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If Not Yucca, Then Where For Waste?

March 30, 2009

By Max Schulz

President Obama's decision to slash funding for the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository not only creates big problems for his administration, it raises concerns about whether the nuclear renaissance will stall in its tracks.

Failure to come up with an adequate solution to storing the nation's spent nuclear fuel could prevent new nuclear plants from being built despite worries about Americans' growing energy needs.

For Obama, it's not enough just to oppose opening Yucca Mountain, as he did during the campaign. About 60,000 metric tons of nuclear waste are presently stored onsite at the nation's 104 commercial nuclear reactors, which produce 2,000 additional metric tons annually.

Under federal law, the government is legally obligated to remove this material, and the Feds have collected $30 billion from ratepayers over two decades to finance waste-collection efforts.

If the federal government completely scraps Yucca without providing an alternative, it could be on the hook for billions of dollars in liabilities to utilities. The challenge facing Obama is fashioning a credible alternative.

However, the Obama administration has seemed unaware of the need to provide one. Pressed by wary senators at a recent congressional hearing to explain Obama's approach as his budget starves Yucca Mountain, Energy Secretary Steven Chu admitted there is no plan. Chu promised only to convene a blue-ribbon commission to investigate the matter, saying he hoped it would turn in recommendations by year-end.

That's not good enough, and it demonstrates a lack of seriousness on the part of an administration that claims to have made energy issues a top priority.

So what are the options for nuclear waste? The federal government abandoned research for other waste options in the 1980s when it settled on Yucca Mountain. With Yucca's future in doubt, there are several credible avenues—including some long closed off—that should be pursued.

One is reprocessing. In the 1970s, fears about proliferation moved Presidents Ford and Carter to suspend commercial reprocessing and recycling of spent nuclear fuel. Though the ban was later lifted, government policies have discouraged the resumption of reprocessing.

This is a shame, since the spent fuel rods regarded as "waste" maintain 95% of their original energy content. While reprocessing couldn't substitute completely for Yucca Mountain, it does have the potential to significantly reduce the amount of waste that would need to be handled.

The Bush administration launched the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership to study methods of reprocessing while minimizing proliferation concerns. Obama would be wise to continue this program.

At the same time, the Department of Energy should be open to a host of other possibilities for dealing with nuclear waste.

It should investigate options for interim storage of spent fuel, which would give policymakers time to sort out these matters while meeting the government's legal obligations. The waste piling up at reactors today is being managed safely and securely, but that is a short-term solution. Interim storage could safeguard nuclear waste products for a century or more.

The government should also encourage research into interesting and even exotic waste disposal possibilities. One promising idea is sub-seabed disposal, whereby nuclear waste in sealed canisters would be buried in the abyssal plains underneath the Pacific Ocean. These areas are among the most geologically stable on the planet.

Finally, for all the tumult and shouting, we should not give up entirely on Yucca Mountain. Despite Obama's stated opposition, it's worth noting he has not withdrawn the Yucca Mountain license application currently before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

This is a wise move. In several years, the NRC's scientific experts will render their verdict on Yucca's suitability. Sound science may favor Yucca Mountain after all.

Original Source:



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