As 299 radioactive remnants of the cold war passed beneath the Golden Gate Bridge, Bay Area residents lamented how they - of all people - had become the welcoming committee for tons of foreign nuclear waste.
Indeed, the choice by the US Department of Energy (DOE) to move spent nuclear-fuel rods from South Korea to an Idaho storage facility by way of the Bay Area - the first of five such shipments from Asia - is perhaps a bit ironic. After all, San Francisco just last year considered limiting the use of aerosol perfumes and deodorants for environmental reasons.
But while the Bay Area's numerous environmental groups mobilize to try to prevent San Francisco Bay from becoming an Ellis Island for Asian nuclear waste, the shipment raises a fundamental question. Should the United States be accepting nuclear waste from abroad at a time when it is struggling to find places for its own radioactive waste?
To supporters of the plan, it's a necessary move to make sure that American allies have access to nuclear power yet are unable to build a weapon of mass destruction from the spent fuel. To critics, it's a dangerous and unnecessary bargain for foreign countries that get to use US facilities as a dumping ground.
The program that allows for the shipment of foreign nuclear waste to the US was initiated by President Eisenhower in the 1950s. Under the Atoms for Peace program, the US sold nuclear technology abroad and agreed to take back the waste so that the countries couldn't convert the technology into bombs.
Under the program, the US will end up housing some 20 metric tons of nuclear-fuel waste from as many as 41 countries, ranging from Britain and France to Malaysia and Thailand, at a price tag of $350 million to $450 million over 40 years. The first four shipments of the program have already been made - they arrived in Charleston, S.C., without incident.
Tracy Mustin, the DOE's program manager for foreign research spent nuclear fuel, says that most of the fuel rods come from developed countries that pay for shipping and management of the waste, though "it's not full cost recovery."
Yet the very idea that these developed nations are sending their nuclear waste to the US has many scientists and environmentalists here upset. "Most if not all of the nations sending this spent nuclear fuel to the United States are capable of storing the nuclear fuel rods at or near the site of origin as safely as they would be stored in the United States," says Marylia Kelley, executive director of Tri-Valley CAREs, an antinuclear group. Not only that, she adds, but a few of the 41 countries, such as Britain and France, have already developed nuclear weapons.
"What a deal - you get the nuclear power and you don't have to deal with the waste," says Bradley Angel, a director of the environmental group GreenAction. "We need to stop exporting nuclear power so we don't get into the dilemma of what to do with the waste."
The Atoms for Peace program, they note, is an agreement - not a treaty - and there is room for renegotiation. The Clinton administration, however, seems uninterested in altering the terms of the agreement, they add.
There is wide disagreement as to why the US continues to accept waste from wealthy allies in addition to poor nations that have inadequate storage and security. Philip Klasky, director of the Bay Area Nuclear Waste Coalition, calls the program "a way to externalize the costs of the most expensive aspect of nuclear-power generation, and that is what to do with the waste. It is essentially a subsidy for the nuclear-power industry" for the US to export nuclear technology and import its byproducts, he says.
The DOE, though, refutes such claims. "There is no direct or indirect subsidy," says Ken Chacey, director of the agency's office of spent-fuel management, insisting the program's sole intent is to replace high-uranium content abroad with low-enriched rods, making it harder for recipient countries to develop the bomb.
In San Francisco, meanwhile, there was a collective cringing at the sight of international nuclear waste entering the Bay Area. "It felt sort of like a violation for them to pass under the Golden Gate Bridge," says Ms. Kelley. "The bridge is a symbol for the Bay Area."
A symbol, they hope, will not become linked with the image of ships bringing radioactive waste to America's shores.