Nuclear Power Not yet clean and green

Posted: April 17, 2005

As other energy analysts have done lately, U.S. Secretary of Energy Samuel Bodman last week extolled nuclear energy's promise in the international market, where electricity demand is projected to grow by 60 percent in the next 25 years.

"Nuclear power is the only method we have under current technology to reliably produce large amounts of electricity without emitting any pollution or greenhouse gases," he said.

Bodman cited the example of China, which plans to build 40 new reactors within 15 years because, in the Chinese view, it's "clean and green."

The analysts could very well be right about nuclear power's transformative role in the effort to slow global warming. But what Bodman and the others gloss over is an intractable problem that has plagued nuclear power from the start: radioactive waste.

Waste disposal is a problem far from solved - as evidenced by recent alarms raised by the National Academies of Science and Government Accountability Office and the continuing controversy of the Yucca Mountain project. The United States needs to resolve waste disposal before moving forward on nuclear energy as Bodman and congressional energy bills are urging.

U.S. nuclear power plants produce 2,000 metric tons of "spent fuel" a year. So far, the industry has accumulated 54,000 metric tons. Most of it is submerged in swimming-pool-like holding tanks at the power plants. Some is stored on land in dry casks.

In a report declassified this month, the National Academies questioned the safety of some aspects of pool storage against possible terrorist attack. The scientists recommended a plant-by-plant assessment by a reviewer independent of industry or the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. That's a good idea.

In a separate report, the GAO challenged the NRC's oversight and accounting methods after three plants had missing or unaccounted for spent fuel rods or rod fragments.

Since the 1950s, government and industry have agreed that solution to nuclear waste disposal is a "geological repository" - an underground tomb, where the waste could cool for thousands of years and harm no one. The problem was: Nobody wanted that in their backyard.

After years of debate, in 2002, President Bush proposed and Congress approved Yucca Mountain, Nev., 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas, as the site to store 77,000 metric tons of waste. But the licensing recently stalled over allegations that scientists falsified safety reports about the site. The FBI and inspectors general from the Department of Energy and U.S. Geological Survey are investigating. Chances of the repository opening by 2012, as planned, are slim.

Nuclear energy provides 20 percent of the United States' electricity. Environmental and energy demands may dictate upping that percentage in the future. But before it does, the United States needs a long-term plan for nuclear-waste disposal.

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