That Eerie Green Glow

Thursday, August 17, 2006

NOW THAT greenhouse gases are the pollutants to fear, nuclear power may be making a comeback; British Petroleum's failings in Prudhoe Bay, revealed last week, only enhance the attractiveness of alternatives to oil. But as the nation rushes back to the future by embracing atomic energy, the industry and government have to solve one little problem left over from the past: how to deal with nuclear waste.

Energy Secretary Samuel W. Bodman recently announced that his agency would provide $2 billion in federal risk insurance to companies applying to build nuclear power plants. It's part of a package of government incentives designed to encourage the building of the country's first nuclear reactors since the 1970s. The Energy Department aims to insure at least six new power plants, and 19 companies have announced they will seek licenses to build nuclear power stations, according to Per F. Peterson, a professor of nuclear engineering at the University of California at Berkeley.

Nuclear power can produce electricity without generating the greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming. Industry spokesmen claim nuclear power plants can do so cheaply and efficiently, even taking subsidies into account, and, if properly monitored, safely; Chernobyl-style accidents can be avoided. Given the environmental and geopolitical disadvantages of dependence on oil, gas and coal, these arguments are persuasive.

But the Energy Department must prove early on that it has a politically and technically viable plan for storing the deadly radioactive waste that nuclear power plants produce. That has been a smoldering problem for the agency, which for years has tried to build a permanent waste storage site inside Nevada's Yucca Mountain. All the while, nuclear waste continues to pile up on sites next to reactors, in many cases close to population centers.

The Energy Department's current plan is to open the Yucca Mountain facility by 2017, ready to take the waste the new power plants will create. But construction at Yucca isn't fully authorized yet. The department has encountered stiff political and legal opposition in Nevada, and faulty scientific reviews of the site have also delayed the building. Who knows what kinds of problems construction will bring? The Yucca storage site is still the safest long-term solution to America's nuclear-waste problem. But given the project's history of delay, we're not counting on it opening on time. Neither should the federal government.

The Energy Department's assistant secretary for nuclear energy, Dennis Spurgeon, says the agency has contingency plans. If it begins its program to reprocess spent nuclear fuel in time -- and that seems unlikely -- nuclear waste can go to reprocessing sites. If that doesn't work, the government has two options: It can keep waste at reactor sites longer than would be ideal, or it can build secure and isolated interim storage sites. The first option shouldn't be on the table; utilities legally are not -- and should not be -- responsible for storing radioactive sludge longer than the few years it takes for it to cool, especially when many of the plants are close to cities. The second option sounds more promising, but as of now the Energy Department doesn't have the authority to conduct interim storage of nuclear waste itself -- that would take an act of Congress.

The federal government needs a foolproof plan to dispose properly of the waste. Otherwise, Americans won't have confidence in nuclear power.

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