ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH

EDITORIALS

April 28, 1997

Yucca Mountain A Nuclear Wasteland

What do we do with the growing amount of radioactive waste generated by the nation's nuclear reactors? No one knows for sure, and Congress and the courts aren't helping to find the answer.

In 1982, Congress ordered the federal government to choose a permanent storage site for nuclear waste; it later named Nevada's Yucca Mountain. But today, we still don't know if the site is geologically stable or whether the ground water could be contaminated. What's more, since we don't know how to contain radioactive waste securely for 10,000 years, we may be a long time away from establishing a permanent waste depository.

Unfortunately, in 1986 the Department of Energy unwisely promised the nuclear industry it would start taking waste off its hands by 1998, at least for temporary storage. But Yucca Mountain hasn't been proven safe even for that purpose.

A federal appeals court has ruled that the Department of Energy must honor its intemperate promise. So next year the government will start paying damages to utilities for each year they incur costs to store their waste. That could be an astronomical amount - and money certainly better spent figuring out how to store waste safely or on alternative forms of energy that don't generate highly toxic byproducts.

Worse still, the Senate has designated Yucca Mountain as the mandatory site for temporary storage by 2002. It's an absurd, dangerous and unnecessary solution. The utilities claim to have no room to store nuclear waste at the power plants. That's doubtful. Waste can be stored in metal casks above ground, as is already being done in some places. An accident-free safety record confirms that method as a safe temporary solution.

Storing waste on site is not as risky as shipping 30,000 tons of waste across the country, and through St. Louis, by rail and truck. Accidents and spillage would be hard to avoid.

But utilities can't store their waste above ground forever. Eventually they really will run out of space.

But there is an answer, at least for temporary storage: put the waste inside the nuclear plants themselves as age forces their permanent shut down. Current security systems at nuclear plants are effective, especially since vehicle barriers can protect against truck bombs. In the future, perhaps more effective security measures may be needed, but that's not beyond our capability.

Still the Senate prefers Yucca Mountain. It wants to please the utilities - and the states that don't want the waste showing up on their doorsteps. President Bill Clinton has promised a veto, but it may not be sustained. The Energy Department must put more creative solutions on the table to stop the rush to Yucca Mountain: Using soon-to-be dead nuclear plants is one promising answer.


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