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Nuclear Waste Piles Up With No Disposal Plan
WASHINGTON — Tens of thousands of tons of potentially lethal radioactive waste have been piling up across the nation for more than a generation, but the federal government has yet to decide how to get rid of it permanently.
After axing a multibillion-dollar plan to bury the waste beneath Yucca Mountain, Nev., President Barack Obama has asked an expert panel to recommend alternatives.
But the panel's report isn't due until January 2012. And the group's recommendations aren't binding on the White House or Congress.
In short, the country's political leaders are no closer to a safe, permanent disposal plan for nuclear waste than they were a generation ago, when nuclear power became widespread and the Cold War was in full swing.
The nation's accumulated 70,000 tons of extremely radioactive, "high level" waste — uranium and plutonium — has sat in "temporary" storage in 35 states since at least the 1950s.
"The country at large is beset by a whole host of problems, so it's not surprising that they aren't paying attention to this," said nuclear expert Arjun Makhijani, president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research. "Everybody realizes that the collapse of the Yucca Mountain program means many years of on-site storage with no end in sight. Even the people who want nuclear power don't want waste in their backyards."
The waste will continue to pile up as the nation's 104 nuclear power plants win license renewals from federal regulators. It's expected to reach 153,000 tons by 2055, according to a November report from the Government Accountability Office, Congress' investigative agency.
Commercial nuclear waste, which is solid, is stored in deep pools of water at many power plants. Some of it also is stored in huge steel-and-concrete containers called dry casks, which cost about $1 million apiece, according to Rod McCullum, a waste expert at the power industry's Nuclear Energy Institute.
Jim Riccio, a nuclear energy analyst at the environmental group Greenpeace, said the Obama administration should tell the industry to move more of the fuel rods from pools, where they're more vulnerable to terrorist attack, to dry casks.
"Dry casks are not perfect, but they are a heck of a lot better," he said.
In addition to the commercial waste, about 91 million gallons of high-level liquid waste is stored at South Carolina's Savannah River Site, Washington state's Hanford Site and the Idaho National Laboratory. That waste comes from making fuel for nuclear weapons during the Cold War era.
The defense waste is slowly being converted into glass rods through a process called vitrification to allow for more efficient storage and transport.
David McIntyre, a spokesman for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said current on-site storage methods are safe and will contain the radiation for the foreseeable future.
So federal lawmakers feel they can put off making tough political decisions about what to do with the nuclear waste, said John Gervers, a nuclear-waste consultant in New Mexico.
"It's going to continue to pile up," he said. "Ultimately, there has to be someplace (where) all that waste has to go. In my opinion, a permanent repository is the way to go."
The White House says even if the expert panel recommends a permanent "geologic" resting place for the waste, such a repository won't be built at Yucca Mountain, located about 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas in the home state of Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
A 1982 law set a 1998 deadline for building a permanent disposal site, but it didn't happen.
It wasn't until 2002 that Congress, acting on President George W. Bush's recommendation, fixed up Yucca Mountain as the permanent site. Since then, taxpayers have spent more than $10 billion for exploratory work at the site, including building a deep tunnel.
Soon after becoming president, Obama announced he would cancel the Yucca Mountain project — a decision that South Carolina, Washington and some other local governments are fighting in federal court. Those state and local governments have teamed up with the nuclear industry to argue before the NRC that the administration can't terminate work on the project, only Congress can.
The nuclear energy industry is pushing for an interim storage facility where spent fuel rods could b e stored while a geologic repository is built.
The government also should allow the industry to recycle the used fuel rods to extract all possible use from them, said McCullum at the Nuclear Energy Institute.
Though legal in France, such "reprocessing" has been banned in the U.S. since 1977. President Jimmy Carter outlawed the practice that year, citing the potential for countries to use the plutonium byproduct to make atomic weapons.
MORE ONLINE:www.gao.gov/new.items/d1048.pdf, to access the Government Accountability Office's "Nuclear Waste Management" report, issued in November 2009.