, wine slushies and— a conference on nuclear waste.  I will keep the Vegas promise and remain quiet about all—except the last one.  Get this…

For three days I participated in the RadWaste Summit on behalf of Deep Isolation. It was a large gathering of people from the US and abroad, assembled to participate in discussions about the challenges and possible solutions to the management and disposition of nuclear waste. There were panel discussions on budget, policy and governance, high-level waste transportation, NRC and National Lab topics and my favorite–the critical importance of stakeholder engagement (what I call The Queen of Hearts). There was no pyrotechnics in these stage shows, but the topics were hot and steamy and the audience riveted.

And oh, the mingling between sessions was everything you could hope for in bucolic setting of palm trees, faux Grecian pillars, gold carpets, bad art and the distant ping of slot machines.   As I strode through the small groups of male and female session participants holding their Cokes and talking in hushed tones, I caught a few errant words such as… “Cask impact limiters”,”10-CFR 72”,” consent”, “engineered barriers”, “Atlas”, “decommission” (heard that one many times!) “kiss”, or maybe it was “CIS?”, and over and over mention of a certain mountain.  It was serious talk that is seldom heard in open public settings. 

After three days spent traipsing between a room of booths with vendors and swag (my favorite being a little spongy green man from Area-51), the large ballroom and hallway conversations, I came away with this–it is time for a change.  The decades of diligently clinging to the dictates of outdated policy and technology are over and we need to make way for innovation and boldness.  This sentiment was expressed by high-level governmental appointees, community groups, legislators, tribal nations, and CEO’s.  It was a common thread woven and bound tightly throughout –like the cursed Mummy in the Luxor Sphinx.

Rita Baranwal, Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy at DOE, spoke about how she wanted to apply the brilliance of innovative technologies into the nuclear setting and get them on center stage.  She decried the fact that although the U.S. is a leader in developing advanced designs and technologies that could provide game-changing solutions to outmoded ones, we are lagging behind other countries who are deploying them.  She spoke of a vision for updating dated regulations to hasten the implementation of new technologies and for allowing more public-private partnerships as a new way of doing business and getting things done more safely and cost-effectively. 

Hmm. That reminded me of a company I work for. The need for change was also acknowledged in areas of stale policy, regulatory reform and another one of my favorites, strengthened environmental protection. That also reminded me of Deep Isolation’s commitment that the maximum radiation dose to the most exposed member of the public at all times after closure of the horizontal drillhole repository from all exposure pathways combined will not be greater than 10 millirems per year. Bravo!!

All this and more took place in three days of what were record-setting 108-degree temperatures outside.  The world climate temperature is changing, and with it, we need a change in our collective temperament. Without it, we may end up like the garish Sphinx I could see from my window.  So, quite the contrary of keeping what was said and done quietly while spending time near the Strip. It is time to shout from the rooftops or the top of the Eiffel Tower, that we need to combine the innovation of technology with human courage to create what we want and need*.

* I am not referring to the Slotzilla Zipline (https://vegasexperience.com/videos/fly-the-slotzilla-zipline-2/) But if you go you have GOT to try it; you can hold your wine slushie while doing so.