By M. Joshua Silverman, Department of History, Carnegie Mellon University
I. Framing the Problem
The United States is at a "gridlock" position regarding nuclear waste management. Existing nuclear power plants, left to manage wastes in the absence of a coherent national policy, have become de facto long-term storage sites, using facilities designed only to temporarily house such materials. Radioactive waste has emerged as one of the issues inhibiting further development of the nuclear power industry, and the safety implications of forcing every power plant to handle wastes on a longer-term basis are severe.
Former nuclear weapons production sites face even more significant problems with radioactive waste management. The scale and scope of the cleanup at these sites is enormous; officials estimate that seventy-five years and $300 billion will be required to remediate these facilities. The Department of Energy (DOE), which is responsible for these sites, faces both an environmental and an administrative quagmire as it attempts to clean up after fifty years of nuclear weapons production.
The lesson that follows is an introduction to these issues, focusing on an understanding of how, over time, the problems associated with radioactive waste have developed. This lesson is predicated on the assumption that radioactive waste management is not a single task to be accomplished but is rather a multidimensional issue that needs to be understood and addressed physically, socially, and historically.
The multiple aspects of radioactive waste management this lesson examines include physical and value-oriented issues. What radioactive waste is, where it is, how it has been generated and handled, what some of the difficulties are in handling, treating, and disposing of the stuff--these are central issues in radioactive waste managment. Values are also critical in understanding radioactive waste, and must be understood in their social and historical contexts--how radioactive waste has been understood (or misunderstood, as the case may be), how it has meant different things to different people, and how these meanings have changed over time. An understanding of these value-oriented issues will enable a discussion of the political problem of radioactive waste, how it has developed into a metaphorical "hot potato" that nobody is willing to hold. Understand both values and the physical aspects of radioactive waste will help foster an understanding of the bureaucratic problems involved in managing this material --resolving the radioactive waste problem will involve administrative and managerial feats that the DOE has not yet shown itself capable of handling.
II. The Pre-History of the Problem: Radiation and Health in the early Twentieth Century
The radioactive waste "problem" is not a new one; health and safety concerns have been associated with radioactive materials throughout the twentieth century. Indeed, such concerns have existed almost from the discovery of radioactivity in 1895, when a German physicist, Willem Roentgen, identified what he called "x-rays," and developed a technique for producing them. The medical community quickly adopted x-rays as a useful diagnostic tool; within a year, x-ray machines could be found in every major city in the U.S. In 1898, Pierre and Marie Curie announced that they had identified a new element, radium, that had radioactive properties. Radium, like x-rays, was adopted for several industrial uses; for example, workers in the 1910s and 1920s painted watch dials with radium so that they would glow in the dark.
Observers soon noted that these radioactive materials were associated with harmful side effects. Medical x-ray workers and many scientists were suffering from skin burns, blood disorders, and a variety of otherwise rare cancers; indeed, Marie Curie suffered terribly from bone diseases stemming from her prolonged exposure to radium and other radioactive materials. The women who worked as watch-dial painters began to develop horrible forms of jaw and throat problems. Health workers learned that these women would use their mouths to "point" their brushes, thereby ingesting what often amounted to lethal quantities of radioactive compounds.
Several interested organizations and individuals moved, in response to the recognition of the health effects of radioactive materials, to form independent bodies to study the issues and set voluntary standards for exposure. In the 1920s their efforts resulted in the formation of the International Committee on Radiation Protection; in the United States, the National Committee on Radiation Protection was also established as an affiliated organization. These organizations provided provided self-governance for radiation-related industrial hygiene for several decades.
III. The Manhattan Project: Large-Scale Work with Radioactive Materials
Industrial work with radioactive materials was relatively small in scale through the 1930s, but events during and after World War II changed matters dramatically. Indeed, the work done to construct atomic weapons, begun as war raged across Europe and the Pacific, continues to have profound environmental and political effects in the contemporary world.
A. The Decision(s) to Build the Bomb
Efforts to construct an atomic bomb in the United States began in the late 1930s, under the assumption that the Allies were in a race with Germany. In 1938, two German physicists announced that they had demonstrated fission--the splitting of the atom. Scientists in Europe and the U.S. recognized that a controlled fission reaction could be made into a new, incredibly destructive weapon. Many of the most eminent physicists in the U.S. were emigres from Germany, Austria, Hungary, and Italy; having experienced fascism, they were alarmed by the prospect of an atomic weapon in the hands of Hitler's regime. The efforts of these emigre scientists were crucial in prompting the American government to undertake what became known as the Manhattan Project.
