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Magical Thinking About Nuclear Waste

As a senior energy adviser in the Clinton administration, I recall attending a briefing by the National Academy of Sciences in 1996 on the feasibility of recycling nuclear fuel. I’d been intrigued by the idea because of its promise to reduce the amount of waste that had to be buried, where it could conceivably seep into drinking water at some point in its multimillion-year-long half-lives.

But then came the Academy’s unequivocal conclusion: the idea was supremely impractical. It would cost up to $500 billion in 1996 dollars and take 150 years to accomplish the transmutation of dangerous long-lived radioactive toxins.

President George W. Bush and his energy secretary, Samuel Bodman, have recently intensified their lobbying to revive nuclear recycling through a program they call the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership, GNEP.

As I listened to Bodman describe GNEP as a sweeping panacea–to supply virtually limitless energy to emerging economies, to “reduce the number of required … waste depositories to one for the remainder of this century” and to “enhance energy security, while promoting non-proliferation”–I kept waiting, as I did just over a decade ago, for the caveats.

But they never came, even though the idea remains as costly and technologically unfeasible as it was in the 1990s.

Members of Congress, who will soon vote on the President’s request for $405 million for GNEP in fiscal year 2008, should recognize that GNEP has no chance in our lifetimes of brightening the prospects of finding safe ways of nuclear fuel disposal.

In 1982, Congress enacted legislation requiring that nuclear power spent fuel be disposed of in ways that shield humans for at least hundreds of millennia.

But today, a quarter-century later, prospects for long-term disposal are dimmer than ever. The government’s nuclear waste disposal program is plagued by scandal, legal setbacks and congressional funding cuts. As a result, the schedule for the proposed Yucca Mountain disposal site in Nevada has slipped by two decades.

Under the President’s plan, the United States and its nuclear partners would sell power reactors to developing nations who agree not to pursue technologies that would aid nuclear weapons production, notably reprocessing and uranium enrichment.

To sweeten the deal, the United States would take highly radioactive spent fuel rods to a recycling center in this country.

The foreign reactor wastes, along with spent fuel from the U.S. reactor fleet, would be reprocessed to reduce the amount that would go deep underground. Nuclear explosive materials, such as plutonium, would also be separated and converted to less troublesome isotopes in a new generation of reactors.

In short, using the Bush administration’s fuzzy nuclear math, more would become less.

In fact, however, to reduce the amount of radioactive wastes slated for a deep geological repository, the majority of radioactive byproducts are planned to be stored in shallow burial.

The site selected for the GNEP recycling center is likely to become a dump for the largest, lethal source of high-heat radioactivity in the United States and possibly the world.

If placed in a crowded area, a few grams of these wastes would deliver lethal doses in a matter of seconds. Concentrations could be so large that if they were disposed of under current standards in shallow land burial as low-level wastes, shortly after separation they would have to be diluted to a volume as large as 500 million cubic meters, enough to fill 500 Empire State Buildings.

The plan would also threaten water supplies. For instance, it could result in levels of radioactive disposal thousands of times greater than now allowed at DOE’s Savannah River site in South Carolina.

The Bush administration lacks (or at least, has yet to disclose) credible plans for addressing any of the unprecedented health, safety and financial risks that GNEP would create. Unless the administration can furnish these details, the public should urge their legislators to zero out GNEP’s budget.

We are better off by investing in renewable energy and conservation, rather than pouring billions of dollars into the same old limitless energy schemes of our nuclear laboratories.

ROBERT ALVAREZ is a senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, DC. Between 1993 and 1999, he served as a senior policy advisor to the secretary of energy and deputy assistant secretary for national security and the environment.

This column originally ran in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

 

 

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