- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 19, 2000

Last May, the Senate barely failed to override President Clinton's veto of legislation for a spent nuclear-fuel storage site at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. The bill (S. 1287) was supposed to end the bickering about nuclear waste disposal and finally put into effect what has been national policy since 1982 when Congress passed the Nuclear Waste Policy Act.
Many view the Clinton veto as a blow to the U.S. nuclear-power program; but perhaps quite fortuitously, it might end up doing the opposite and boost it. This veto may provide the last chance to debate in a rational way what to do about the spent fuel from the nation's reactors. Retrievable safe storage above ground rather than permanent underground disposal may turn out to be the best answer.
This option was surely not what motivated Mr. Clinton's veto. The underlying reasons are many, with lots of hidden agenda.
Let's first look at the agenda of the Greens. If they can sabotage the disposal of nuclear waste, then they can argue that nuclear reactors should be shut down their ultimate aim. Their strategy is what is called the "orphan defense": A man murders his parents and then pleads for mercy because he is an orphan. They would like nothing better than to replace nuclear-generated electric power, 20 percent of the U.S. total, with wind and solar. In fact, closing down nuclear reactors would surely lead to more fossil-fueled plants that release greenhouse gases. Replacing megawatts with "negawatts" based on extreme energy conservation is not a realistic policy either.
The ostensible reason for Mr. Clinton's veto was that the bill would have given the responsibility for setting radiation standards to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Predictably, the Environmental Protection Agency argued that this would weaken environmental standards; but there is no scientific base for this. EPA's real reasons are bureaucratic and ideological, and the White House was apparently willing to support politics over science in order to appease Al Gore's Green constituency.
To protect the public from radioactivity, Congress had directed EPA in 1992 to set standards "based upon the findings and recommendations of the National Academy of Sciences." As reported in the April 28, 2000, issue of the journal Science, EPA proposed a standard for those living near Yucca of not more than 5 percent of the natural radiation background (from cosmic rays and other sources). The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, charged with issuing the license for the spent-fuel repository, argued that a standard of 8 percent would be almost as safe and far easier to achieve with confidence.
But then EPA decided to set an additional standard for ground water, at a level of only 1 percent of the natural background, assuming users would drink half a gallon of ground water every day. The scientists involved in the Academy study objected vehemently, citing the absence of any scientific justification but to no avail. (They should also have attacked EPA's methodology, which relies on the unscientific "linear" hypothesis that denies the existence of a "threshold" below which radiation is shown to be not harmful.)
This standoff was one of the reasons that prompted Congress to pass legislation to transfer environmental regulatory responsibility from the EPA to the NRC. This was the bill that Clinton vetoed, counting on support from environmental groups. Opposed to the Yucca site, Nevada senators and others supporting the veto argued disingenuously that allowing nuclear waste to be transported would set a "very dangerous precedent."
The General Accounting Office, an arm of Congress, has now weighed into the controversy. According to a study released on July 14, the EPA standard would cost taxpayers billions of dollars in unnecessary spending. Sen. Pete Domenici, New Mexico Republican, has termed the EPA's insistence on its tighter standard as "irrational."
So what will happen now? Majority leader Trent Lott may attempt to override again later this year. Or the bill may be presented to a different president next year. "Sooner or later a president will sign a bill," said Mr. Domenici.
But if Mr. Clinton's veto stops the program of a central underground repository, what are the options? Closing operating nuclear plants is entirely unrealistic; if anything, more nuclear power is needed if we wish to reduce the emissions of carbon dioxide. The alternative is to leave spent fuel in local storage at or near the reactors. This is what is being done now, safely and routinely. Where space is limited, storage facilities will be expanded. Local storage also avoids transport to a central location. While transportation poses no real safety problem, it could incite popular anti-nuclear sentiment if fear and emotions are inflamed by activists.
Postponing underground disposal at a central location, like Yucca Mountain, would not be a bad choice. Almost certainly, with nuclear power growing in Asia and other parts of the world, high-grade deposits of uranium will become depleted and prices will rise. There will come a time, perhaps in 20 years and certainly within 50 years, when spent fuel will constitute available resource.At that point, reprocessing of the stored fuel will make economic sense, because of the recycling of fissionable uranium and plutonium into reactor fuel, and the recovery of other elements whose worth we cannot even estimate at this time. After all, isn't conservation of resources a desirable objective?S. Fred Singer, an atmospheric physicist, is professor emeritus of environmental sciences at the University of Virginia and the president of the Fairfax, Va.-based Science & Environmental Policy Project.



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