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  • 04-Feb-12 Seeking Sane Ways to Store Nuclear Waste
  • (in TWTW Feb 4, 2012)
    S. Fred Singer, Chairman and President , Science and Environmental Policy Project (SEPP)

    Seeking Sane Ways to Store Nuclear Waste

    Originally appeared in Wall St. Journal, Mar 29, 1985

    The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 mandating the permanent underground disposal of spent fuel from civilian reactors, is known irreverently as the Nuclear-WPA - and for good reasons. NWPA may be the largest public-works program ever foisted onto the American public by Congress. Unlike cross-country canals, flood control and other water-management projects, there is not even a useful output here. Just $100 billion (or so, depending on inflation) spent over 25 years, with a bunch of people digging deep holes in the ground and another bunch filling them in.

    If you think this is an unkind caricature of NWPA, consider these other features:

    The disposal program is financed by a straight excise tax on nuclear power, now running more than $300 million a year and growing rapidly! Like all regressive taxes, it hits the poor the hardest.

    The tax is being collected from rate-payers in advance, years before any construction is to take place. (By contrast, many state public utility commissions do not permit an electric utility to charge even their ongoing construction costs to rate-payers.) The Department of Energy is already pondering the need for an increase in the fee, currently 0.1 cent per kilowatt hour.

    The program has no built-in incentives for efficiency, and, in fact calls for multiple efforts: Nine sites to be investigated, five to be nominated and three to be characterized (an extensive and expensive undertaking), before one geologic repository site is recommended to the president. Then the whole partridge-in-a-pear tree process has to be repeated, since NWPA calls for the construction of two repositories; doubling the total cost is supposed to provide for a sharing of the political burden.

    No Concern for the Rate-payer

    But the program is unlikely to have the first repository in place by the target date of 1998. With the three site decision due by mid '85, objections are being voiced - even for Hanford, Wash., where high-level nuclear wastes have been stored in liquid form for decades. The process set up by NWPA is convoluted, requires various concurrences and environmental assessments, plus two separate licensing proceedings before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. And it specifically allows for vetoes by affected states and Indian tribes - which Congress can, in principle, override. But any shortcuts, even if legislated, to eliminate this preprogrammed administrative political gridlock, could undermine public confidence in the whole selection procedure; while delays in meeting the unrealistic NWPA timetable might be misconstrued and magnified in the media by anti-nuclear activists and again lead to a loss of confidence.

    What produced this Geologists' Full Employment Act ", and why is no one looking out for the rate-payer who is stuck with the bill? Why is there no outcry from consumer advocates, the electric utilities, the nuclear industry or the White House?

    All of them want the nuclear waste problem out of the way - no matter what the cost. After battling for 30 years, these people are tired. Nearly everyone agrees privately that the safe disposal of spent fuel or other high level radioactive material is not a technical problem, but a political one. The utilities would prefer a lowercost solution but don't want to delay the process for fear that unallayed public concern may force the closing of reactors. The nuclear industry knows that it can't sell more reactors until the public agrees that the nuclear waste problem is solved. And "public interest groups - which should know better - are paralyzed by their own propaganda about radioactive-waste hazards - a Frankenstein monster they created to oppose nuclearpower development.

    One of the major bugaboos is the long-standing confusion between nuclear reactors and nuclear weapons; another is semantic: One always reads about nuclear-waste dumps. Well, there is no dumping. The disposal sites or storage facilities, whether below or above ground, are carefully engineered and monitored. (One great advantage of radioactivity compared with toxic chemicals - it is easy to monitor). And spent reactor fuel should be considered as a valuable resource, not waste, and guarded like the gold at Fort Knox. This is not a bad analogy: After three years in a reactor, 30 tons of spent fuel contain 28.47 tons of innocuous and potentially valuable uranium 238, as well as 0.35 ton of costly fissionable uranium 235 and 0.23 ton of fissionable plutonium that can be reused for new fuel elements after reprocessing. Only about 0.80 ton is waste" radioactive fission products (containing, however, appreciable amounts of valuable metals); even the radioactivity may turn out to be useful for irradiation of food, sterilization of sewage, and specialized chemical or medical applications.

