Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Until waste problem is resolved, no more nuclear plants

Disposing of waste generated by U.S. homes and industry became a crisis in the 20th century and seems to be worsening in the 21st century.

Americans generated 251 million tons of municipal solid waste in 2006, or about 4.6 pounds per person per day (compared to 2.7 pounds per person per day in1960). Recycling diverted over 80 million tons from waste dumps. But the remaining mountains of waste forced communities to find expensive new land for disposal.

By comparison, a far more menacing industrial waste continues to elude disposal and continues to pose one of the planet's riskiest and costliest threats.

Where and how to store nuclear waste has been debated for decades without a satisfactory conclusion. Yet, nuclear generating plants have found a new surge of support from some seeking alternatives to coal-fired plants.

Not so fast.

Before new nuclear plants are built, the United States must end the delays and wavering on storing nuclear waste, which has been accumulating at 122 temporary storage sites in 39 states for more than 20 years. The estimated 53,440 metric tons of radioactive waste accumulated from nuclear power plants would cover a football field 10 feet deep. The military has generated another 22,000 large canisters of nuclear waste.

Outside of the industry, few realize or know this: Because it has not fulfilled its pledge to store nuclear waste permanently, the Department of Energy has been compensating nuclear plant operators for the on-site storage—so far paying $342 million out of the government's general fund.

Nuclear power customers are paying twice for the dilly-dallying on storage—the first time through a small surcharge on power generated by nuclear plants, and now through tax funds used to pay the industry to store waste.

Current estimates foresee the possibility of $35 billion in eventual penalty payments by the federal government.

The giant underground storage facility at Nevada's Yucca Mountain won't open until 2020 at the earliest—and not at all, if critics have their way. Alternative disposal methods--firing waste into outer space, burying it under ocean islands, recycling waste as a nuclear fuel and others--have their own critics and risks.

The average U.S. nuclear plant creates 20 tons of new radioactive waste per year. By the year 2005, a total of 104 plants were operating. They continue to add more waste and multiply the handling costs to taxpayers and the possible risks to health.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission would be grossly irresponsible to license any new plants until the most compelling nuclear problem--getting rid of existing waste or storing it well--remains unsolved.

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