A Nuclear-Waste Stopgap

When the US made a big investment in nuclear power to generate electricity decades ago, the eventual cost and danger of the waste problem were only vaguely perceived by most Americans.

Now that bill has come due. And the final political decision was made this week by the Senate in approving the siting of a national nuclear-waste storage facility at Nevada's Yucca Mountain.

If a drawn-out project like this one can be said to have any urgency, it springs from the steady accumulation of nuclear waste at 131 far-flung sites around the US, mainly power plants. More than 40,000 tons are currently stacked up. Storage capacity and safety at these sites have long been concerns. The prospect that terrorists might target these nuclear dumps greatly adds to the worries.

Yucca Mountain wouldn't completely eliminate the problem of scattered waste sites. Existing power plants will continue to add some 2,000 tons of waste a year, and the repository, designed to hold a total of 77,000 tons, will eventually fill up. But a central storage site will alleviate the problem considerably – assuming the sources of waste don't themselves increase (more on that later).

There's still a long road ahead for Yucca Mountain, with lots of potential obstacles. Of immediate concern is the the potential hazard of transporting radioactive waste from sites across the US to a central repository.

Opponents of the project have been alarmist on this point. Dangers exist, certainly, and a transportation plan must be devised. But nuclear waste has been safely moved for years – though in smaller quantities. Experts should be up to the task.

And they have years to complete it. The next phase, a technical review by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, will take at least four years. At the same time, Nevada will be furiously litigating to halt the process. At the earliest, waste could be at the site by 2010.

A basic question for the US – indeed the world, since nuclear waste disposal challenges other countries, too – is whether to increase the investment in nuclear power. A national waste-storage site could spur industry efforts to expand nuclear-power generation, which already accounts for 20 percent of US electricity.

While Yucca may help current nuclear plants continue, its eventual use shouldn't trigger a revival of interest in nuclear power. Taxpayers and electric rate-payers are smarter now in judging the lifetime costs of all energy systems. The environmental and financial costs of nuclear power may not stand up when compared with the many energy alternatives.

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