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
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
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'
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
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
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.
to access the Government Accountability Office's
"Nuclear Waste Management" report, issued in