The Manhattan Project refers to the efforts of the Manhattan Engineering District (MED), the organization created by the U.S. Army to carry out the atomic bomb development program. This was truly an enormous industrial and scientific undertaking, and was the largest construction project ever undertaken at the time. The MED spent over $5 billion during the war, of which nearly half went for constructing production facilities and towns at Oak Ridge, Hanford, and Los Alamos during the years 1943-45.
B. Health and Safety in the Manhattan Engineering District
Radiation safety was a priority in the MED. Personnel protection was strongly emphasized, even more than in other types of production work, and the NCRP safety guidelines proved quite effective in this regard. Scientists were in short supply and even enlisted men (who died by the thousands overseas) were well protected. The unique nature of the research and production work made trained personnel even more valuable than normal; there simply were no replacements available. Management thus emphasized health and safety precautions, as the project could not afford to lose trained personnel to radiation exposure.
Site selection reflected safety concerns of a different sort. For example, the MED chose to locate its primary plutonium production facility (Hanford) in eastern Washington, rather than nearer to the laboratories in Chicago or Oak Ridge, because of fears of the possible consequences of a major accident. The Hanford facility utilized new and untested production techniques with extremely dangerous substances. Managers did not know exactly what the risks of operating such a plant were, but they assumed that they were significant. Thus, they chose to place the facility in a remote location so that if a catastrophic accident did occur it would affect relatively few people.
Waste management was not a high priority during the war; this is not a surprise given the pressures of defeating Germany and Japan. Although managers clearly understood that production processes would generate vast quantities of highly toxic materials, especially from the separations processes at Hanford, they did not give much thought to the development of a long-term waste disposal plan. The MED sought to minimize the immediate risks associated with these wastes, but deliberately deferred developing disposal solutions for the various waste management problems until after the war. Even though waste management and health concerns were re-evaluated after the war ended, the MED never made the solution of waste problems a priority. As it turned out, neither did its successor, the Atomic Energy Commission.
C. The Legacy of the MED and the rise of the Cold War
The MED was ultimately successful in developing atomic bombs, two of which were dropped on Japan in August, 1945. Atomic weapons became a central element of American diplomacy from the moment of their first use, and "the bomb" played a critical role in the emerging Cold War between the US and the USSR. The tensions between East and West emerged even before the war ended and escalated throughout the 1940s and 1950s. As a result, with the exception of a brief post-war lull, the American nuclear weapons production effort begun during the war continued at a high level well into the 1960s.
The rapid transition from WWII to the Cold War helps to explain the lack of attention paid by the Manhattan Engineering District and the Atomic Energy Commission to waste managment issues. As atomic weapons became a defining symbolic and literal expression of American power, the need to continue production at all costs continued. There was no extended post-war shut-down of the wartime production network, no time to develop new approaches to waste production and management. The pressure of the Cold War made for a very uneasy peace indeed.
IV. The Atomic Energy Commission, 1947-1974
The Atomic Energy Act of 1946 officially created the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) as a civilian agency with exclusive control over "fissionable" materials. The AEC inherited the facilities and personnel of the Manhattan Engineering District on January 1, 1947.
A. The AEC and Nuclear Weapons Production
The AEC's first mission was to expand the capacity of the nuclear weapons production complex, both by adding onto existing facilities and by constructing numerous additional plants. These plants were scattered across the country, and were run by a variety of corporate and university contractors.
AEC Nuclear Weapons Production System:
Partial List of Facilities and Contractors as of 1955
Los Alamos Laboratory
University of California
Nevada Test Site
Electrical Engineering Co.)
The unique nature of the industrial production occurring at the AEC's facilities meant that there were few industrial precedents for dealing with radioactive waste. Even within the production network, tasks and techniques varied widely. As a result, contractors tended to follow practices that they had learned through their prior industrial experience. This led to widely divergent waste management practices throughout the production system.
Given the wide diversity of production practices, range of contractor backgrounds, and autonomous bureaucratic networks within the AEC during this period, it is not suprising to learn that the production system did not operate with a centralized waste management plan. However, some researchers paid significant attention to radioactive waste during the 1950s. By the end of the decade the consensus of expert opinion favored certain types of geologic disposal as the best strategy for the long-term managment of highly radioactive waste, and each site was responsible for the handling of the wastes produced there.
