What “Nuclear Option”?

Not even the nuclear industry claims with a straight face that it could ever be cost efficient without massive government subsidies. Last week the White House answered the nuclear lobby’s call in the form of loan guarantees for “a new generation of safe, clean nuclear plants”. For this, Obama has earmarked $36 billion.

But what about nuclear waste storage options? More than half a century has passed since the first nuclear power plants became operational. And yet, we don’t even have any options on where to stick existing nuclear waste in the long term. And we have essentially no plans for waste from the touted next generation of nuclear reactors.

In the U.S., the nuclear industry has been eerily absent from this discussion. Because for reasons that are beyond strange, the industry is not responsible for the permanent storage of the waste it generates. The federal government (read: the taxpayer) is.

Not surprisingly, the government has been handling this problems with the same acumen it handles all other huge undertakings. First, a huge bureaucracy was created. It was then paralyzed by congressional infighting, partisan divisions, various lobbies, rebelling states (neither of which is keen to become the radioactive dumping ground for the entire nation) and political posturing. Add to that campaign contributions in one form or another and one arrives at a predictable political quagmire.

Precise figures are not obtainable, but it has been estimated that $14 billion have been spent on project “studies” since 1983. That’s just for “thinking” about options. The result? We are no closer to a long term storage solution than we were decades ago. The proposed Yucca Mountain repository for high level waste is all but dead. The proposed 2011 budget contains no funding for it. And even if the Yucca Mountain project would be revived over the objection of many geologists who consider the site unsafe, it would not have enough capacity. Not to forget that it would cost the taxpayer more than $100 billion to build and operate!

So we continue to have nuclear waste sitting in interim storage on hundreds of reactor sites across the United States — a huge security risk, but the only option we have had for decades. And the only option available for the foreseeable future.

At a symposium during last week’s annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in San Diego, California, geologist Allsion Macfarlane (George Mason University, Virginia) put it this way: The U.S. should consider “moving waste management out” of the federal government’s hands, perhaps into a public-private partnership. (And why not make the nuclear industry entirely responsible for the cost of nuclear waste management? After all, that’s what we demand of other industries).

While given past experiences on this issue would seem to make Macfarlane’s suggestion a logical step, I remain skeptical that consensus on a sound, cost efficient and safe solution will be found before radioactive waste from the proposed new generation of nuclear plants needs disposal.

So let’s not fool ourselves with talk about “options” when there are none in sight.

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