The Storage Problem

A pile of hot radioactive waste the size of a small hillock stands between nuclear energy and growth. Currently, 52,000 tons of highly radioactive waste from civilian reactors are stored around America in what is euphemistically termed "temporary storage."40 Some of it has been in temporary storage, in huge pools of water and above ground in large dry casks, for three decades. The industry has been bedeviled for that time with a lack of a permanent storage technology. Until one is found, the industry will not be able to grow.

The federal government was legally obligated to take responsibility for this waste, but it did not do so for a simple reason—it doesn't have a solution for long-term storage. As federal agencies have failed repeatedly to make adequate progress on the Yucca Mountain underground storage facility in Nevada, utilities have been stuck holding the bag of storing this dangerous material. Now utilities have sued the federal government for millions in damages they have incurred in having to care for this waste. The failure at Yucca Mountain is so glaring that the DOE entered into an agreement with the Skull Valley Band of the Goshutes Native American nation in Utah for that tribe to accept the nation's tens of thousands of tons of radioactive waste. But even that stopgap measure went down in flames when two federal agencies nullified the agreement and stopped hauling the waste across federal lands.41

The inherent problem of trying to instill confidence that radiation cannot escape underground for 10,000 years is obvious. In January 2006, for example, researchers at the University of Cambridge found that zircon, a material used to encapsulate waste, may not be as stable over thousands of years as originally believed. "We need to take this into account because most of these materials will degrade more rapidly than we had thought," said Ian Farnan, one of the lead researchers.42

Yucca Mountain was originally scheduled to open in 1998, but technical problems combined with political challenges have postponed its opening until at least 2017. Although tunnels have been dug 350 meters below the surface at Yucca, it cannot be said that a storage solution is now available. It cannot be said that one is even close. Until it is, large-scale growth in the industry is impossible. It is true that 161 million Americans live within seventy-five miles of temporary storage sites today, so one could think that nuclear energy by now would be considered a good neighbor. But Americans understand the concept of tens of thousands of years of toxic material ready to leach into America's groundwater, so they will insist upon a permanent solution before they embrace a full-scale growth program for nuclear energy.

More important, even if the Yucca site is finally approved, it will not be the complete answer. After it is in full operation, and is full, there will still be an additional 61,000 metric tons of waste in "temporary storage" at nuclear plants across the country.43

Options may exist to reduce the storage problems with much more sophisticated technology than digging a hole in the ground. It may be possible to substantially reduce the volume of waste through several means of reprocessing the material. The Bush administration has committed the nation to an international effort, the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership, to develop ways to reprocess spent fuel rods to recover usable plutonium and uranium and separate out long-lived radioactive elements known as actinides.44

The country's previous experience with reprocessing was ugly, though. Several sites experienced major equipment failures, chronic breakdowns, and even fires. The efforts were largely terminated in the late 1970s. But some countries—for example, Japan, China, and Russia—have active or pilot reprocessing programs.45 It seems that the failures of the past should not terminate the prospect that a new technology can be developed.

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