Although more attention was paid to the issue than during World War II, it is clear that waste management was not a central concern during the first two decades of the Cold War. Instead, the increased tensions between the U.S. and the USSR led to continually expanding production levels which in turn fed an ever-spiraling arms race. Waste management concerns were still not given high priority when the production system faced continuously increasing demands. The result of these demands? The U.S., which had one atomic bomb remaining at the end of WWII, had several dozen nuclear weapons by the end of the 1940s, and several thousand by the end of the 1950s; in the late 1980s, the US had over 80,000 nuclear warheads, many of which carried a destructive capacity literally hundreds of times more powerful than the bombs dropped on Japan in 1945.
B. Nuclear Power: a brief history
In addition to producing nuclear weapons, the Atomic Energy Commission also had the responsibility for developing peaceful uses of atomic power. This effort became more pronounced after amendments to Atomic Energy Act in 1954 made commercial nuclear power possible; prior to that time private control of nuclear fuel was illegal. Commercial nuclear power has its roots in the "peaceful atom" of the Cold War period. In December, 1953, President Dwight Eisenhower committed the United States to the development of applications for atomic science to benefit all of humanity. The program he initiated, known as "Atoms for Peace, included a sizable research and development effort and was accompanied by an even more effective public relations campaign.
Administrative and economic difficulties proved to be as formidable as technological ones in nuclear power development. No insurance company was willing to cover the possible costs arising from a large-scale nuclear accident; even one such incident would bankrupt the industry. Congress responded, in 1957, with the Price-Anderson Act, which limited the maximum liability of a firm operating a nuclear power plant to $560 million--a fraction of the estimated costs of a major accident.
The first facility devoted specifically to the production of nuclear power for non-military use opened at Shippingsport, PA (just west of Pittsburgh) in 1957. This was not truly a commercial venture; although nominally controlled by Duquesne Light Company, the costs were primarily borne by the AEC as a pilot project. Electric utilities began to invest in nuclear plants in the in mid-1960s, and the industry boomed as the cost of fossil fuels skyrocketed in response to the Arab Oil Embargo of 1973. The industry suffered a major setback in 1979, however, when a malfunction at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant (TMI) caused a partial core meltdown. The combination of cost escalation, waste management and plant decommissioning concerns, and the TMI accident effectively crippled the industry. While over one hundred nuclear power plants continue to operate in the United States, no new plants have been authorized since 1979, and many plants already under construction at the time of the TMI accident were never completed.
U.S. firms embarked on a nuclear power strategy under the assumption that the radioactive waste management problem was not especially difficult and would be solved relatively quickly. Subsequent events would prove otherwise.
C. AEC efforts in radioactive waste management: "Closing Ranks"
Initial radioactive waste management efforts were analogous in intent to traditional industrial and municipal waste management practice. The AEC sought a "sink" in which it could dump, flush, or vent radioactive waste products. Sometimes the sink was the ocean; in the latter 1950s, the AEC licensed commercial boats to haul 55-gallon drums filled with radioactive wastes out to sea, to be dumped overboard into deep water. Managers reasoned that the barrels would sink deeply enough that, even if they corroded or ruptured, the wastes would be sufficiently diluted in the ocean to pose no danger. Numerous facilities flushed wastes into cooling ponds, which often seeped into nearby streams or rivers. Air was another sink; at Hanford, the greatest amount of radioactivity released off-site came through the stacks or from venting and evaporation of contaminated gases. Various on-site dumps or landfills were utilized, and often wastes were pumped into large holding tanks pending final disposal. Many of these initial efforts would prove inadequate on environmental grounds or unsustainable in the face of public opposition.
Reprocessing spent nuclear fuel was another important waste management strategy. This activity recovered plutonium and other fission products from spent uranium fuel rods, which could then be used for weapons or nuclear fuel. Waste material was thus transformed into a valuable resource, although the act of reprocessing still generated volatile waste products. Ironically, reprocessing had the effect of exacerbating the waste management problem in the U.S. even as it reduced the overall volume of radioactive waste material. The ability to reprocess some material led managers to ignore the radioactive waste problem by making the need for a long-term disposal option appear less significant.
Reprocessing may yet play a significant role in a long-term waste management strategy, but the U.S. stopped reprocessing nuclear fuel during the late 1970s by order of President Jimmy Carter, who wanted to curtail the availability of the weapons-grade material produced by the process. This decision turned what had been a resource back into a waste product, and made the lack of a viable long-term disposal strategy for radioactive waste even more apparent.
The AEC considered high-level wastes created by commercial nuclear power reactors to be a separate problem from the wastes produced at its weapons production facilities. Its plans to deal with commercial-side wastes received more public attention than any activities occurring inside the production facilities.
