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Contributors. Rodney K. Baxter, Julia G. Brody, Bruce Clary, Lori Cramer, William H. Desvousges, Riley E. Dunlap, Douglas Easterling, Judy K. Fleishman, James Flynn, William R. Freudenburg, Michael E. Kraft, Richard S. Krannich, Howard Kunreuther, Mark Layman, Ronald L. Little, Robert Cameron Mitchell, Alvin H. Mushkatel, Joanne M. Nigg, K. David Pijawka, Eugene A. Rosa, Paul Slovic
"This book is unique in providing the most intensive and extensive empirical study of public opinion relating specifically to two proposed waste sites. It pulls together in one volume a variety of high-quality studies, most by well known and respected researchers. The volume will command attention from specialists right away."—Walter A. Rosenbaum, University of Florida
Public Opinion and Nuclear Waste Policymaking
Michael E. Kraft, Eugene A. Rosa, and Riley E. Dunlap
The safe disposal of radioactive wastes from nuclear power plants and national defense activity is a highly complex technical and managerial problem. It is also a profoundly difficult social and political issue. For the more than forty years during which high-level waste has accumulated in the United States and other nations, far more attention has been devoted to the technical and management problem than to the social and political one. Yet understanding the social and political dimensions of nuclear waste disposal may be far more crucial to the resolution of conflicts over repository siting. For that reason, this book brings together some of the most recent and extensive empirical research available on public concerns about radioactive waste and the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) repository program, both nationally and within selected states.
The role that public perceptions and opinions may play in nuclear waste policymaking is vividly illustrated by recent controversies over several different DOE programs. In the fall of 1988, a series of news reports documented widespread chemical and radioactive contamination at seventeen DOE nuclear weapons plants and laboratories in twelve states, attributable in large part to the department's previous neglect of health, safety, and environmental responsibilities. With site clean-up costs estimated at over $100 billion, the revelations provoked public outrage, lawsuits, and congressional investigations. That response, in turn, prompted Secretary of Energy James D. Watkins to call for a fundamental change in DOE culture, emphasizing a commitment to environmental protection and open decisionmaking that he hoped would improve the department's credibility with the American public (Watkins, 1989).
Also in 1988, DOE was forced to postpone the opening of its Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) near Carlsbad, New Mexico (designed to store transuranic wastes from atomic weapons production), and in 1989 DOE had to abandon its initial two-year, $2 billion effort to assess the technical suitability of the Yucca Mountain, Nevada, site being considered for the nation's only civilian high-level nuclear waste repository (HLNWR). In the first case, experts both within and outside of DOE, including the National Academy of Sciences, had questioned the design and construction of the facility and the expected environmental impacts (Schneider, 1988), bringing further public scrutiny of the project. In the second case, criticism of the quality of DOE's technical work by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and others, and adamant opposition from the state of Nevada, led Secretary Watkins late in 1989 to overturn the department's prior assessments of the site's suitability. He launched a major reorganization of the DOE's Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management and promised to increase attention to "institutional" issues such as public opinion and federal-state relations (Wald, 1989; Lippman, 1989; DOE, 1989).
As these and similar developments in the late 1980s and early 1990s have shown, public acceptability can be a vitally important and even a determinative force in the nuclear waste policy process. For that reason alone, the public's views of radioactive waste and repository siting merit careful assessment by scholars and decisionmakers. We need to understand the public's perceptions, beliefs, and attitudes toward nuclear waste and toward a repository to store it: the nature of these cognitions, how they are formed, what forces shape them, how they change over time, and how they differ among various population subgroups. Such understanding is essential to evaluating public acceptability of various waste disposal options; it is also crucial to decisionmakers charged with formulating and implementing nuclear waste policies.
The study of the public's views of nuclear waste is also an interesting topic in its own right, particularly as a case of perception of risky technologies. The substantial literature on risk perception (e.g., Gould et al., 1988; Slovic, 1987; Covello, 1983) raises intriguing questions about the public's view of technological risks in modern society, as does survey research on public attitudes toward nuclear energy and radioactive waste (Nealey, Melber, and Rankin, 1983; Walker, Gould, and Woodhouse, 1983; Freudenburg and Rosa, 1984; Nealey, 1990). The new research collected here follows the path of previous work by attempting to describe and explain public perceptions of and attitudes toward nuclear waste, but it does so in a diversity of geographic contexts, from a variety of perspectives, and through the use of various methodologies. It also emphasizes questions related to repository siting that we believe have significant implications for nuclear waste policy.
