San Diego Union-Tribune

May 21, 2001


Nuclear waste plan lacks core

Politics has paralyzed efforts to dump reactors' toxic residue


WASHINGTON -- Beneath the dark, volcanic rock of a mountain 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas, a U-shaped tunnel stretches for five miles -- the skeleton of a dump that may someday hold the radioactive debris from the cores of the nation's nuclear reactors.

The federal government has tried to build this dump at Yucca Mountain for almost 20 years. Construction has not even begun.

President Bush wants to make nuclear power a cornerstone of his national energy policy. Yet the plan he announced Thursday makes only passing reference to radioactive waste, whose disposal has become so entangled by politics that after two decades, attempts to find a final resting place for it have been paralyzed.

Since 1980, when Congress began trying to build more dumps to take nuclear waste, politicians, the courts and public outrage have killed or stalled every attempt to do so.

"If we don't have a solution right now to the waste problem, what are we going to do with all that new waste (from new power plants)?" asked Allison Macfarlane, senior research associate at MIT's Security Studies Program.

On Thursday, Bush called for pursuing a nuclear waste depository, but he did not name Yucca Mountain. A spokesman for Bush did not return calls requesting an interview on the topic.

Environmental groups say radioactive materials such as plutonium -- a
carcinogen -- may find their way into the water people drink or the air they breathe.

The nuclear industry argues that even if the most dangerous radioactive
particles escaped from a dump, they would be no more dangerous than the radioactivity people absorb from the environment every day.

But there is no argument about two things: The nation has no dump to put the highly radioactive waste from nuclear reactors. And the one dump where most states now send less-radioactive debris -- in South Carolina -- will shut its doors in seven years.

The Department of Energy has tried to find a dump for high-level waste -- the filters, resins and assemblies that come from the core of a nuclear reactor -- since 1982, when Congress passed the Nuclear Waste Policy Act.

Though the department settled on Nevada's Yucca Mountain for high-level waste, it missed a 1998 deadline to open the dump, partly because of safety concerns and partly because of Nevada's fierce opposition. And were it built -- presumably in the next decade -- many experts agree the dump would be full even before existing reactors are shut down.

As for low-level waste -- the clothing, tools, soils and building materials used in and around a reactor -- Congress has prodded states for more than two decades to find or build more depositories for the debris. But politics, courts or public outrage have killed plans in Texas, Illinois, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and, most recently, at Ward Valley in California's Mojave Desert.

There are nuclear plants in 31 states, including Diablo Canyon and San
Onofre in California. On average, each reactor produces enough low-level nuclear waste each year to fill one sports utility vehicle. Hospitals and research laboratories also generate this debris.

"What we're seeing is that it is far more difficult to develop new (depositories) than the (government) assumed," said Paul Genoa, senior project manager with the Nuclear Energy Institute, which represents the nuclear industry.

High-level waste is now being stored at the nation's 103 reactors, either in 45-foot-deep pools or in thermos-shaped, concrete containers that are lined with steel.

There are more than 500 such containers at nuclear plants across the country.

But there are problems:

Though some radioactive materials are dangerous for thousands of years, the government acknowledges the containers can last only about a century.

Some states are limiting the number of containers at plants, and plant owners are suing the government because it costs money to store the waste.

When water reacted with the carbon coating of a container in Wisconsin -- and produced an explosion that lifted the container's 6,600-pound lid -- safety questions arose.

"The (regulatory commission) hasn't put a lot of thought into what they're going to do next," Macfarlane said. "These (containers) aren't going to last forever."

Low-level waste is sent to dumps in South Carolina and Washington state -- often at great expense. But in 2008, South Carolina will stop taking waste from all states except itself, Connecticut and New Jersey.

The Washington dump only takes waste from northwestern states. A dump in Utah takes only low-level nuclear waste from uranium mills -- not all low-level waste.