By the late 1950s, experts involved with the commercial waste problem had recommended a strategy of geologic storage of high-level radioactive waste from commercial nuclear power plants as the preferred long-term disposal option. By isolating wastes deep in underground caverns, these materials could be safety removed from contact with the biosphere. By the early 1960s, geologic storage was the accepted waste management strategy within the AEC.
In 1970, having settled on geologic storage as the best permanent disposal solution, the AEC announced plans to construct a repository for high-level radioactive waste from commercial power plants in an abandoned salt mine near Lyons, Kansas. The agency faced unexpected external opposition to its plan, and after strong challenges from regional representatives, the AEC withdrew its proposal.
The Lyons episode is important for a number of reasons. First, it meant that the planned national storage facility would not be built as the agency had expected. The AEC's experts had "closed ranks" around the geologic disposal option; working in a secretive, classified environment, they had long since squelched any internal dissent and thus were unprepared when they encountered opposition from external organizations and the public. Lyons also revealed that the AEC's expertise was limited--the agency could be successfully challenged by external organizations and agencies concerned about environmental damage or local health and safety, and also by opponents of nuclear power.
The AEC's experience at Lyons signalled a significant change, as the agency had until then enjoyed near-complete control over the operational aspects of the nation's nuclear program. The AEC typically operated outside the realm of public accountability; much of its business was conducted in secret to protect national security, and it reported to only one Congressional body, the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, with whom it had a generally favorable relationship. As the primary supporter of scientific and technological work relating to all things nuclear, the agency had most of the nation's experts on its payroll and access to the latest results and findings. But in the 1970s, the AEC--and the nation's nuclear industries--were entering into a new and uncertain period.
V. The beginnings of controversy: the 1970s
The AEC was split into two agencies in 1974. Regulation of the commercial nuclear power industry was shifted into the newly formed Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), while production and research activities went to the Energy Research and Development Authority; two years later ERDA became the Department of Energy (DOE). The creation of the NRC as an independent agency meant that the commercial nuclear power industry was no longer regulated by the same organization that also provided it with technical support, a conflict of interest that had long irked critics of the nation's nuclear program.
The administrative split did not create an equivalent external regulator for weapons production facilities, however. Despite the recent passage of federal environmental legislation--most notably, the National Environmental Policy Act (1970) and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (1976)--and despite growing public concerns about pollution and environmental damage, the DOE claimed immunity from external oversight on the grounds of national security. Thus, outside agencies and the general public were privy to only limited information regarding environmental activities at nuclear weapons production facilities.
Yet the DOE's operating environment was beginning to change. The Joint Committee on Atomic Energy suspended operations shortly after the AEC was split up, which meant that the newly-formed Energy Department found itself subject to oversight from numerous Congressional committees that previously lacked the authority to examine the agency's activities. Multiple Congressional investigations and reports in the latter 1970s and early 1980s helped to reveal the extent of environmental problems at several major sites, although they rarely led to substantive changes by the DOE.
During the 1970s and well into the 1980s, the DOE not only fell out of step with public sentiments about environmental protection but also lagged behind the efforts of private industry to more effectively control pollution. While public concerns focused on the relatively well-controlled wastes produced by commercial nuclear power plants, the numerous facilities involved in nuclear weapons production were shielded by a wall of secrecy. As this wall was breached in the 1980s, concerns about the public health consequences of nuclear weapons production increased dramatically.
VI. Paralysis: 1980s-present
The AEC's failure at Lyons left a void in planning for the long-term disposal of commercial radioactive wastes. The agency's experts had "closed ranks" around the Lyons facility and had difficulties developing alternative strategies for dealing with radioactive waste. Congress ultimately imposed a legislative solution with the Nuclear Waste Repository Act of 1982 (NWPA).
The events that followed the passage of the NWPA reveal the difficulties of imposing a legislative fix on a problem that has not been clearly defined or even fully understood. The NWPA mandated a timeline for the creation of a storage facility; this timeline has been repeatedly violated, and at this point the DOE is at least a decade behind schedule. The NWPA established a process for selecting a permanent storage facility in which numerous locations around the country were to be assessed as possible sites. The selection process ultimately fell apart, and a 1987 Congressional amendedment to the NWPA mandated consideration of only one location, Nevada's Yucca Mountain. Since the act required that DOE establish a permanent repository, the elimination of all other sites from review meant that Yucca Mountain was named as the location before the feasibility studies and environmental assessments had been completed. As might be expected, this situation has bred major litigation as well as significant opposition from forces in the state of Nevada.