To underscore the relationship between public sentiment and the policy process, in this introduction we review the status of nuclear waste as a policy problem, trace the development of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act (NWPA) of 1982 and its amendment, the Nuclear Waste Policy Amendments Act of 1987, and assess the public's role in policy implementation to date. We also discuss conceptual and methodological issues in the study of public views of nuclear waste. We reserve questions concerning the policy implications of the research for the individual chapters that follow and for our concluding chapter.
Nuclear Waste as a Policy Problem
The need for a high-level nuclear waste repository derives chiefly from the federal government's decision forty years ago to promote and to subsidize heavily the commercial use of atomic energy. Since the first nuclear reactor was put on-line at Shippingsport, Pennsylvania, in late 1957, commercial wastes (unavoidable by-products of fission reaction) have been accumulating in water-filled basins at reactor sites around the nation (U.S. Office of Technology Assessment [OTA] 1985:21–36). The bulk of these wastes are in the form of spent fuel rods, removed from the reactor after they are no longer fissionable. The spent fuel rods, along with other material from civilian power plants, represent the majority of the waste (as measured by radioactivity) to be stored in the planned repository, although the quantity of military wastes is also substantial. Hence, the issue of nuclear waste disposal is inherently linked to the commercial use of nuclear power.
Over the past decade, most analysts assumed that commercial nuclear energy had a dismal future for a variety of reasons: economics principally, but also because of environmental, public health, and social factors (Freudenburg and Rosa, 1984). Nuclear power had ceased to be competitive due to inflation-driven cost overruns and the effect of restrictive regulatory requirements and delays caused by public opposition, among other factors (Morone and Woodhouse, 1989). After 1978, no additional nuclear plants were ordered by the nation's utilities, and all of those ordered after 1974 were eventually canceled. For these reasons, by 1988 DOE projected that growth in nuclear-generated electricity would decline by the year 2000 (DOE, 1988a, 1988b).
More recently, however, increasing concern over the environmental consequences of fossil fuel use (especially global climate change) and other energy policy considerations have led to re-evaluations of nuclear power and, from some analysts, to more optimistic projections of its future (Nealey, 1990). Consistent with these expectations, in mid-1989 the NRC approved the streamlined licensing procedures for power plants that, for years, the nuclear power industry had sought as a way of reducing the construction delays and startup costs of new plants. The main provisions of the new licensing procedures, which eliminated the need for an operating license separate from a construction license, were struck down in November 1990 by the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. The ruling remained under appeal in late 1992.
Notwithstanding the setback of the court ruling and the eventual outcome of that appeal, efforts toward revitalization of the nuclear industry received a strong boost in early 1991 from the Bush administration with the release of its National Energy Strategy (DOE, 1991). Perhaps most striking among its proposals was the call to expand nuclear capacity from the then current (as of December 31, 1990) 99.5 gigawatts (Nuclear News, 1991) to between 190 and 290 gigawatts by the year 2030 (a gigawatt is 1000 megawatts). Meeting these objectives would require the construction of between 100 and 200 new plants, at a current average plant size of 1000 megawatts, in that forty-year period—or between a doubling and tripling of the current 112 operating plants. The required number of plants would be considerably larger, by as much as two-thirds, if the industry adopts the midsize (600 megawatt) design recommended by DOE.
To fulfill these extraordinary projections, the National Energy Strategy, consonant with industry demands, emphasized regulatory reform: "An overriding theme behind these goals is to remove undue regulatory and institutional barriers to the use of nuclear power for generating electricity in the United States. These include some barriers to constructing new nuclear power plants, to extending the life of existing generating units, and to disposing of power plant radioactive waste" (DOE, 1991:108). Key among these efforts were proposals to reinstate the streamlined licensing procedures established by the NRC but struck down by the courts. In late 1992, Congress approved, and President Bush signed, the Energy Policy Act of 1992 (Pub. L. 102–486), which included these provisions.
Regardless of whether nuclear power enjoys a revival in the 1990s and the twenty-first century, the nation must deal with accumulated radioactive waste as well as future wastes to be generated over the life of the 112 commercial reactors in operation by late 1992. These highly dangerous wastes, now stored temporarily near reactor sites, must be isolated from the biosphere for up to 10,000 years or more. Assuming no new orders for reactors, DOE estimated in 1988 that the total amount of such high-level wastes by the year 2000 would be some 41,000 metric tons and, by the year 2020, nearly 87,000 metric tons (DOE, 1988b:2). Should there be a revival of nuclear power in the United States resulting in new reactor construction, the total amount of waste would greatly exceed these projections.
