According to recent news reports, the idea of more atomic power plants as a solution to global warming seems to be gaining support in some circles.
However, this option is not likely to provide a practical or cost-effective response to climate change. Moreover, the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP) proposed by the Bush administration could have negative consequences, particularly at the Hanford nuclear reservation.
As their supporters have noted, atomic energy plants do not directly produce greenhouse gases during their operation. But they do produce prodigious amounts of radioactive waste, along with material that can be fashioned into atomic bombs.
Keeping the radioactive materials under control requires a complicated regulatory infrastructure; thus, it would be at least 10 years before new reactors could be designed, licensed, constructed and begin operation. By then, their capacity and energy demands could be a mismatch.
Not only would reactor plants take too long to have a significant impact on global warming, but they are expensive, multibillion-dollar facilities. It is faster and much more economical to save energy through efficiency improvements than to generate it through new power plants.
The GNEP proposal would overturn 30 years of national policy aimed at inhibiting nuclear proliferation. At the very time the U.S. is urging nations such as North Korea and Iran to forgo technologies to develop atomic weapons, the U.S. would be subsidizing domestic reprocessing technology, which produced plutonium for bombs at Hanford — a poor example.
A proposal by the Tri-Cities Development Council to use the Hanford site for a new reactor and reprocessing center would likely have negative consequences for the region.
Reprocessing, which has never proven commercially viable, is the technology that produced Hanford's 53 million gallons of highly radioactive liquid wastes, now stored in large underground tanks that have exceeded their design life spans. A Department of Energy facility to immobilize those wastes into a more stable solid form is now eight years overdue and about $8 billion over budget.
GNEP would bring more atomic waste to Hanford, either as reactor fuel to be reprocessed; as waste generated from reprocessing; or both. The importation of new waste would undercut the Tri-Party Agreement, which sets cleanup milestones at Hanford and which was negotiated among the Energy Department, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Washington Department of Ecology.
Importing new wastes would also violate the Cleanup Priority Act, passed in 2004 with 69 percent voter approval, a record for Washington state initiatives. Furthermore, a federal repository in Nevada, proposed to store and guard atomic wastes from commercial power plants and from Hanford, is also years behind schedule.
GNEP at Hanford would present homeland-security challenges as well. While the Department of Energy is engaged in stabilizing, packaging and shipping Hanford plutonium to an off-site facility, GNEP would bring more plutonium to Hanford. Separated plutonium, as potential bomb-grade material, would represent a likely target for terrorists. Moreover, the proposed plutonium-fuel reactor is expected to be cooled by molten sodium, which reacts explosively with water and burns when exposed to air.
The world, and Hanford, are not likely to benefit from an atomic-power expansion. Combined with energy-efficiency improvements in the near-term, a sane energy future should develop renewable sources in all their forms, with the promise of halting global warming without the threat of replacing it with "global glowing."
John Abbotts has a doctorate in biochemistry and formerly served as a University of Washington research scientist focusing on public-policy issues related to Hanford remediation. He is a member of the Hanford Task Force of Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility.
Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company