Posted by: greeningwashington | April 6, 2009

Nuclear Dreamin’

Proposed Yucca Site. (c) Nuclear Regulatory Agency

Proposed Yucca Site. (c) Nuclear Regulatory Agency

Keep-away, hot potato, or whichever similar game you prefer, is exactly what state governments are playing with the nation’s spent nuclear waste.

Nuclear energy, which accounts for approximately 20 percent of U.S. net electricity generating capacity, is arguably one of the most expensive energy sources in the United States. A single nuclear plant alone can cost upwards of $2 billion, which only accounts for the initial construction costs (Rosenbaum, 268).

The 1970s were the heyday for the nuclear dream: 50 commercial reactors were active and hundreds of more were planned or under construction. The nuclear dream seemed viable and even welcomed until the reactor meltdown at Three Mile Island near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania in March 1979.

 

Riddled with economic, technical, and environmental problems, the nuclear dream seemed out of reach during the 1980s.

Today, with oil prices sky-high, the possibility of the nuclear dream has been revived by many Republicans and even some environmentalists. But beneath the political rhetoric extended by nuclear proponents is a dirty, contentious, and often overlooked detail — the nuclear waste keep-away.

The fact that policymakers have failed to seriously act on the issue of nuclear waste storage for nearly 30 years should be the writings on the wall.

In 1982 Congress took the first step toward creating permanent repositories for nuclear waste by passing the Nuclear Waste Policy Act (NWPA), which, among other things, assigned the DOE with the task of selecting a permanent nuclear waste site. When it was all said and done, Deaf Smith County, Texas; Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington State; and Yucca Mountain, Nevada were the prospective sites chosen by the DOE. After much Congressional infighting and opposition from state governments, litigators, and environmentalists, Congress changed the procedures provided for under the NWPA and designated Nevada as the site, period. Throughout the 1990s, the State of Nevada expended every political resource it had opposing Congress’ decision.

Today, the Yucca Mountain repository site is still incomplete and under funded. President Obama’s proposed 2009 Budget cuts nearly all funding for the project according to various sources.

As candidates, both Obama and McCain supported the expansion of nuclear power, although McCain seemed must more enthusiastic about the prospect. According to a USA Today report, McCain supported the building of 45 new nuclear plants by 2030, which he argued would help reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil and cut greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming. Obama, who also supported an expansion of nuclear power, said that the focus must be on “safer ways to use nuclear power and store nuclear waste.”

Hoping to explore “safer” options aside, proposing an expansion of nuclear power without real solutions for the storage of radioactive waste is irresponsible at best.

Granted, John McCain is a proponent of the Yucca Mountain storage facility, environmentalists have raised many concerns such as, the fact that water flows through Yucca Mountain, which could cause nuclear leaks. And let’s not forget to mention the fact that Congress arbitrarily chose Yucca Mountain without prior scientific consensus.

Pushing the issue of nuclear waste to the margin in exchange for political gain is unacceptable. Politicians have relied on the benefits of nuclear power to bolster their image as a proponent of an independent America — free from dirty and foreign energy sources. If politicians believe storing nuclear waste in temporary facilities frees our country from potential threats they are delusional and misguided. The bottom line is storing nuclear waste in ‘temporary sites’ does not make this issue temporary. The more nuclear energy we produce, the more waste is created, and the longer it sits in temporary containers — it’s simple logic.  

Yet, the government has spent nearly $10.4 billion since the 1980s to find a place to store the nuclear waste. Additionally, the government pays utility companies lots of money to temporarily store the waste in steel-lined containers at reactor sites. Talk about a huge disaster waiting to happen.

Collectively, nuclear plants in the U.S. create nearly 100 million gallons of high-level wastes, all of which is stored in temporary containment facilities throughout the country, as I mentioned above.

Nuclear waste is highly radioactive and some elements remain dangerous for long periods of time such as Plutonium-239, which has a half-life of 24,000 years. Now that is a ‘legacy asset’ worth passing down to future generations!

The potato must cool before we can seriously begin discussing the prospect of new nuclear facilities or even begin renewing operating licenses at older plants.

Case-in-point, the Environmental News Network (ENN) reported last week that the Oyster Creek Nuclear Generating Station, the nation’s oldest power plant, was granted a renewed 20-year operating license. The following is from the ENN article:

The license renewal was automatic after the commission voted, 3-1, not to re-open hearings and review a decision by the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board that the 60-year-old plant is safe to resume operations for another 20 years.

Opponents pushing for the review….contend the drywell liner or shell that encases the reactor and is designed to contain steam during an accident is too corroded to continue safely or withstand an accident.

Maybe we should take a clue from the manufacturing sector and just outsource the storage of our nuclear waste to poor countries like Vietnam. Hey, now there’s an idea!

Until next time.

 Many of the facts from this article come from Walter Rosenbaum’s book Environmental Politics and Policies.

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