    In any case, the handing of fission products does not present a difficult technical problem. In countries such as France, where spent fuel is reprocessed as a matter of state policy rather than economics, the fission products are immobilized - put into a glass ceramic form - before a final disposal is decided on. Germany is planning a reprocessing plant -- if only to reduce the amount of material to be disposed of by more than a factor of 30. Reprocessing of spent fuel may not be economic now, simply because uranium is so cheap. But there can be no doubt that low-cost uranium will become scarce some day, making reprocessing economic; recycling' is after all an attractive form of conservation, which also gets rid of the long-lived plutonium. And whenever breeder reactors become economic, the large amounts of uranium 238 already mined and refined but not usable in present reactors, will become valuable. Resource conservation argues that spent fuel should not be disposed of in places where it cannot be effectively retrieved some decades from now.

    The decision not to reprocess was made during the Carter administration, influenced mainly by the fear of nuclear proliferation, namely the possible diversion of plutonium into clandestine nuclear programs. This same fear also led to the policy to stop nuclear-fuel exports. The truth is no one would choose to make efficient weapons from the spent fuel of present civilian power reactors, because they furnish an undesirable mixture of plutonium isotopes. Instead, special production reactors are used to furnish weapons-grade plutonium.

    The underground geologic repository program that we are now embarked on must meet exceedingly tight Environmental Protection Agency standards. They translate to an upper limit of 0.1 (statistical) additional cancer deaths a year, compared with 460,000 a year from other causes of cancer - essentially a zero risk' criterion. Natural radioactivity is tens of thousands times more important. Even the burning of coal causes far more radiation exposure than an equivalent nuclear power station.

    But adequate health protection does not require deep burial. Spent fuel is in the form of porcelain-like pellets, enclosed in a gas-tight zirconium-alloy tube, and then placed into specially designed casks that act as a further barrier to the escape of radioactivity. Such fuel in casks can be stored in dry form, i.e., not in pools of water but cooled by air. They can be protected, enclosed, buried in shallow depths, and - most important - monitored and retrieved if necessary or desirable. The radioactive exposure they would cause is negligible compared with natural radioactivity from cosmic rays, the soil, and even the potassium within the human body - not to mention the extra exposure we get from medical X-rays or from flying at high altitudes where cosmic rays are stronger.

    What is to be done? Even if one agrees with all of the arguments presented, it may still be best to let the current NWPA process continue, at least until an ideal geologic disposal site has been selected, accepted by the state in which it is to be located, and passed the scrutiny of the NRC and EPA. No effort should be made to circumvent in any way the selection process just to meet a legislated deadline. Public confidence is of the greatest importance, because the public seems to want at least the option of a safe underground disposal site.

    Follow Britain's Example?

    But once the construction license is issued and the disposal option ensured, some soul-searching is in order before construction is started. What is really the best option for spent fuel: geologic disposal, above-ground storage in a monitored retrievable facility, or continued storage in pools and then in dry casks at the reactor sites? The last option simply continues what we are doing now, has by far the lowest cost, postpones the problem and cost of transporting spent fuel across many state lines, and leaves all other options open. Many are reaching the conclusion that there is no need to rush into a decision, particularly an expensive and irreversible one.

    The British have decided to store spent fuel in dry casks at the reactor sites for 50 years, monitor carefully -- and then decide whether to reprocess more of their spent fuel or dispose of it in some other way. We might do well to follow their example. China has offered to accept and store other countries' spent fuel - at a price. It may have discovered a benign money maker and at the same time an even now foreseeable resource. If we were to follow China's example and accept nuclear waste from small countries, we could, in addition, alleviate some of the widespread concern about the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

    **************** Mr. Singer, currently eminent scholar at George Mason University, is a geophysicist. His latest book is "Free Market Energy' (Universe, 1984.)

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