- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 7, 2004

Political campaigns have an idealistic appeal to the public. Sen. John Kerry, campaigning in the state of Nevada, made a very serious statement not to use Yucca Mountain as the nation’s high-level nuclear waste disposal site. I wish he had not made such a statement, because it represents a setback in the U.S. waste program.

President Bush made a courageous decision to designate Yucca Mountain as a permanent nuclear waste disposal site two years ago. His decision was unpopular in Nevada, but Congress endorsed it. It had taken more than 20 years to reach that stage. The Department of Energy has been searching for the best available site in the nation since the passage of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act in 1982. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s licensing process is the project’s next hurdle. Mr. Kerry cannot reverse the progress made so far.

What is Mr. Kerry going to do? He proposed searching for an international consortium, which has been discussed and studied in the circle of the National Research Council scientists and engineers. Russia and China may propose disposal sites in Central Asia and the Gobi Desert for permanent disposal of high-level nuclear waste and spent fuel. It may be possible in the distant future. Whatever the future will be, however, the United States cannot dispose of its nuclear waste in Central Asia or the Gobi Desert. Transportation would simply be too costly.

If the United States rejects the Yucca Mountain site on the grounds of geological safety, I don’t think any site can be considered safe in this world. If that is the case, then all nations should close down their nuclear power plants and stop nuclear weapons production.

We can stop nuclear weapons production, but can we close down the nuclear power plants? The United States can, because it relies onnuclear power for only 20 percent of its electricity, butSouth Korea,my home country, generates 50 percent of its electricity from nuclear power. China, India, Japanand Southeast Asian nations are expanding their nuclear power programs to supply their future energy needs. Shutting down the Yucca Mountain program will have an enormous impact on the world energy utilities. If there is no safe disposal site, all nuclear power plants should be shut down.

Tons of research works and findings on high-level waste disposal have accumulated since the 1980s. Based upon those findings, the Department of Energy proposed the Nevada site. There is probably no one best site, but it is fair to say that Yucca Mountain is one of the best available sites. If idealistic environmentalists are seeking a no-risk society, they will fail. In this world, seeking a no-risk society is an impossible mission. It seems to me that some American politicians and intellectuals are seeking a no-risk society. U.S. scientists and engineers have examined and re-examined the research findings, and made a positive response to Mr. Bush’s decision. I trust their work.

The Democratic Party has maintained a good environmental image. But giving up theYucca Mountain site is environmentally unethical. The Clinton administration postponed the decision to finalize the Nevada site for political reasons. The United States has generated nuclear waste since the Manhattan Project in 1940s. There should be a site for disposing of the waste. Avoiding the responsibility is not a wise president’s job, although it may be a good politician’s tactic. Bill Clinton also could have ratified the Kyoto protocol, or could have made an attempt to ratify it. He did not. The Bush administration made a decision against Kyoto, a decision that has been criticized by the international community. Mr. Clinton also was responsible for the failure of California’s search for a disposal site for low-level waste on federal land in California. I wonder whether the Clinton administration deserved its high evaluation in the field of environmental policy and management.

I wish Mr. Kerry had proposed no more nuclear power plants and nuclear-weapons production in the United States, but he did not clearly say this. Or that he had proposed a retrievable disposal facility in Nevada, assuming that future science can find and invent safer disposal site and methods. He did not say that either. He just said, “No Yucca Mountain site for disposal under my presidency!” His declaration is political — no more, no less — and he is turning the world back to 1982.

The U.S. nuclear-energy industry is also having difficulty finding low-level waste disposal sites. The two disposal sites in South Carolina and Washington that existed prior to the 1980 Low-Level Radioactive Waste Policy Act had been taking waste from the 50 states. The 1980 act proposed that low-level waste disposal should be the responsibility of state or interstate compacts, but no new site has been opened. This is a very serious problem for the United States, and it has set a bad example to the outside world. Finding nuclear waste disposal sites is the most difficult task in American politics. I hope Mr. Kerry knows it.

Yearn Hong Choi is a professor at the University of Seoul and former assistant for environmental quality in the Department of Defense.

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