Our focus below is on nuclear waste within the United States only. Nevertheless, other nations also are accumulating large quantities of nuclear waste, and some will look to the United States for policy guidance as well as to nations such as France, Sweden, and Canada, which have adopted different policies and procedures (Carter, 1987). What U.S. policymakers choose to do, and the way in which public reaction influences the process, may well hold important lessons for other countries, many of which are far more dependent on nuclear power than is the United States (Flavin, 1987; OECD, 1989).
Formulation of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act
Enactment of a nuclear waste policy in the United States is surprisingly recent, given civilian and military use of nuclear power for over forty years. From the dawn of the nuclear age in the 1940s until well into the 1970s, the federal government and the nuclear industry considered waste disposal to be a manageable and noncontroversial technical problem. These perspectives very likely derived from the optimistic outlook on nuclear energy and its future common among both industry and government officials from the 1940s through the 1960s. A faith in the reliability and safety of nuclear power plants, a belief that reprocessing of spent fuel would greatly reduce its volume, and a tendency to underestimate the importance of social and political aspects of nuclear power doubtless reinforced the assumption that disposal of nuclear waste would be easily handled when there was enough of it to worry about. Those beliefs, in combination with a highly favorable political climate, kept nuclear waste issues off the political agenda even though civilian use of nuclear energy, and thus waste generation, grew appreciably during this period. Contributing to the low salience of the issues was dominance over the atomic energy agenda by a closely knit nuclear subgovernment, consisting of the nuclear industry, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), and the congressional Joint Committee on Atomic Energy (Temples, 1980; Jacob, 1990).
The consensual and relatively closed politics of nuclear energy began to change in the early 1970s, and eventually affected waste policy issues as well. Both changes may be traced to a shifting political climate, which began to give greater emphasis to environmental, health, and safety concerns in managing technological hazards. Three reasons for this new political climate were especially important: (1) a growing quantity of nuclear waste and shortage of storage space at reactor sites; (2) increasing public fear of the risks associated with nuclear power and waste, due in part to problems of leakage at some military storage facilities (e.g., in Hanford, Washington), in part to the failure of an early effort to locate a waste repository at Lyons, Kansas, and in part to the Three Mile Island (TMI) nuclear accident; and (3) the emergence of an explicitly "antinuclear" movement opposed to nuclear power (Price, 1982) and its impact on public opinion and government policymakers (Freudenburg and Rosa, 1984; Jones and Baumgartner, 1989; OTA, 1984:chap. 8).
Two other developments hastened the need to formulate a nuclear waste policy. One was increasing apprehension in the nuclear power industry that failure to devise a national solution to the waste problem would jeopardize the future of commercial nuclear power. The industry's stance was understandable in light of actions by several states, such as a referendum in California, later upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, that linked expansion of nuclear power to solving the waste problem (Carter, 1987). The second development was the Carter administration's decision to terminate reprocessing of spent fuel rods, which meant that a much larger quantity of waste than anticipated would have to be stored or disposed of (Metlay, 1985; Downey, 1985).
The combined effect of these changes shifted nuclear waste issues from the back to the front burner. Many more participants sought to shape waste policy, and these new policy actors represented a far more diversified set of interests than in the old days of the highly consensual nuclear subgovernment. Environmental risks and health concerns, in particular, were propelled to new heights as environmental and other public interest groups achieved significant political influence. Their success was aided by a series of governmental reforms from the late 1960s to the mid-1970s that democratized the policy process and made Congress as well as federal agencies far more receptive to the new political forces. The upshot of these political developments was that, by the late 1970s, achieving consensus on nuclear waste policy, and nuclear power in general, had become extraordinarily difficult (OTA, 1984:chaps. 8, 9). Congress was seemingly destined to settle for a flawed policy whose chance of success was slight.
The early formulation of nuclear waste policy in the Carter administration originally looked more promising. A Carter administration interagency review group (IRG) launched a detailed study of the problem and reported to the president after widely circulating its draft recommendations (IRG, 1979). Following an extended debate within the administration between the Council on Environmental Quality and nuclear power proponents in DOE, President Carter sent his plan to Congress in February 1980 (Colglazier, 1982; Carter, 1987). The president's proposals were in line with the previous federal emphasis on mined geologic repositories (OTA, 1985:39–80). They also endorsed the study of multiple sites in a diversity of geological formations to ensure selection of the technically most suitable location. Of special interest for our purposes is Carter's strong support for the concept of "consultation and concurrence" with the states. He referred to the "continuing role" of the states in federal repository siting, design, and construction and called for the "fullest possible disclosure to and participation by the public and the technical community" in the site selection process (Carter, 1980:220–24).
Excerpted from Public Reactions to Nuclear Waste by Riley E. Dunlap, Michael E. Kraft, Eugene A. Rosa. Copyright © 1993 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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