Originally created 01/06/02

Nuclear waste awaiting burial

AN EXTRAORDINARY environmental success is passing almost unnoticed. It illustrates the cost of ignoring good news; in particular, good news about a government effort to dispose of nuclear waste - in favor of bad. When the success story is missed, so is the opportunity to reframe policy on the basis of what works instead of always focusing on what doesn't.

Nearly three years ago, steel canisters containing plutonium-contaminated waste from the nuclear weapons program were loaded on a truck in Idaho and transported hundreds of miles to the Department of Energy's Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in southeastern New Mexico. There, with DOE and New Mexico state officials looking on, the canisters were placed in a geologic repository carved out of a salt cavern more than a half-mile beneath the desert floor.

Thus began the permanent disposal of plutonium-contaminated waste, which contains radioactive isotopes with half-lives that are measured in centuries and classified as transuranic waste. Trucks carrying the transuranic waste arrive almost daily at the New Mexico repository, traveling from government installations in the Pacific Northwest and as far away as the Savannah River Site. The shipments have been done with absolute safety. Eventually, 1.1 million canisters of the highly radioactive waste will be placed in seven miles of underground storage rooms that comprise the New Mexico repository.

The ease with which the DOE is transporting the waste makes it easy to forget how hard the task looked at the outset. Anti-nuclear groups predicted doomsday scenarios. Highway accidents would occur, it was said, and the waste canisters would split open and scatter radioactive materials in populous areas along interstate highways.

WITH HINDSIGHT, it's obvious why nuclear critics were so mistaken. Transporting nuclear waste seems dangerous only because few people realize there have been more than 3,000 shipments of highly radioactive waste during the past 40 years in the United States without a single instance in which the public was harmed by radiation.

Yet environmental lobbies oppose efforts to transport spent fuel from nuclear power plants for storage in a geologic repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, contending that a highway or rail accident could cause a disaster on the scale of the Chernobyl accident. Never mind that for years - and with scarcely any opposition from environmentalists - spent fuel from research reactors in Europe and Asia has been shipped to the United States and transported long distances by truck for storage at SRS.

Today, some 45,000 metric tons of spent fuel are stored safely in water pools and concrete casks at plants Vogtle and Hatch and other commercial reactors around the country. But many nuclear plants are running out of storage space for spent fuel.

Because nuclear power accounts for a large share of Georgia's electricity supply, the state's ratepayers have a great deal at stake in the licensing and operation of the Yucca Mountain repository. Since 1983, they have paid more than $600 million into a federal fund to build the repository; nationally, fund payments exceed $17 billion.

CONGRESS SHOULD reject efforts by Deputy Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., to curtail DOE funds needed to complete a decades-long study of the Yucca Mountain site. Now that chances for approving the repository seem better than ever, Mr. Reid and other critics are trying to block funding for the project.

Yucca Mountain is the perfect place for a nuclear burial ground. It is arid, geologically stable and the underground chambers holding the spent fuel canisters would be a safe distance from the water table. The site is also remote; so remote that nuclear weapons once were tested in this part of the Nevada desert.

Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham needs to rule on the suitability of the site and recommend to President George W. Bush that he approve the plans to begin storing spent fuel at Yucca Mountain once the repository is completed.

It is unconscionable that anti-nuclear activists who are trying to shut down nuclear power in this country are spending so much effort trying to stop the shipment of spent fuel to Yucca Mountain.

EVEN IF THE production of nuclear-generated electricity were to be entirely and immediately halted and the plants decommissioned, the need to dispose of nuclear waste would remain. If plutonium-contaminated wastes can be safely disposed of in a New Mexico repository, then surely the same can be done with spent fuel at Yucca Mountain in Nevada.

(Editor's note: The writer is a director at the Neely Research Center and a professor of nuclear engineering and health physics at G.W. Woodruff School of Mechanical Engineering and the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta.)