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The government is looking for a location to store the nation's nuclear waste. Volunteers?
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updated 1/27/2012 5:48:40 PM ET 2012-01-27T22:48:40

If the price is right, would your town want a nuclear waste site?

A panel of experts said today that finding a volunteer community is the best way to pick a place for a waste repository that could outlast human civilization. The site would store spent nuclear fuel that has been piling up at the nation's 104 nuclear reactors.

The President's Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future released its final report Thursday with eight key recommendations about how to kick-start a federal waste disposal policy that it says "has been troubled for decades and has now all but completely broken down."

Congress picked Yucca Mountain, Nev., as a permanent repository in 2002, but the Obama administration nixed the plan in 2010 after disputes with state officials. Even with the closure, the Department of Energy will have spent $10 billion on Yucca Mountain by 2020, according to estimates by the General Accountability Office.

The nuclear waste panel said that it's better to convince a local town or tribe to take the facility, rather than selecting a site and then trying to convince local residents afterward.

"I don't have a secret recipe," said Allison Macfarlane, a panel member and environmental science professor at George Mason University. "But the community should get what they want, jobs, university scholarships, the options are endless."

Macfarlane cited two successful examples. In the 1970s, residents of Carlsbad, N.M., agreed to host a disposal site for waste generated by the nearby nuclear weapons labs. After decades of delays, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) began taking shipments in 1998.

The town got 1,300 jobs, several factories and a youth sports complex — as well as $300 million in highway funds.

In Sweden, federal officials tried several times to site a long-term waste disposal site until they asked for volunteers. Two communities vied for the project, which is now under way.

Macfarlane said that state governments have to be on board before moving forward. Opposition from state officials in both Nevada and Utah killed previous plans for nuclear waste sites.

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Consumers have been paying a tax on their utility bills from nuclear-generated electric power to build such a long-term storage site for several decades. Katrina McMurrian is executive director of the Nuclear Waste Strategy Coalition, a group of utilities, state officials and advocacy groups pushing for a disposal location. She says now it's time for the government to step up and get the job done.

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"Rate-payers across the country have been paying to have this taken care of in return for a resting place established for used nuclear fuel," McMurrian said. "We simply want the government to make good on its promise."

The new report said deep geologic disposal is the best way to safely store spent nuclear fuel, material that will remain radioactive for tens of thousands of years. Big metal canisters made of either stainless steel (France), copper-steel (Sweden) or a nickel-chromium-molybdenum alloy (planned for Yucca Mountain) would be lowered into a mine 900 feet to 2500 feet below ground.

The canisters could be put into granite, clay or salt, as long as the surrounding formations are geologically stable, Macfarlane said. That means below potable groundwater, away from heat sources and fissures.

Ideas for putting nuclear waste under the seabed or in orbit were rejected as either in violation of international treaties (sea) or too risky (space).

"We can't send up every single rocket with a 100 percent guarantee that it won't blow up," Macfarlane said.

© 2012 Discovery Channel

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