Nuclear wasteland

Monday, June 14, 2010

AFTER MORE than 20 years, four administrations and billions of dollars spent, Yucca Mountain is the one place in America that a new Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future cannot look to put this country's nuclear waste. Created by the Obama administration after it jettisoned the Nevada project, the commission, which will meet for the third time in July, is to make its recommendations two years from now -- rendering any action unlikely until after the 2012 elections.

We must wait two years -- for what, exactly?

The commission's mandate says that it will focus on "strategy" rather than "implementation" -- in other words, it will not even search for replacement sites. Instead, among other initiatives, it will study potential technologies to reprocess spent nuclear fuel. Nuclear reprocessing as a concept has been around for more than 50 years, but the technology remains problematic. Even when successful, it leaves a radioactive byproduct that must be disposed of. For this and for existing waste, scientific consensus has long favored geological disposal, in which waste would be sequestered safely and permanently underground. In 2003 the International Atomic Energy Agency noted: "After several decades of research on the disposal of nuclear wastes, geological disposal is the only approach that has gained widespread credibility in the scientific community and therefore it is highly unlikely that some completely new idea will be forthcoming. . . . It is not necessary, or even responsible financial management, to expend further resources on the development of alternatives." Yet this seems to be exactly what the commission is up to.

It's time to stop kicking the can down the road. The commission can begin by establishing storage standards not premised on the imminent relocation of all of America's nuclear waste to a centralized disposal site. This assumption has been the basis of policy for 20 years, and there have been millions of dollars in costs associated with lawsuits from companies unexpectedly saddled with storing waste. It leaves America vulnerable, with 49,000 tons of nuclear waste stored in densely compacted cooling ponds not meant to house such waste for more than five years. The technology exists for stable, dry containers for aboveground waste that can protect these volatile materials with layers of concrete and earthen berms. Germany and Switzerland are already using such containers, as are many waste storage sites across the United States. In the absence of any progress on centralized disposal, widely dispersed plant sites can store nuclear waste indefinitely, and the government must ensure they do so safely.

But the need for a long-term geological disposal site will not vanish, even if great strides occur in reprocessing technology and aboveground storage safety. If the Yucca Mountain debacle offers any lesson, it is that the greatest hurdles a long-term disposal facility faces are not scientific but political. The commission must contemplate methods of making the scientifically appropriate solution palatable to voters, perhaps through tax credits or other incentives, or politics will trump science again -- billions of more dollars down the road.

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