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Midweek Perspectives: Waste that won't go away

It's time for Washington to store nuclear leftovers at Yucca Mountain

Wednesday, August 15, 2001

By Michael J. Kolar

While energy prices get the headlines, another energy battle with important implications for Pennsylvania consumers rages in Washington, attracting little of the public attention it merits.


Michael J. Kolar is a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Pittsburgh.


This fight is over disposal of highly radioactive spent fuel from nuclear power plants and nuclear waste from the nation's defense program. Unlike low-level nuclear waste that loses most of its radioactivity within a few weeks and is compacted and easily disposed of at a licensed waste facility, spent nuclear fuel must be isolated from the environment essentially forever.

Today, some 43,000 metric tons of spent fuel are stored safely in water pools and concrete casks at more than 70 nuclear plant sites around the country, awaiting burial at a geologic repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. Also awaiting shipment to Yucca Mountain is the equivalent of another 10,000 metric tons of high-level waste from the nation's weapons program and Navy reactors. This waste is stored at government installations mainly in Idaho, Washington state and South Carolina.

There is no immediate safety hazard. But long-term, on-site storage of highly radioactive spent fuel at nuclear power plants is impractical, because so many above-ground sites have to be kept under constant custodial care. Commercial nuclear plants were built to provide electricity, not to be de facto waste repositories.

Yet environmental lobbies oppose efforts to transport spent fuel to Nevada for storage in a geologic repository at Yucca Mountain, contending that people along the routes would be at risk if one of the canisters holding the highly radioactive material were to rupture. Never mind that for years -- and with scarcely any opposition from environmentalists -- spent fuel from research reactors in Europe and Asia has been shipped to the United States and transported long distances for storage at the Savannah River site in South Carolina. Leave aside the fact that no one seems to be complaining about the cross-country shipment of plutonium-contaminated wastes from the nuclear weapons program.

Steel drums holding the wastes are being transported by truck for disposal at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), a government repository a half-mile beneath the desert in southeastern New Mexico. The first shipments to WIPP began more than two years ago, and they have been carried out with absolute safety.

Like WIPP, the Yucca Mountain repository would be licensed to hold nuclear waste for 10,000 years. Fourteen years have passed since Congress designated Yucca Mountain as the candidate site for a high-level waste facility. Congress directed the U.S. Department of Energy to determine whether the waste could be safely placed there.

Since then, the DOE has assigned teams of scientists to evaluate the site's geology, hydrology and geochemistry in what is probably the most comprehensive and systematic assessment ever conducted of a piece of land anywhere on the planet. Everything DOE has said about its decade-long "characterization" study of Yucca Mountain, which has included the construction of more than five miles of subterranean tunnels, indicates that the site is suitable for the repository.

Yucca Mountain is arid, geologically stable, and the chambers holding nuclear waste canisters would be at a safe distance from the underground water table. And it is remote. So remote that nuclear weapons used to be tested in this part of the Nevada desert. In other words, it's the perfect place for a nuclear burial ground.

Incredible as it seems, given what is at stake, billions of dollars that electric utility customers pay into a federal trust fund to cover the cost of evaluating the Yucca Mountain site and building a repository are being diverted to help balance the federal budget.

Successive administrations have deliberately let the Nuclear Waste Fund grow into a huge surplus which they have used for accounting purposes to offset the budget deficit. Established by Congress under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982, the fund receives about $700 million each year, paid through a fee of one-tenth of a cent per kilowatt-hour sold, borne by consumers of nuclear-generated electricity. Nationwide, payments to the fund exceed $17 billion, but only $7 billion of that amount has been spent to develop a repository for the permanent disposal of high-level waste. Pennsylvania ratepayers alone have paid nearly $1.5 billion.

Balancing the budget is every politician's favorite cause. But using the Nuclear Waste Fund for that purpose is misguided, since it has led to serious delays in building such a repository.

Failure to open the repository will require spent fuel to be stored at nuclear plant sites indefinitely and might force some plants to close prematurely, if they run out of storage space and states refuse to allow utilities to build additional casks for spent fuel rods. Electricity ratepayers would bear the brunt of any further delays, since they pay twice -- once to the Nuclear Waste Fund for work on the repository, then again for continuing on-site storage of spent fuel at nuclear plants.

That might please some Nevada politicians and anti-nuclear activists, but it would require more coal to be burned for electricity generation, increasing the burden of pollution and greenhouse-gas emissions.

Those considerations provide plenty of reasons for wasting no time in completing the Yucca Mountain facility. The DOE needs to announce its decision on Yucca Mountain's suitability and should make its recommendation to President Bush no later than the end of this year. Congress should approve full funding for the nuclear waste program so that work on the repository can proceed.

Without action by our political leaders, the very concept of central disposal of high-level waste might even be lost as a practical possibility. An impasse would be the worst possible outcome. There may never be a politically smart time to resolve the nuclear waste problem. But the right time is now.

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