The federal government had a change of heart in 1987, when Congress passed amendments to the Nuclear Waste Policy Act which, among other things, established the Office of Subseabed Disposal Research within the DOE. The director of this office, Walter L. Warnick, was asked to create a consortium of university investigators and devise a long-range research plan. But a couple of months after Warnick had enthusiastically begun, the congressional committee that controlled appropriations strongly discouraged the Energy Department from spending any money on the program. With access to sub-seabed research funds blocked, Warnick shifted his attention to acid rain and global-warming issues. The Office of Subseabed Disposal existed in name only until this year, when it was abolished altogether.
Warnick was disappointed by the final decision, although he recognizes that it was effectively made about a decade ago, when the DOE and Congress chose the Yucca Mountain alternative and "put all their eggs in that basket." The judgment, he adds, was made on pragmatic, rather than technical, grounds. "It merely reflected the feeling that land-based-disposal technology was more advanced at the time." But from a technological point of view, he says, "sub-seabed disposal is a fascinating concept that offers many advantages, perhaps the foremost being that wastes would be deposited at some of the most geologically stable places on earth." What's more, "all the research that has been done on this option since 1974 points to no insurmountable obstacles" -- an assessment, Warnick says, that is widely accepted within the Energy Department.
The sub-seabed approach has been the subject of peer-reviewed research, and the program generated dozens of articles in prominent international scientific journals. Henry Kendall -- a Nobel laureate in physics, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the chairman of the Union of Concerned Scientists -- calls sub-seabed disposal a "sweet solution" and a "winner," labeling it the best of the alternatives from a technical standpoint. A National Academy of Sciences panel called for further study of the sub-seabed approach, and a report last year by Robert Klett, a systems analyst at Sandia, concluded that "[all] analyses to date indicate that sub-seabed disposal would be a safe and economical method of [high-level waste] disposal and that predictions could be made with a high degree of confidence." In light of these endorsements, why isn't the idea being pursued, if only through research? Why won't this country make the modest investment -- about ten years and $250 million, according to Hollister -- required to find out if it would really work?
THE reasons are varied, though they are woven together in a familiar pattern. The Department of Energy killed the program partly for political reasons and partly because the sub-seabed researchers never really fit in with mainstream DOE culture. "It was a clear case of 'not invented here,'" Hollister says. Many environmentalists -- acting as narrow-mindedly as their traditional opponents in government and the nuclear industry -- dismissed the idea before learning the details, assuming that the approach involved little more than wholesale ocean dumping. The nuclear utilities lobbied against it for pecuniary reasons: the waste-disposal effort is largely subsidized by a tax on nuclear-generated electricity that the utilities have been paying (they pass the cost on to consumers) since 1982, and they have seen little tangible return on their $12 billion investment. Industry officials -- concerned that the DOE would be unable to meet its obligation to start accepting nuclear waste by 1998 -- surmised that the sooner the Yucca Mountain facility opened, the sooner they could divest themselves of their spent nuclear fuel and the waste issue in general. "Their position was extremely superficial," says John Kelly, who heads JK Research Associates, a consulting firm specializing in nuclear- and hazardous-waste disposal issues. "They decided the only way to succeed in building a repository in Nevada was to cut off all alternatives." This position was shared by Louisiana Senator J. Bennett Johnston, then the chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee and a leading opponent of sub-seabed disposal.