Sunday, April 27, 2008

Nuclear Waste Options: A Glowing Review

With growing demand for reliable domestic energy sources that do not produce greenhouse gases, nuclear power is looking increasingly attractive to some policy makers in Washington. Just one problem: What to do with all the spent nuclear reactor fuel for the thousands of years it will remain dangerously radioactive?

The U.S. government plans to store the waste in a Nevada mountain side, about 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas. But the proposed Yucca Mountain repository won't open for business until 2017 at the earliest -- 19 years behind schedule. And if many Nevadans have their way, it won't ever open. (The Energy Department image shown here is an artist's concept for a strangely Stonehenge-like "monument warning future generations of the Yucca Mountain repository." full-size image; more conceptual illustrations)

Even if the Yucca facility opens sometime in the next decade, the amount of accumulated waste that's waiting to be transferred to the site may be enough to the fill the repository to its statutory limit. The U.S. nuclear power industry generates about 2,150 metric tons of spent fuel a year, and by some estimates there will be more than 60,000 metric tons needing permanent storage by 2010. Under current law, the Yucca site can only take in 70,000 metric tons, about 10 percent of which is reserved for waste from military programs.

So then what? How long will it take to win approval for and build a new waste storage site? And do scientists have any better ideas up their sleeves?

My "Futurist" column in the current CQ Weekly looks at some of the alternatives to geological storage of nuclear waste.

The most conventional alternative -- reprocessing, or recycling, spent fuel -- might reduce the amount of waste that needs to be stored, but it won't eliminate it. Reprocessing also raises concerns about the proliferation of nuclear weapon material and know-how. More outlandish options, such as disposal in space or deep ocean trenches, were dismissed long ago.

Turning some temporary storage sites at existing and decommissioned nuclear plants into more permanent repositories is one of the more viable medium-term alternatives. But that won't be a whole lot more popular than the Yucca site is to anyone who lives near those locations -- and could make it more difficult to win local support for building new plants. It also may not be safe or responsible in the long term.

My conclusion: No option, short of some amazing ray gun that turns radioactive waste into Girl Scout cookies, is ideal.

That's significant, given the strong political opposition to the Yucca site, led in Washington by Nevada Democrat Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader.

So what do this year's presidential candidates have to say about the issue?

Republican John McCain is a supporter of the Yucca site, saying it would be more dangerous to have waste "sitting all over America in pools and ponds next to nuclear power plants and other places," as it is now.

Both of the Democratic presidential candidates oppose storing spent fuel Yucca. "I believe we should start over and assemble our best scientific minds to identify alternatives," New York Sen. Hillary Clinton said at a hearing last year. "In the mean time, we need to make sure we are storing waste safely and securely at the reactors where it is stored today." Here is an extended video clip from the hearing posted by Clinton's Senate office:

Illinois Sen. Barack Obama opposes the Yucca site, too. In an October 2007 letter to Reid and Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman Barbara Boxer, Obama said "the time has come for the federal government to refocus its resources on finding more viable alternatives for the storage of spent nuclear fuel." Among the possibilities he suggested are "finding another state willing to serve as a permanent national repository or creating regional storage repositories."

Obama does support nuclear power in general, noting in his letter that his state is home to 11 reactors and that nuclear energy provides more than half of the electricity used in Illinois. Clinton has said she is "agnostic" about nuclear power, but she and her supporters have tried to use Obama's financial support from power producers to raise questions about where he really stands on Yucca. Obama sums up his position and responds to those questions here:

The Yucca debate was a big issue in the Nevada Democratic caucuses, and the Las Vegas Sun included in-depth summaries of Obama and Clinton's positions on the site in its online voters guide.

As for the subject of waste itself, two resources I relied on heavily in my column were a Congressional Research Service report from November 2007 and a lengthy fact-finding report from the Keystone Center, a non-profit organization that asked a diverse panel of 27 experts to summarize key areas of agreement and disagreement on a number of nuclear power issues. (The Keystone report was funded in part with industry contributions, but its findings were even-handed and reflected the range of opinions among the panelists, which included environmental and consumer advocates, state regulators and former federal regulators, policy analysts and academics.)

I also looked at questions about government support for alternative energy research in a CQ column last year.

Bottom line: The nuclear waste issue is not going away any sooner than the waste itself.

1 comment:

Morgaine said...

We shouldn't even consider nuclear at this point. It should be marked completely off the list. Instead, we need to focus on limitless or renewable resources -sunlight, wind, water, garbage, human waste, switchgrass, hemp- things we'll never run out of or can control production of - and work from there. I don't believe we should focus on finding one solution to our dependence on oil. Being too single-minded is what created this mess. We need to be diverse so that no one source of energy can be manipulated by corporate interests.