There is another important political dimension to the repository siting issue. Some opponents of nuclear power oppose a "solution" to the radioactive waste problem because the lack of a solution prevents the industry from further growth. Nuclear power cannot expand in the United States until the problem of where to dispose of radioactive waste is solved. Thus, opposition to Yucca Mountain (or any other proposal) is to a significant extent grounded in factors apart from the environmental impacts or technical considerations of the facility, which further inhibits resolution of the issue.
The AEC's troubles with the Lyons facility also foreshadowed the increasingly powerful local role in radioactive waste management, a role that has been termed NIMBY-ism. NIMBY stands for "Not In My Back Yard," and the NIMBY mentality has made siting all manner of potentially hazardous facilities exceptionally difficult; these concerns affect practically every new siting decision for industrial, technological, or waste management facilities. The state of Nevada is fighting a classic NIMBY battle against the Yucca Mountain facility, and low-level waste disposal facilities (also required by NWPA) are also difficult to site. Property owners and regional residents simply do not want facilities that might pose health risks and devalue property in their proverbial back-yards.
The growth of the NIMBY-ism reflects dramatically eroded confidence in government authority and scientific expertise, and has become a major factor not only in radioactive waste management but in a variety of environmentally sensitive facility-siting issues. The NIMBY mind-set has been fueled in no small part by revelations of environmental and public health damage done by nuclear weapons production and testing, as well as other incidents of corporate or bureaucratic disregard for public health and safety.
The bulk of the information regarding nuclear weapons production has become available only in the last few years, a result of the changing institutional context of the Department of Energy. DOE had claimed immunity from external environmental oversight until 1986, when a federal appeals court upheld a ruling that the agency was subject to federal environmental legislation. This case, LEAF v. Hodel, ended the Department's self-policing of its environmental affairs, and a host of waste management problems at DOE production sites were subsequently revealed.
The LEAF v. Hodel decision took place during a time of great change on the international scene. The Cold War was clearly thawing; in 1989, the Communist Bloc collapsed, the Berlin Wall came down, and the Cold War was over. By the time of the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991, the DOE had acknowledged that its nuclear weapons production mission had ended and that its primary task was to clean up its facilities. This shift has enabled more openness from DOE, a significant change of policy for the agency. Increased public access to information, ironically, increased general mis-trust of the agency, as evidence mounted that the DOE had been hiding problems for decades.
Radioative waste is not a single "thing" that can be isolated and dealt with with a magic bullet. Rather, radioactive waste management involves numerous physical, political, and cultural factors in a dynamic, ongoing process. Perhaps the most important player in the radioactive waste process is the Department of Energy. The DOE is in the midst of a transition from an agency concerned with the production of nuclear weapons to one whose goal is to clean up after five decades of production. The bureaucratic and technological problems involved in this transition are each severe, and will have major impacts on radioactive waste management in the United States.
Readings for this lesson:
Susan Fallows Tierney, "The Nuclear Waste Disposal Controversy," in Dorothy Nelkin, ed., Controversy (Second Edition). Beverly Hills: Sage Publications, 1984: 91-110.
Andrew C. Kadak, "An Intergenerational Approach to High-Level Waste Disposal." Nuclear News (July, 1997): 49-51.
Adri de la Bruheze, "Closing Ranks: Definition and Stabilization of Radioactive Wastes in the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, 1945-1960," in Weibe Bijker and John Law, eds., Shaping Technology/Building Society: Studies in Sociotechnical Change. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1992: 140-174.
Matthew Wald, "Caught Between the Risks of Haste and Hesitation." The New York Times, September 29, 1997.
Matthew Wald, "Admitting Error at a Weapons Plant." The New York Times, March 23, 1998.
Questions for class discussion:
1. One issue that the readings discuss, in different ways, is the role of the public in radioactive waste management issues versus the role of experts.
A. - How has the role of the public changed over time?
- What role should the public play in radioactive waste management?
B. - How has the role of experts changed over time?
- What role should expertise play in the radioactive waste management problem?
Does this history provide any lessons for current and future behavior in determining how much public versus how much expert opinion/input on this issue?
2. In what ways does the radioactive waste problem differ from or resemble other waste management problems you have considered in this class?
3. We can all agree that itís best to make informed decisions; sometimes, however, decisions get made under conditions of uncertainty. How much do we need to know before acting?
(Kadak, for example, points out that the radioactive waste problem is one in which decisions cannot be made under conditions of complete certainty. Waiting for more information may be an option, but Tierney points out that inaction has been a surrogate for decision-making, that not acting is a choice that has in fact shaped the operational environment. The New York Times headline sums up the dilemma of the managers at Hanford; they are "Caught between the risks of haste and hesitation.")