Wall Street Journal

Waste Disposal Lights Up Nuclear Debate

Spain Encounters Stiff Opposition From Environmentalists to Above-Ground Storage Plan

By Keith Johnson


Nuclear Energy Is back in fashion around the world, thanks to high oil prices, soaring electricity demand and restrictions on emissions of greenhouse gases from traditional power generation.

But there is a lingering problem on which the debate hinges: No one knows what to do with tons of radioactive waste generated by the reactors.

Spain hopes to solve the problem by storing dangerous waste above ground, rather than deep under the earth or temporarily inside nuclear reactors. Spain and a growing number of countries studying above-ground storage facilities are encountering stiff opposition from environmental groups, who fear it will leave radioactive waste exposed to disruptions such as natural disasters or terrorism.

Other nations that are considering additional nuclear capacity face big bills or indecision. The U.S. has spent about $20 billion carving out an underground storage facility beneath Yucca Mountain in Nevada. Though the facility isn't operational yet, existing waste in the U.S. will already stretch it almost to capacity. France, which gets almost 80% of its electricity from nuclear reactors, spent the past 15 years studying where to put high-level waste before reaching a decision this year—to spend another 15 years studying it. In Japan, authorities favor reprocessing spent uranium fuel rods, a costly and inefficient process, partly as a way to skirt public "not in my backyard" sentiment.

Spain says its proposed above-ground storage can isolate uranium rods for more than a century. At an estimated cost of about €5 billion, or roughly $6.5 billion, in today's currency values over the first 60 years of its life, the facility offers a cheaper and more feasible alternative to longer-term storage facilities like Yucca Mountain. It could pave the way for an expansion of Spain's fleet of nuclear-power reactors, which provides about a quarter of the country's electricity.

Spain's waste effort, recently approved by the Spanish Parliament, faces tough scrutiny. Because the facility is engineered to guarantee radiation containment for a century, an upcoming generation could face the thorny question of what to do with the waste. Meanwhile, environmental groups like Greenpeace and Ecologists in Action argue that a centralized storage facility will be vulnerable and increase the risk of accidents as authorities shuttle waste cross-country on special trains.

"There is no technical solution to the waste problem. The only things being proposed are Band-Aid ideas," says Carlos Bravo, director of nuclear issues at the Spanish arm of Greenpeace, which opposes nuclear power.

James Curtiss, a former commissioner of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission who says he is watching Spain's progress, says such criticisms mark a shift in the world-wide debate from reactor safety to storage safety. "Instead of physically scaling the reactors, environmentalists have taken to assaulting waste-storage proposals," said Mr. Curtiss, now a partner with Winston & Strawn in Washington who works on licensing nuclear facilities. '

Nuclear power has been a contentious issue in Spain, where power demand has surged and a governmental commission called this month to reduce the country's demand on foreign energy supplies. Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, who in his campaign pledged to phase out nuclear energy, may spell out as soon as tomorrow his government's plans for nuclear energy.

The technology needed to store high-level waste has existed for years, says Alejandro Pino, president of Empresa Nacional de Residuos Radioactivos SA, or Enresa, the public company that manages all of Spain's radioactive waste and spearheaded the new project. "But there was never the political will to do something about it until now." he says, citing high oil prices and strict emissions caps under the Kyoto treaty on greenhouse-gas emissions.

Uranium-fuel rods, which power reactors, need to be replaced every few years. Such high-level waste stays radioactive for tens of thousands of years. Currently, most spent fuel rods in the U.S and Europe are temporarily stored in pools inside reactors. In the U.S. and Finland, authorities think the best solution is to eventually seal off the waste deep underground.

Spain says its solution is cheaper and allows technicians to monitor and retrieve the waste if needed. While the facilities could serve as secure storage for more than a century, their design specifications can't guarantee it for much longer than that. The Spanish design draws on similar above-ground facilities in Switzerland and the Netherlands, as well as years of expertise gleaned from Spain's low-level waste facility near Cordoba.

Although the Bush administration is considering an above-ground temporary storage facility, the industry is still betting on deep geological storage as the eventual solution. Mr. Pino argues that insistence is a white elephant. "Surface storage buys you 100 years and leaves you money to explore other solutions," he says.