Philadelphia Inquirer
April 17, 2005


Before the U.S. can grow more reliant on reactors, it must solve the
problem of disposing of nuclear waste.

As other energy analysts have done lately, U.S. Secretary of Energy
Samuel Bodman last week extolled nuclear energy's promise in the
international market, where electricity demand is projected to grow by
60 percent in the next 25 years.

"Nuclear power is the only method we have under current technology to
reliably produce large amounts of electricity without emitting any
pollution or greenhouse gases," he said.

Bodman cited the example of China, which plans to build 40 new
reactors within 15 years because, in the Chinese view, it's "clean and

The analysts could very well be right about nuclear power's
transformative role in the effort to slow global warming. But what
Bodman and the others gloss over is an intractable problem that has
plagued nuclear power from the start: radioactive waste.

Waste disposal is a problem far from solved -- as evidenced by recent
alarms raised by the National Academies of Science and Government
Accountability Office and the continuing controversy of the Yucca
Mountain project. The United States needs to resolve waste disposal
before moving forward on nuclear energy as Bodman and congressional
energy bills are urging.

U.S. nuclear power plants produce 2,000 metric tons of "spent fuel" a
year. So far, the industry has accumulated 54,000 metric tons. Most of
it is submerged in swimming-pool-like holding tanks at the power
plants. Some is stored on land in dry casks.

In a report declassified this month, the National Academies questioned
the safety of some aspects of pool storage against possible terrorist
attack. The scientists recommended a plant-by-plant assessment by a
reviewer independent of industry or the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
That's a good idea.

In a separate report, the GAO challenged the NRC's oversight and
accounting methods after three plants had missing or unaccounted for
spent fuel rods or rod fragments.

Since the 1950s, government and industry have agreed that solution to
nuclear waste disposal is a "geological repository" -- an underground
tomb, where the waste could cool for thousands of years and harm no
one. The problem was: Nobody wanted that in their backyard.

After years of debate, in 2002, President Bush proposed and Congress
approved Yucca Mountain, Nev., 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas, as the
site to store 77,000 metric tons of waste. But the licensing recently
stalled over allegations that scientists falsified safety reports
about the site. The FBI and inspectors general from the Department of
Energy and U.S. Geological Survey are investigating. Chances of the
repository opening by 2012, as planned, are slim.

Nuclear energy provides 20 percent of the United States' electricity.
Environmental and energy demands may dictate upping that percentage in
the future. But before it does, the United States needs a long-term
plan for nuclear-waste disposal.