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EPA Poised to Regulate Nuclear Waste Disposal for a Million Years

Interest in nuclear power and concerns about waste drive regulatory effort


nuclear waste
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The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is preparing to issue a regulation that will govern the disposal of power plant nuclear waste in the United States for the next 1 million years.

A million years is pretty far beyond the usual scope of EPA regulations.

"This will be the only rule that applies for such a long duration into the future," said Elizabeth Cotsworth, the EPA director of radiation and indoor air, in an interview with National Public Radio. "Most EPA rules apply for the foreseeable future -- five or six generations. This rule is for basically 25,000 generations."

Why is the EPA Issuing a Regulation for 1 Million Years?
The march toward a million-year regulation for nuclear waste disposal began in 2002, after Congress and President Bush approved plans to store power plant nuclear waste material at Yucca Mountain, Nevada. With that decision, the EPA was charged with setting building codes and other regulations for the repository that would cover the next 10,000 years.

"We thought that [10,000 years] was generally the limit of scientific certainty in our ability to predict with confidence," Cotsworth told National Public Radio.

Opponents of the Yucca Mountain plan countered with a lawsuit, arguing that the 10,000-year regulation did not extend far enough into the future. The courts agreed, so the EPA extended the regulation to 1 million years—100 times longer than the period covered by the original regulation.

Regulating Nuclear Waste for 1 Million Years: What are the Dangers?
The implications of trying to regulate something as dangerous as nuclear waste for such a long period of time has a lot of people worried, because no one can predict what the world will be like 1 million years from now, what kind of changes will occur during that time, or whether there will even be anyone left to protect in 1 million years.

Just look at all of the changes that have taken place during the past 1 million years. According to scientists, 1 million years ago our ancestors had not yet started to use fire or make clothing. Their skulls were about one-third smaller than ours, and Neanderthals were still a future development in human evolution.

Bottom Line on Regulating Nuclear Waste Disposal for 1 Million Years
Increasing concerns about the acceleration of global warming have helped to renew interest in nuclear power generation—even among some environmentalists—a development that has also raised new concerns about the best way to dispose of nuclear waste that can remain toxic for 100,000 years or more.

While it is good news that the EPA and the courts are taking seriously the long-term hazards of nuclear waste and the challenges of nuclear waste disposal, requiring the EPA to set a regulation today that is intended to remain relevant for 1 million years is unlikely to alleviate concerns about these critical issues. Instead, it simply underscores the unresolved difficulties of finding a solution for disposing safely of nuclear waste.

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