Monday, March 22, 1999

Geologist: nuclear energy on its last legs in U.S.

LARAMIE, Wyo. (AP) - The public no longer perceives nuclear energy as a source of cheap energy but as one of potential catastrophe, a Harvard University geologist said.

"Nuclear power in the United States is essentially dead," Allison MacFarlane told about 50 people at the University of Wyoming.

MacFarlane was one of three experts who spoke on the country's nuclear legacy during a two-day symposium, sponsored by the Wyoming Council for the Humanities.

She is studying the politics and economics of nuclear waste at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.

Although no nuclear energy plants have been built in the United States for two decades, the nation still must deal with the by-products of nuclear energy reactors and nuclear defense testing, she said Thursday.

The preferred option for waste storage is a proposed facility at Nevada's Yucca Mountain. She said the site could be ready to begin accepting nuclear waste by about 2010 - 12 years beyond the Jan. 31, 1998 deadline set by Congress in 1982.

Meanwhile, nuclear plants, mostly in the East and Midwest, are running out of room to store their waste, she said.

About 40,000 metric tons of waste currently await storage. That number could rise to about 85,000, assuming all nuclear plants shut down when their licenses expire in the next 30 to 40 years, she said.

Because of the urgency in finding a storage site, Congress is working on a bill that would create a temporary site at the "appropriately named" Jackass Flats near Yucca Mountain, she said.

MacFarlane also mentioned the proposed Owl Creek Storage Facility near Shoshoni - which is contingent upon the designation of the Yucca site - and another in Utah.

Another storage site is underway in New Mexico, although it has not been officially approved.

MacFarlane said she is skeptical of permanent and temporary sites at Yucca Mountain. Among other possible problems, the area is known for seismic activity and has two small volcanoes nearby that have not been studied properly.

"From a geologic point of view, we shouldn't be rushing this whole thing," she said.

Temporary storage can be created safely and relatively cheaply at nuclear reactors until permanent sites are chosen, she said.

Although the facility at Yucca is to be certified safe for 10,000 years, the nuclear waste could be dangerous for "at least a million years," she said.

"We don't predict the future with any accuracy at all," she said. "We don't even know if humans are going to be around 10,000 years from now, let alone 100,000 or 1 million."