Thursday, May 8, 2008

Nuclear Power: Not Yet

By Mike Sciortino
May 08, 2008

In the last issue of the Port Side, Matthew Zitterman wrote a piece supporting the expansion of nuclear power in the United States. Given the importance of energy production in the United States and the mounting uncertainties surrounding alternatives to fossil fuels, the prospect of increased nuclear power capacity needs to be thoroughly examined. In his article, which you can glance at online, Zitterman cites the numerous benefits to nuclear power, maintaining that technological advances in nuclear reactors virtually eliminates all risks of melt-downs and claims that since the technology is ready, the United States should proceed with nuclear power to lessen our dependence on fossil fuels and mitigate global climate change, because nuclear fission does not emit carbon dioxide.

Nuclear power does represent a viable option for U.S. energy production, but the current political situation simply will not allow it. Zitterman briefly mentions the problem of nuclear waste and rightly believes it could be solved by “adaptive management” solutions in which the waste is temporarily stored until new technologies come along that convince the scientific community to be completely safe in the long, long-term. Now, we’ve arrived at nuclear power’s Achilles’ heel.

Currently, nuclear waste is kept on-site at the 103 reactors in the United States. The problem of what to do with nuclear waste in the long-term remains unsolved and has ultimately inhibited the industry from making any progress over the past three decades. The problem stems from the origins of nuclear power and the blind promotion from the Atomic Energy Commission (now subsumed by the Department of Energy) and nuclear industry interests. The severe public backlash to nuclear energy during the 1970s was a direct result of the hasty, secretive development of nuclear power by these actors, who did not address the thorny issue of nuclear waste until it was too late.

After exogenous factors such as the partial melt-down at Three-Mile Island and Chernobyl, public opinion solidified in opposition to nuclear power. The end of the oil-shocks in the seventies made nuclear power even less desirable as a cheap source of power. During the 1980s, the federal government began to devise plans to permanently store nuclear waste, which culminated in 1982 with the Nuclear Waste Policy Act. The NWPA was amended in 1987, selecting Nevada’s Yucca Mountain as the designated site for a permanent geologic repository. Two decades and seven billion dollars later, the repository at Yucca Mountain remains unfilled.
The NWPA set up geologic disposal as the sole approach to nuclear waste in the United States because it represented a technologically feasible, relatively cheap, and fast solution. Representatives close to nuclear industry interests hastily pushed through the legislation. In the end, the states received no decision-making authority. Already hesitant with the site, recent studies have found that water seeps into Yucca Mountain every 1000 years or so, which may deteriorate the casings filled with waste, causing radionuclides (released by waste) to enter the biosphere. The studies have intensified the opposition and bring the entire option of geologic disposal into question. Now facing a stalemate in the courts, the situation between the state of Nevada and the DOE is deadlocked.

If filled, Yucca Mountain will only be able to store nuclear waste for another six years. Then, another solution will need to be found, and according to the NWPA, it will most likely be another geologic repository. Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nevada) strongly promotes the adoption of adaptive management strategies in which casings of waste can be stored and monitored while the science of nuclear waste management advances. If this option were to take hold, however, it would put the DOE and nuclear industry in an uncomfortable position. Nuclear power may seem cheap now, but the prospect of having to pay for continuous storage and monitoring may heavily affect the balance sheets.

Nuclear waste cannot stay on-site forever. It poses too great a health and security threat in the long-term. A new policy must be devised that defines a clear link between the expansion of nuclear energy and waste management. Public participation will be essential to change the negative perceptions regarding nuclear waste, management especially from communities where there are planned storage facilities. Monitored, retrievable nuclear waste solutions seem like a proper solution, but the political obstacles to achieving such a major departure from current policy will be difficult to overcome. And until we do, let’s keep nuclear power in the rear-view.

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