Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Bury the Waste, Not the Debate

By David G. Young

Washington, DC , December 21, 2004 --  

The Britons who gathered last week in an obscure meeting room at the Holiday Inn Southampton had a far-out agenda to rival any Star Trek convention. Topics at the group's recent meetings have included launching rockets out of the solar system, inserting radioactive canisters into the Earth's mantle, and "transmutating" metals from one element to another.1 But as zany as these topics sound, these people are definitely not a group of science-fiction wackos. They are members of a British government appointed committee, studying long-term solutions to the problem of nuclear waste.

The fresh ideas being discussed in Britain are sorely needed, given that the topic in America has been relegated to a battle over Nevada's nearly completed Yucca Mountain storage facility. In the terms of the American debate, you are either dogmatically pro-Yucca Mountain or anti-Yucca Mountain. The pro crowd dismisses known flaws with the storage facility, repeating ad nauseam that whatever its defects, moving waste to Yucca Mountain is safer than leaving it scattered across the country.

The anti-crowd comes in two main flavors. The first is a bunch of NIMBY whiners from Nevada, who'd think the storage facility would be just dandy if it were located in upstate New York. The second is a group of anti-nuclear fundamentalists. They are opposed to nuclear power on principle, and they figure that by discrediting every single waste disposal solution, they can better make their case that nuclear power should be banned.

Bush's victory in the November election has given the pro crowd a major victory, since the Bush administration is strongly pro-Yucca, and gets to control the Department of Energy. This pro-Yucca victory is especially strong, given that Bush managed to carry Nevada despite widespread opposition to Yucca Mountain in the state. Without a major change, it is likely that the flawed storage facility will soon be put into service.

Whatever Yucca's risks, it is clear that things could be far worse. The Department of Energy claims that "deep geologic disposal" like at Yucca is the internationally accepted solution.2 This is true for nuclear power nations such as China, France and Sweden, who are all pursuing similar burial plans, but the reality of disposal practices by other countries is far more complex, and even frightening. Russia, for example, has long disposed of some of its radioactive waste by converting it into a liquid slurry, and pumping it into fissures in the ground.3,4

Many countries, including Japan, actually ship their highly radioactive plutonium and uranium waste halfway around the world to a plant in northwest Britain, where it is reprocessed and then shipped back, along with the highly radioactive waste byproducts, in an enormous and loosely-guarded ship.5 The benefit of this risky endeavor is that reprocessing reduces the volume of the waste. But this is no solution, since Britain's reprocessing can't eliminate the waste, and the leftovers continue to pile up. Hence, the British government created the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management to come up with a permanent solution.

The more creative ideas of the committee range from the incredibly stupid (launching the waste out of the solar system on countless expensive and dangerously explosive rockets) to the extremely clever: placing the waste in an ocean "subduction trench," which would eventually cause it to be pulled into the earth's interior by continental drift. But since the committee is a political entity, many of the more innovative ideas have been taken off of the committee's short list not because of science, but because of international political considerations.

Chief among these political casualties is the simple and extremely effective strategy of "dilute and disperse." This idea acknowledges the fact that everyone is exposed to a natural level of "background" radiation every day, and that the earth is quite a big place. If the radioactive components of nuclear waste could be dispersed evenly around the globe, the change in background radiation would not only be safe, it would be too small to be measurable. But since the practical implementation of such a strategy involves the very unattractive image of a controlled dumping of radioactive waste in the ocean and atmosphere, the idea just can't get off the ground.

Whatever its problems, the mere fact that the British committee is discussing creative alternatives is a welcome development. Barring a major energy discovery during the approaching era of fossil fuel exhaustion, nuclear power will see a major renaissance. Thus, a real solution is necessary.

To the extent that the opening of a flawed Yucca Mountain repository quiets anti-nuclear fundamentalists seeking to ban all nuclear power, this is a welcome move. There is nothing to prevent the waste from being dug up and disposed of differently in the future. But this can only happen if people continue discussing better means of nuclear waste disposal, something the U.S. Department of Energy has certainly not encouraged. In the end, it makes sense to bury the waste -- so long as the scientific debate is not buried along with it.

Related Web Columns:

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The End of Government's Nuclear Monopoly, June 30, 1998


1. Committee on Radioactive Waste Management, Waste Management Options, December 2003

2. Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management, Yucca Mountain Fact Sheets, as posted December 21, 2004

3. CoRWM, Ibid.

4. OCRWM, Ibid.

5. Greenpeace UK, Nuclear Processing Overview, November 11, 2001