- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 6, 2001

First of two parts.

Even before the Senate officially shifted seats, new majority leader Tom Daschle went nuclear. Last Thursday, he declared, "As long as were in the majority, its dead."
"It" is a plan to store high-level nuclear waste in a repository at Yucca Mountain, a move opposed by environmentalists and Nevadians. Yet Mr. Daschles myopic move should cause taxpayers to go ballistic: Billions of their dollars have already been spent studying the problem, and failure to proceed with the repository at Yucca Mountain will most likely result in a nightmarish nuclear not-in-my-back-yard problem that could last for generations.
Nuclear waste has been building up since the mushroom cloud was merely a gleam in the eye of Robert J. Oppenheimer. The buildup of waste from atomic weapons has been enriched from that coming of civilian power plants, many of which were built during the radioactive power situation of the 1970s.
The country is facing a similar energy situation today: While it is easy to disbelieve the power crisis out West (many of us never believed in Californias existence anyway), blackouts may well roll though the Midwest and Eastern Seaboard this summer. To avert a similarly dim outlook over the next two decades, the U.S. will need to build between 1,300 and 1,900 new power plants over the next two decades according to the National Energy Policy Development Group (NEPD) report on the energy crisis.
One of the solutions advocated by the NEPD is an expansion of nuclear power, since it is reliable, relatively low-cost (once the reactors are built), and fairly friendly to the environment. Nuclear power already supplies about 20 percent of the nations electricity needs, (a relatively low percentage compared to many other countries). And aside from safety concerns, nuclear powers biggest drawback is the waste it generates, regardless whether fuel rods are reprocessed.
According to the Nuclear Energy Institute, the 103 operational nuclear power plants in the United States produce a combined total of about 2,000 metric tons of high-level nuclear waste annually, primarily consisting of spent, but still intensely radioactive, reactor fuel rods. In more than three decades of operation, such plants have produced a total of about 36,500 metric tons of such waste, which, if stacked side-to-side and laid end-to-end, would cover an area the size of a football field about 12 feet deep.
That isnt surprising, since all sources of energy, whether renewable or non-, come with inherent drawbacks. Whirling windmills tend to chop up endangered avians, shining solar panels turn off when the sun goes down, and burning fossil fuels cause environmentalists to exhale voluminous amounts of noxious gasses that eventually cause costly presidential policy corrections.
Fossil fuels have other drawbacks as well. They are far less energetic a thimble-full of uranium will produce the same amount of electricity as 149 gallons of oil or almost a ton of coal, and they generate far more waste, some it radioactive.
In fact, small amounts of radiation are inherent in the matrix of life the food we eat, the water we drink, and the air we breathe. Damage to humans caused by radiation exposure is usually measured in rems. Exposures of around 10 rems may cause detectable deleterious damage in an individuals blood, exposures of 100 rems are usually sickening, and exposures of more than 1,000 rems are almost inevitably fatal. The average American is exposed to 360 millirems of radiation each year, more than 80 percent of it from natural sources, and the rest from a variety of events, ranging from plane travel to television viewing.
Radiation damage is due to the fact that, like actors in a spaghetti Western, radioactive elements "die," by breaking up into smaller particles (a process called radioactive decay), while simultaneously shooting out "bullets" of energy and/or particles. Those "bullets" (divided into alpha, beta and gamma particles) can wreck delicate protein machinery a cell needs to function and/or can chew the rungs off the delicate DNA ladder of life, potentially leading to various types of cancer. If reproductive cells have such broken rungs of DNA (called mutations) they can lead to multiple generations of families having genetic abnormalities and even higher-than-normal incidences of various cancers.
Radioactive materials can remain harmful for decades, and even centuries. For that reason, high-level nuclear waste needs to be stored somewhere, preferably far away from most things biological, or at least human. Several possibilities have been investigated since the brilliant dawn of the nuclear age. Burying the material on the ocean floor was sunk due to titanic technical and political difficulties. Safely sending the material into space proved far too challenging, as witness the Challenger disaster. The idea of storing the material on an isolated island was cast away, since Tom Hanks (and, for that matter, Gilligan and the Skipper too), could have been stranded anywhere. The Antarctic Treaty of 1959 froze out the idea of burying the material deep in polar ice.
Partially due to the paucity of safe, long-term storage alternatives, spent fuel rods are currently being kept in temporary storage containers on the sites of the nuclear plants in which they were used, either in steel- and concrete-lined pools or dry casks made of the same materials. Beyond the environmental, health and safety risks posed by such short-term solutions is the simple fact that nuclear plants are running out of room to place spent fuel rods. By 2010, the earliest that the repository at Yucca Mountain is expected to open, nearly 80 percent of nuclear plants will have exhausted their storage capacities.
The problem of high-level storage is literally approaching critical mass, and Yucca Mountain seems to offer the best long-term solution find out why tomorrow.

Charles Rousseaux is an editor for the Commentary pages of The Washington Times.


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