By Eugene Robinson, on truthdig.com, March 17, 2011
(I)n the United States, nuclear plants must store their used fuel rods on-site, in pools similar to the ones at Fukushima. A typical plant generates more than 20 tons of such waste material each year, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute. The fuel rods become less radioactive with time, but ultimately must be isolated from the environment for many thousands of years.
U.S. officials have long sought a permanent solution for storing high-level nuclear waste. In 2002, after a long and bitter controversy, Congress designated a Nevada site, Yucca Mountain, as the nation’s permanent nuclear waste repository.
That seemed to be the answer. The spent fuel rods from the nation’s nuclear plants would be shipped to Yucca Mountain and forever entombed. Last year, however, the Obama administration filed a motion to withdraw the Energy Department’s application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for a license to actually create and use the Yucca Mountain repository—thus effectively returning the whole argument to the vicinity of square one.
As practically every Nevada politician, of either party, will be eager to tell you, there are good reasons not to choose Yucca Mountain. It is not as remote as one might like—the Las Vegas metropolitan area is just 100 miles away—and the area is seismically active. While it is true that scientists believe nearby faults could never produce a large enough earthquake to breach a well-constructed repository, it is also true that scientists believed the Fukushima plant would never be hit by a quake of magnitude 9.0 followed by a biblical tsunami.
The Energy Department, aided by a blue-ribbon commission, is conducting a “comprehensive review” of the nuclear waste problem and will eventually come up with a plan. There are alternatives to simply putting all of the stuff inside a mountain—reprocessing, for example.
But one course of action that makes no sense at all is just to let the waste keep piling up at more than 100 nuclear plants across the nation. The chances of a mishap are quite small; the consequences, however, are wholly unthinkable.
This is the problem with the whole nuclear power industry, which employs a technology that is uniquely toxic. The impact of one miscalculation can be felt for a generation, a lifetime, even an eternity.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel gets it. She told her parliament that the Japanese crisis made her realize that Germany must make a “measured exit” from nuclear power and “reach the age of renewable energy as soon as possible.”
Merkel temporarily closed seven of Germany’s oldest reactors as a first step. After Japan, “business as usual” is not an option, she said.
No one in Washington seems to be paying attention.
Spent nuclear fuel rods and their storage is not an exclusively American problem. It is a global problem for which there needs to be a global solution. Here is one case, and so quickly and easily demonstrable, that the issues cannot be contained within national borders. Nuclear toxicity, from spent fuel rods, knows no national boundaries, no status, no political or economic privilege, has no religion, and no specific ethical or value system. It simply kills! And it has the potential to kill wherever it moves.
Consequently, it is long past time for an expanded, enhanced and internationally monitored and funded protocol for nuclear waster. If Yucca mountain is not a suitable answer for the 70,000 tonnes of spent nuclear rods now being stored at some 100 reactors across the U.S., nor at the hundreds of reactors around the world including the five reactors in Canada, then what solution is the world community going to agree to both establish and maintain so that our grandchildren can live in more safety than our parents and grandparents did?
There is obviously a significant international dilemma to reaching concensus among countries whose short-term interests seem to trump humanity's long-term survival motive. The IAEA while currently an existing body, is not empowered to inspect, without specific treaty clauses, the state of the spent nuclear rods in all countries where they are being stored. Keeping them "cool" or under water, in order to forestall their ignition and generation of a nuclear could, is, for all countries, merely a stop-gap measure. And before any country embarks on a program of nuclear reactor construction, the world needs to know, and to be able to verify a plan to which all nations have committed to both live under and to help fund and sustain, to move this issue from the "temporary solution" status forward to a permanment, safe and predictable and repeatable "fix."
Is re-cycling a potential answer? In this method, those spent rods would be re-used in reactors in a changed state, under different conditions, to produce more nuclear power.
Is permanent storage in some abandoned mine, in a location on the earth where the geologic history demosntrates the unlikely event of an earthquake, a tsunami, or other national disaster? Are there more than one such site, and where are they located?
Are nuclear scientists currently working to provide the political leaders responsible for such decisions with options that can be demontrated to be safe, effective, and capable of implementation?
Is there a single university, or a cluster of universities, currently charged (and funded) with the task of "solving" this global issue, that simply will not go away? And if not, then why not?
Is there sufficient urgency, emerging from the disasters currently in Japan, and before that from Three Mile Isand and Chernobyl to provoke the leaders of the world to focus their considerable energy and clout on this emergency, whose effect on the radar screen of the public consciousness is so limited as to rise only when we are faced with another crisis.
Is it not in the nuclear industry's very survival interests to direct funds and its best brains toward a solution to the "spent fuel rods" question? And why would those countries where universities and nuclear scientists already engaged in nuclear research not wish to participate in research that would/could/must lead to appropriate and internationally supported solution(s).
The surrender of national autonomy, national pride, national limitations and national perspectives, on this issue could also lead to so many other significant initiatives that would embrace the concept of a shared planet, with shared and sustainable measures to achieve such a worthy goal.