Sunday Patriot News

Harrisburg PA
3/14/1999

UNRESOLVED

Failure to properly dispose of waste remains vexation of nuclear industry.

One of the great failures to the nuclear industry, as it prepares for an onslaught of attention on this monthís 20th anniversary of its worse safety mishap, is the still unresolved matter of properly disposing of the highly radioactive waste generated by the nationís atomic reactors.

Some 40,000 tons off spent fuel rods, which will continue to pose a lethal hazard to humans in the environment for thousands of years, are being stored at nuclear plants in 34 states, including at Three Mile Island.

The government has spent many years and almost $3 billion studying the feasibility of establishing a nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada.

But it is currently projected that such a facility would not be ready before 2012, if in fact it should ever pass muster.

Meanwhile, the Clinton administration recently floated the idea of the government taking ownership of the wastes, but leaving them where they are; a paper switch without a difference. Sadly, it seems it will require an accident, a leak, a theft, and unanticipated crisis of some sort, before the government finally moves to gain physical control of this dangerous material in an environmentally sound and secure facility.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has said that it is safe to store nuclear wastes and at reactor sites up to 120 years or more, decades after the nuclear plants themselves would have been shut down and decommissioned under the most optimistic operating scenario. But, it is really in the best interest of public safety to store this highly dangerous material at nuclear power stations around the country for anything approaching this length of time?

One byproduct contained in these waste is plutonium, of which the ingestion of as little as one-billionth of an ounce could cause cancer or genetic defects. With a half-life of 24,000 years, it requires 240,000 years for plutoniumís radioactivity to decline to background levels.

Than this then, is one of the most dangerous substances known to man, and yet the end game, as it were, for the safe disposal of these wastes is nowhere in sight. Yucca Mountain, 80 miles west of Las Vegas, which is conceived as a warren of 115 miles of underground totals where the wastes would be stored for 10,000 years (twice as long as recorded history) is the only game in town. But, a number of scientific concerns have been raised about its fitness, though no one has come up with an acceptable alternative site or alternative method of disposal.

Nevada, which rigorously opposes the waste site, noting that it uses no electricity generated by nuclear power and that 90 percent of the nationís atomic plants are located east of the Mississippi River, wants the country to spend at least 40 to 60 years looking for a scientifically sound and publicly acceptable alternative to Yucca.

Nevadaís concerns - which include lack of confidence in the ability of the government to achieve its criteria for safe storage and a potential for release of the material during transport to the site - are understandable.

But it is far from clear why the public should have less concern with the long-term storage of this highly dangerous material at dozens of power stations that were never designed or intended to control this material for decades or longer. Yet, the longer this material is permitted to remain in storage at commercial power stations, the more acceptable its becomes to put off making the difficult decision for permanent solution, and the more likely it becomes that a serious accident or incident related to the waste is bound to occur.

If everyone does their job, if nature cooperates and if someone would invent a new and better technology for storing highly radioactive waste - in other words, given an incredible run of luck - we just may be able to muddle through for another 40-60 years.

So much for sound policy on this matter. And so much for the nuclear industry and the Faustian bargain on which it was built.