Monday, Aug. 7, 2017 | 2 a.m.
When Italian scientist Enrico Fermi built the first atomic pile (later called reactor) underneath the stands at Stagg Field at the University of Chicago in 1942, he created something that had never been seen on earth: nuclear waste from spent uranium. Although Fermi never commented on the subject directly, he knew that this waste had to be disposed of safely.
Now, three-quarters of a century later, we are hardly any closer to this goal. In 1987, after years of procrastination and bureaucratic entanglements, Congress specified Nevada as the final site for the tens of thousands of tons of uranium fuel rods from scores of nuclear reactors. They would end up at Yucca Mountain.
But Nevada politicians objected strongly to the finger pointing at them. The few officials who thought the idea was worth exploring were regarded as pariahs. Under the Obama administration, Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada became majority leader, and he persuaded the president to drop the project. After $15 billion had been spent, all taxpayers have to show is a hole in the ground and thousands of pages of studies. Talk about government waste.Nuclear waste is the ultimate NIMBY. Everyone is in favor of doing something about it — but Not In My Back Yard.
Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, the 14th secretary of energy, citing a moral obligation, has proposed funding for Yucca Mountain again. He said, “We can no longer kick the can down the road,” a road now stretching in time for 75 years. But time has not softened the view of Nevada representatives, and the $120 million is likely to go down the same drain as the $15 billion spent previously.
Is there a way out? Yes, there is, but it can’t rely solely on scientific studies attempting to prove that a site is “safe.” I once asked the former head of the Yucca project if any member of the public had ever gone to the library where hundreds of documents, comprising tens of thousands of pages, were stored. His answer, given reluctantly: “No.”
The idea is similar to the auction system for overbooked airlines devised by the late Julian Simon, a master of using economics to solve problems. (His system did not work in the case of Dr. David Dao, dragged off a United flight to Louisville, because the amount offered by the flight attendants to passengers was too small. United now says it will offer up to $10,000 to get someone to leave a flight, thus avoiding a public relations disaster.)
The procedure held on flights is technically called a “reverse Dutch auction.” Selling flowers in Holland is big business. Because flowers wilt quickly, the sale must be quick. The auctioneer starts at a high price and the price is lowered on a clock running backward. When a buyer feels the price is right, he presses a button and the sale is complete.
But flowers are desirable and nuclear waste is not. So the auction for a nuclear waste site would have to start at a low amount, gradually increasing if no state came forward. The advantage of this system is that the fickle finger of fate would not point at any state: They would be self-selected when the price was right.
Would the waste end up in a swamp or a national park? Absolutely not. A number of states have dry areas, areas which have been dry for thousands of years. A state coming forward would have to meet rigorous scientific criteria.
However, the rules for Yucca Mountain, specifying that the site would have to be dry for 100,000 or a million years, are unreasonable. In a hundred thousand years, the Amazon basin could be a desert and New York a rain forest. It is simply unwarranted hubris to make predictions of this type, which could never be verified. A millennium should be sufficient. After all, a thousand years ago the New World was just a Viking legend.
After a state comes forward — when the price offered is right — environmental studies can go forward to show the chosen site is suitable. The result: A state that is satisfied, receiving a large pot of money whose level they have chosen. Secretary Perry is hailed as a genius, having accomplished what 13 previous secretaries could not. Finally, after being kicked for decades, the can comes to rest. Julian Simon, you had the right idea.
Herbert Inhaber is the former coordinator of the Office of Risk Analysis at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and is the author of “Slaying the NIMBY Dragon.” He wrote this for InsideSources.com.