Nuke Waste: An Unsolvable Problem? | The Nation


Nuke Waste: An Unsolvable Problem?

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Nuke Waste: An Unsolvable Problem?

New York City

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Thank you for Matt Bivens's excellent "The Yucca Lemon" ["The Failsafe Point," March 5] about the possibility of the Yucca Mountains being used as a waste site for nuclear spent fuel rods. I reside near Indian Point in New York and am one of the leaders of the effort to close down the plant--a plant within fifty miles of 2l million people. Transporting spent fuel rods from the current noncontained area to Yucca on trains makes absolutely no sense. I'm scared of the potential for a terrorist attack and a possible Indian Point meltdown now. Transporting spent fuel rods in noncontained trains makes absolutely no sense. Yucca should be preserved as open space--and should not be used as a dumping ground. Close down Indian Point, place the spent fuel rods in contained dry cask containers.

NY Town Supervisor

Knoxville, Tenn.

Enjoyed Matt Bivens's piece on the political conundrum this issue has become and DOE's efforts to bulldoze it through Congress with support of President Bush. There is a better solution--one that is cheaper, far safer, and takes these dangerous high level wastes (HLW) out of everybody's backyard permanently with almost no long-term danger to the environment. The solution is entombment in the deep sediments of abyssal plains in the oceans that now cover 71 percent of the planet. This method offers many benefits that I would be pleased to explain in detail. (My interest is an outgrowth of over twenty years of research on expansion of the Earth. See my website: www.expanding-earth.org. This method was examined by Congress in the late seventies and eighties after it was proposed by D.A. Deese in 1977, but was quietly shelved by Congress and left in the hands of OECD. Their rationale then is unknown to me, but one of the reasons a terrestrial site was chosen was to make it possible for future recovery of these wastes in case of national need--an utterly crazy idea, although spent fuel rods can be reprocessed (at great expense) for further use.

I recently sent a letter to Senator Reid recommending this solution because it requires international agreement through the IAEA and other nuclear nations to modify the London Protocol that now prohibits use of the oceans for "dumping" nuclear wastes.

Commander, US Navy, Ret.

Washington, D.C.

Matt Bivens pretty well recounted the doubters' complaints about the basis for the Secretary of Energy's recommendation to the President that the Department of Energy proceed to the next step of seeking a license application to actually build and operate a nuclear waste disposal repository underground in Yucca Mountain, Nevada. The president accepted that recommendation on February 15 and the matter will end up before Congress this summer. If the project survives those additional political steps it would then be submitted to the independent Nuclear Regulatory Commission which will examine in a rigorous and publicly open license review process whether those technical questions on earthquake, hydrology and many more factors.

So are we to conclude that Bivens has a superior plan to safely dispose of nuclear waste from commercial nuclear power plants, navy reactors, weapons programs, research and other sources? The policy choice of underground disposal was chosen by Congress in 1982. If the doubters don't like the disposal method, they should seek to change the law. If they don't like the site, identify a better one. But, if the "answer" is to "leave it where it is" I suggest he and others read the environmental impact of that choice in the Yucca Mountain environmental impact statement. Does he really beleive that leaving this material on the shores of the Great Lakes and the Connecticut River is a solution? Read Secretary Abraham's Yucca Mountain recommendation (it's on the web)--it is well-written and not boring.

PE Director, Nuclear Waste Program Office
National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners


Olney, Md.

Here are some other suggestions for dealing with our thousands of tons of nuclear waste and the thousands more on the way, as nuclear power still provides nearly 20 percent of our electricity, among other current uses:

* Put it on rockets and shoot it into the sun.
* Invest in "transmutation" to, hopefully someday, make the radiation disappear in a puff of pink smoke. (OK, I made up the bit about the pink smoke).
* Send it all to Russia.

The Department of Energy has fortunately rejected sending rockets full of deadly radiation to the sun, as too expensive and too dangerous. (Whew!)

The government is more excited about transmutation, an idea that had its heyday in the mid-1980s. Last year Los Alamos National Laboratory got another $34 million in funding to continue research. Check out the Los Alamos "Transmutation of Waste Overview Tour" for the official word on this futuristic possibility.

Then you might check out "Magical Thinking," an article in last year's March/April issue of The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, where authors Arjun Makhijani et al. pour scorn on the idea as a massive boondoggle.

The Russians? Their Nuclear Power Ministry, Minatom, has a horrific public safety record, even aside from Chernobyl. But Minatom dreams of growing rich by turning Russia into the world's nuclear pay toilet. Ordinary Russians have gathered hundreds of thousands of signatures demanding a national referendum vote. The authorities keep rejecting the signatures on technical grounds. So who knows? Perhaps one day Russia will be Yucca to the world.

Happily for me, it's not my job to decide what to do with the waste. In "The Yucca Lemon" I confined myself to making two main points: (1) the Department of Energy was supposed to find a geologically suitable site, i.e., a site where natural geological barriers could contain waste for thousands of years even if man-made containers failed; (2) when, after much study, Yucca Mountain turned out to lack that geology, the Department of Energy decided to fudge, and change the rules.

Brian O'Connell of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners asks archly if I have "a superior plan" to simply plowing forward with Yucca and proving that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission will license anything put in front of it. I would refer him, and others, to a pretty common-sense course of action suggested by Dr. Makhijani of the Institute for Energy &Environmental Research (www.ieer.org/sdafiles/vol_7/7-3/longterm.html): Be honest with ourselves that Yucca Mountain's geology is unfavorable--why waste the Energy Department's expensive and high-caliber research by refusing to come to grips with it?--and start over.

Makhijani suggests not even looking for a site for the next several years, and instead studying anew the various general options like deep geological repositories, sub-seabed disposal--letter writer Lawrence Myers's preferred option--and even disposal tens of miles down, below the earth's crust. Makhijani suggests Yucca Mountain should host the research center for that work.

Not very satisfying, is it? I sympathize; there's something in us that doesn't like an unsolvable problem, that rejects the very notion.

So how about this for closure: There is probably no responsible option, from transmutation to Yucca to Russia, that doesn't make already-expensive nuclear power too costly to compete on a market basis. It doesn't compete with natural gas-fired plants, it doesn't compete with wind power. Ergo, we should move away from nuclear power, and recognize that disposing of the remaining waste will be a non-market project.


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