Online, Student Articles — July 28, 2010 at 10:46 am

Nuclear Waste Storage: We Need a Long, Long, Long-Term Plan

By Jonathan Abrams –

On April 20, 2010, the BP oil rig explosion set off the dumping of millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.  Images of oil soaked birds, tar balls washing up on beaches, and out-of-work fishermen have been a near constant presence on the nightly news ever since.  The spill—the worst environmental disaster in the country’s history—has caused some to condemn offshore drilling and call for a move toward alternate sources of energy.  One of those alternate sources being championed by some experts is nuclear power, an energy source the experts claim is underutilized.  Leaders also champion nuclear energy as a way to lessen our dependence on oil supplied by foreign countries whose oil wealth allows them to “ignore U.S. policies and to pursue interests inimical to our national security.” While nuclear energy has a relatively good safety record (with the exception of one complete meltdown and a few close calls), a new Finnish film documenting that country’s effort to safely store spent nuclear fuel raises a number of difficult questions dealing with the security of such fuel.  As new nuclear waste is created daily, it is long overdue for the United States to seriously determine how to safely store this dangerous substance.

Nuclear power is created by producing intense heat through nuclear fission.  This intense heat is captured and used to make steam which drives a turbine generator, creating power.  Most nuclear power plants use uranium rods bundled together to create nuclear fission.  Though nuclear energy is extremely clean when compared to burning fossil fuels like oil, nuclear power generation does produce waste.  This waste consists of highly radioactive spent fuel assemblies.  Exposure to such a high level of radioactivity could result in death and turn the surrounding land uninhabitable for decades.  Therefore, it is critical that spent nuclear fuel be completely and securely stored in order to prevent an accidental leak or theft.

The challenge of safely storing the material is complicated by the length it must be stored.  Uranium decays very slowly, maintaining its dangerousness for approximately 100,000 years.  It is hard to fathom this period of time.  The human species as we know it today is believed to have existed for approximately 100,000 years.  The oldest known cave paintings are 30,000 years old.  The pyramids are around 4,500 years old.  The amount of changes that will occur in 100,000 years raises a host of issues.  Once we store the nuclear waste, how can we guarantee continuous surveillance and security to protect the material for 100 centuries?  (Think of all the plundering that occurred once gold was discovered in the pyramids).  How will we be able to communicate to future generations the complicated issues of nuclear waste and radiation given our history of preserving ancient language?  Should we even try to convey the seriousness of the material given the possibility that our message will not be understood properly, thereby only piquing humans’ curiosity of what lies behind those reinforced doors?

A new documentary from Finland poses these questions.  “Into Eternity” is about Onkalo—the world’s first permanent nuclear waste repository.  Onkalo is located in Olkiluoto, approximate 190 miles northwest of Helsinki.  Work began on the concept in the 1970s and its completion is expected in the 2100s, after all the current workers will have deceased.

While the issues presented by a place like Onkalo are vexing, at least Finland has a plan and is progressing toward completion.  The United States currently has no plan beyond studying the issue.  For many years this country’s Onkalo was going to be Yucca Mountain in southwest Nevada.  The Department of Energy (DOE) has had Yucca Mountain on its radar since 1978.  In 2002, after a host of scientific studies and legal challenges, President Bush signed a joint resolution allowing the Energy Department to take the next step in establishing Yucca Mountain as the nation’s nuclear waste depository.  But the 2006 congressional elections swept the Democrats into power, led by Yucca Mountain opponent Senator Harry Reid.  Following Senator Reid’s assumption of power, Congress gradually decreased the funding for the site.  President Obama—another opponent of Yucca Mountain—announced he was abandoning the project and directed Energy Secretary Steven Chu to formally file a motion to withdraw the project’s pending license application while establishing a Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future which is tasked with a comprehensive review and consideration of alternatives to Yucca Mountain.

But the adjudicatory bodies are not letting the Obama administration abandon Yucca Mountain just as a “matter of policy.”  On June 29th, the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board rejected DOE’s motion to stop the project, ruling that the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 does not give the Energy secretary the discretion to substitute his policy for the one established by Congress in the Act.  The Board held that according to the 1982 Act, once Yucca Mountain was chosen by Congress, the project would be removed from the political process and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) would evaluate the proposal solely on its technical merits.  The day after the board’s ruling, the NRC took the unusual move of ordering an appeal to itself, not waiting for an appeal from the parties.  This is in addition to parallel litigation ongoing in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.  In the background, the federal government is assuming ever increasing money damages for breaching contracts with the nuclear utilities for disposal of nuclear waste.  The damage awards now total over $1 billion (The Blog of the Legal Times provides a good summary of the current status of the litigation).

Whatever the merits of abandoning the Yucca Mountain project, we are falling further and further behind in addressing the question of where to store nuclear waste and have not even begun to contemplate the questions facing the engineers, politicians, and theorists in Finland.  If we embrace nuclear energy as an alternative to oil—a way to both keep money from countries that don’t completely share our interests and decrease the possibility of a disaster on par with the BP spill—our production of nuclear waste will increase, thereby raising the importance of developing a comprehensive waste management strategy.  The most sobering thought of all: Finland has four nuclear reactors.  The U.S. has 104.

Photo courtesy of Christian Science Monitor.