Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Watchdog group: No good solution for nuclear waste

Documentary film explores disposal options

Express Staff Writer

The issue of what to do with high-level radioactive waste has generated ideas that range from top—blasting it into space on a rocket—to bottom—sending it to the depths of the ocean. But a safe resting place for spent nuclear fuel has found little agreement and no ideal solution.

Nearly 30 people attended a viewing Wednesday, Nov. 2, of "Into Eternity" at the Community Library in Ketchum. The film, whose screening was organized by Boise-based nuclear watchdog group Snake River Alliance, explores what Finns are doing to permanently store spent nuclear fuel.

Workers on the ONKALO project in Finland are digging tunnels deep underground through bedrock to create a spent-nuclear-fuel repository that will last an estimated 100,000 years.

The site was chosen based on its physical stability. Because of the length of time nuclear waste can remain dangerous, its disposal place must be protected from earthquakes, war and other factors that could jeopardize the stability, and therefore the safety, of the deposits.

"There are unacceptable risks associated with nuclear generation," said Liz Woodruff, executive director of Snake River Alliance, during discussion following the film.

Ketchum's Margaret Macdonald Stewart, Snake River Alliance vice president and board member, said it is "astounding" to her that an industry is allowed to produce waste for which there is no good disposal solution.

"This (ONKALO) is as close as they've gotten," she said.

Kerrin McCall, also of Ketchum, said the United States has an even bigger problem with spent nuclear fuel than Finland.

"The main thing people need to know is this is one project for a small amount of Finland's waste," she said. "We have magnitudes more and no place to store it."

The United States is contemplating long-term solutions for spent nuclear fuel. Woodruff said she worries that a possible site is the Idaho National Laboratory near Arco.

"INL is on the radar screen for a consolidated storage site," she said.

The INL—which supports the U.S. Department of Energy's efforts in nuclear and energy research, science and national defense—has a long history of nuclear-related activities. Researchers at INL in 1951 created the world's first usable amounts of electricity generated by nuclear power. More than 50 nuclear reactors have been built and operated at the site, which covers 890 square miles in the southeastern Idaho desert.

"To people making decisions in Washington, D.C., the Arco desert is in the middle of nowhere," Woodruff said.

An INL spokesman, however, said the lab's mission does not include permanent disposal of spent nuclear fuel.

"We're not at all interested in becoming a storage location," Ethan Huffman said in an interview. "That's not our focus."

In March 2010, President Barack Obama established the Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future to review policies for managing alternatives for the storage, processing and disposal of nuclear fuel and high-level waste. The commission is not tasked with recommending specific locations for permanent disposal, according to its website.

The commission's final report is due by Jan. 29. Though the public comment period closed Oct. 31, Woodruff encouraged people to submit comments anyway.

Woodruff said Idahoans should be prepared for all potential scenarios and work to create an energy future that represents their vision.

"The point here isn't to leave feeling powerless," she said. "The point is to feel galvanized ... to change the frame of these political debates. Now is a more important time than ever for people in the Wood River Valley to promote a clean energy future."

Rebecca Meany:

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