You Decide

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image montage: child looking up at nuclear power plant cooling towers, detail of green leafImage CreditShould the United States build more nuclear power plants?

  • Yes? But have you considered...
  • No? But have you considered...

… the dangers and problems of nuclear waste disposal?

Radioactive nuclear waste remains deadly for tens of thousands of years. The United States, meanwhile, has failed to open a site that can safely store the estimated 58,000 metric tons of poisonous waste our nuclear industry has produced in the last 50 years. The result is that the accumulated waste—enough to fill a seven-foot-deep football field—is stranded at nuclear reactors, sitting in pools of boric acid or tucked away in dry casks. The large casks, aside from being potential terrorist targets, can’t safely store waste forever—the current estimate is about 100 years.

The one place we’re looking to store waste long term—Nevada’s Yucca Mountain—won’t work. The site lies near a web of earthquake faults that is expected to experience quakes of up to 6.5 on the Richter scale. Water seeping into the mountain also poses a problem: Should the storage containers rupture, the radioactive waste could infect the region’s groundwater, irradiating water used for everything from drinking to crop irrigation.

The federal government’s standards for the storage canisters are also absurd: By regulation, they must be able to safely store waste for 10,000 years. Really. We are meant to believe that an engineer can confidently design a canister to store radioactive waste for 10,000 years? For that matter, are we actually expected to believe that a hydrologist can predict with any accuracy how much water will trickle through Yucca over the next 10,000 years?

Furthermore, transporting waste from nuclear reactors to Yucca would require around 22,000 individual trips by rail, truck or barge. Those trips pose the likelihood, as one anti-nuclear activist put it, of “mobile Chernobyls and dirty bombs on wheels rolling past the homes of millions of Americans.”

Add to that the Sierra Club’s daunting calculation that for nuclear power to play a significant role in cutting greenhouse gases, a waste depository would have to open every three to four years. In the meantime, Yucca has been studied and debated for more than 20 years, and it still isn’t open for business. It’s inconceivable, then, that we could somehow cut this bureaucratic Gordian knot and begin opening new storage facilities every four years.

Certainly, reprocessing spent fuel could drastically cut the need for waste storage. But reprocessing has several disadvantages as well—not the least of which is the steep expense of construction. 

A single nuclear reprocessing plant, for instance, would run $20 billion, and the U.S. government estimates that we would need two of them to recycle the 2,000 metric tons of spent fuel our current nuclear reactors produce each year. For what we would pay on our electricity bills to reprocess this radioactive waste—about $0.04 to $0.06 per kilowatt-hour—we could buy wind electricity.

What’s more, in 1999 the U.S. Department of Energy estimated that a full build-out of eight waste reprocessing centers with research and development activities would cost a whopping $279 billion over 118 years—and that’s assuming we build no new nuclear reactors.

The environmental and political hurdles involved in building these reprocessing stations would probably be enough to make the 20-year-long controversy over Yucca Mountain seem like a molehill.

… nuclear waste can be recycled and safely stored?

France derives more than 75 percent of its electricity from nuclear power. At capacity, the country’s 59 reactors can produce more than 63 gigawatts of electricity—enough to serve more than 40 million people every day. New reactors are often welcomed because they mean new jobs for a city, and almost two-thirds of the country’s adult population say they strongly favor the country’s nuclear program, which is based, incidentally, on American technology. The country even earns an extra 3 billion euros a year from electricity exports to surrounding European nations.

As for nuclear waste, French operators store spent fuel in containment ponds for one year before shipping it to a reprocessing plant in Normandy, where it is recycled for later use. The country has been safely reprocessing nuclear fuel for more than 30 years—no explosions, no terrorist attacks, no plutonium theft for use in nuclear weapons.

In the United States, nuclear reactors have produced an estimated 58,000 metric tons of spent fuel over the past 50 years. Experts estimate that were we to build a reprocessing plant, we could recycle roughly 95 percent of this nuclear waste. This reprocessed fuel would, in turn, provide enough energy to power every U.S. household for the next 12 years.

Obviously, the 5 percent of waste that cannot be reprocessed would need to be stored in a secure repository such as the proposed site at Yucca Mountain, Nev. Though it remains controversial, more than 2,500 of the nation’s top scientists have spent the past two decades submitting the Yucca Mountain site to a battery of testing and analysis. After reviewing the work, international scientific organizations have concluded that Yucca could safely store waste for tens of thousands of years. Not only does the repository avoid active fault lines, but also the site’s layout and waste canisters are designed to withstand worst-case earthquakes and water corrosion.

Government studies further estimate that the amount of yearly radiation exposure from waste stored at the Yucca site would be less than emitted by a dental X ray.

Considering this, should the United States build more nuclear power plants?

Nothing about the issues facing America today is black and white. With these You Decide activities, you can explore both sides of an issue, put your own critical thinking to work, and discuss the pros and cons with others. In the end, perhaps you will ask different — and better — questions than those presented here.


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