Federal study concludes nuclear storage is safe

Published August 1, 2001

Persons on both sides of the Yucca Mountain, Nevada nuclear storage debate have found reason for encouragement and reason for concern as control of the U.S. Senate was given over to the Democrats.

As South Dakota Senator Tom Daschle prepared to assume power as Senate Majority Leader, he asserted that the federal government’s proposal to construct a permanent underground storage facility at Yucca Mountain for the nation’s nuclear waste is dead on arrival in the U.S. Senate.

At a May 31 Las Vegas fundraiser for Nevada Democratic Senator Henry Reid, Daschle stated, “As long as we’re in the majority, it’s dead.” Daschle’s remarks were warmly received in Nevada, where the entirety of the state’s congressional delegation, regardless of party affiliation, opposes storage of the nation’s nuclear waste in their state.

Science supports Yucca Mountain safety

Shortly after Daschle’s speech, however, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) released a report concluding that underground storage is safe and that governments must act quickly to alleviate the accumulating waste in above-ground temporary storage facilities. The scientists say the problem of nuclear waste disposal is purely political and that waste disposal is completely safe from a scientific standpoint.

The NAS report, issued June 6, came on the heels of a U.S. Department of Energy report finding nuclear waste could be safely stored at the Yucca Mountain site.

“This report on years of scientific study offers further support of the suitability of Yucca Mountain as a permanent repository for used fuel from the nation’s commercial nuclear power plants and high-level radioactive waste from the nation’s defense programs,” summarized Joe Colvin, president of the Nuclear Energy Institute. “The report clearly demonstrates there is ample scientific basis for making a decision to dispose of used nuclear fuel at Yucca Mountain.”

The Bush administration built on the momentum of the two studies, announcing on June 5 new rules for the disposal of nuclear waste. The Bush rules are virtually identical to rules proposed by the Clinton administration . . . and at the time stridently opposed by conservatives as excessively stringent and scientifically unnecessary.

The Bush announcement may finally create congressional consensus for the Yucca Mountain site, as many Republican former opponents of the rules are expected to fall into party line with their President in supporting the Clinton proposal.

Russia sees economic boon in waste

While opponents of the Yucca Mountain proposal placed their faith in the powerful Daschle-Reid tandem to block implementation of the plan, breaking news overseas further stirred the nuclear storage debate.

On June 6, the same day the NAS issued its report, the Russian Duma approved a plan to import massive amounts of international nuclear waste for storage and possible reprocessing at a facility in the Ural Mountains.

Disregarding general public opposition to the plan, the Duma voted almost 2-1 to take advantage of the significant economic windfall that such a plan would entail. The Russian Atomic Energy Ministry estimates the nation can earn over $20 billion in the next two decades by accepting 20,000 tons of nuclear waste from countries willing and able to ship their spent nuclear fuel to Russia.

The 20,000 tons represents just a fraction of the overall potential market in spent nuclear fuel, as the United States alone currently has 78,000 tons awaiting disposal. Countries such as France, England, Germany, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan also produce significant amounts of nuclear energy, with the resulting need to store nuclear waste.

The NAS study left no doubt as to the scientific ability to safely store nuclear waste, but researchers noted the political will to do so has been sorely lacking. In Moscow, supporters of the plan to import nuclear waste count on overcoming public opposition by earmarking profits from the new industry for expensive environmental clean-up programs made necessary by massive Soviet-era environmental abuses.

Proponents hope Russian citizens will be persuaded by the prospects of a greening Russia and the empirical safety of using modern nuclear storage technologies. Even so, the importation plan faces high hurdles.

More than 90 percent of the waste Russia could import originated in American-designed nuclear reactors. Even when those reactors are built overseas, the U.S. reserves the right to veto any plans for nuclear waste disposal. Tensions over Russia’s assistance to Iran in building several nuclear power plants make it unlikely the U.S. will quickly approve plans by any nation under the American nuclear reactor umbrella to send spent nuclear fuel to Russia.

With scientists possessing the technology to reprocess spent fuel into nuclear weapons-grade fuel, the U.S. government will be unlikely to approve nuclear waste shipments to Russia until it halts its nuclear assistance to nations deemed a terrorist threat to the United States.

For more information . . .

The Department of Energy study is available on the Internet at http://www.ymp.gov/documents/ser_a/index.htm.

A June 6 news release discussing the National Academy of Sciences study is available on the Internet at http://www4.nationalacademies.org/news.nsf/(ByDocID)/4256E964360AFFDB85256A630065FDF?OpenDocument.

The full text of the NAS study is on the Internet at http://lab.nap.edu/catalog/10119.html?onpi_newsdoc06062001.