It's only a temporary solution

August 15, 1996|By Michael K. Burns

TEMPORARY solutions all too often become permanent ones, by default. The only thing worse may be no solution.

That's the nation's dilemma in finding safe disposal for the mountains of high-level radioactive waste produced over four decades by U.S. nuclear power plants: more than 30,000 tons today, at least another 50,000 tons within 20 years.

It's scattered in temporary storage water pools and concrete casks across 34 states, including Maryland, awaiting a final resting place. Electricity consumers -- you and I -- are paying on our monthly bills to build this nuclear mausoleum: about $12 billion collected so far.

The federal government committed in 1982 to take possession of this dangerous residue by 1998. But it hasn't yet found an acceptable site to hold the stuff for 10,000 years or so (the half-life of the most persistent isotopes). Until a site is ready, the U. S. Department of Energy says it won't take title to this radioactive residue, even though a federal appeals court last month ruled otherwise.

Congressional action

Congress has struggled for a temporary solution. The Senate two weeks ago approved a 1998 interim waste storage facility, to be located at Yucca Mountain, Nevada -- the only place under study ($2 billion worth, so far) as a permanent repository for some 70,000 tons of used nuclear power plant fuel. Identical legislation is before the House.

But President Clinton has vowed to veto any such bill, and there seems to be little heart in the Congress to override him on the sensitive issue just before the November elections.

Environmental organizations strongly oppose the central interim storage plan, as does the state of Nevada, where it is the all-consuming issue that unifies the citizenry of all parties.

A Clinton veto (or pledge thereof) would assure him the state's votes; even though the number is small, it is seen as a significant wedge in the West for the president's campaign. Nevada -- 85 percent of which is owned by the U.S. government -- is also a symbol to that region of heavy-handed federal domination.

For if it were simply a matter of majority, or two-thirds majority, rule in deciding on a place to deposit forever this dangerous detritus, the unpopulated scrub desert and former atomic weapons testing grounds of Nevada would be the easy choice. The Nevada Nuclear Test Site, 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas, will be a nuclear ghost town for untold centuries.

And while the additional concentration of nuclear waste is a distinctly undesirable, even threatening option for Nevada's 1.5 million residents, that concern also hovers over the people living near the 73 sites of 110 nuclear power plants across the United States.

At those sites, the used but highly radioactive fuel rods are "temporarily" stored in deep water pools or in towering steel-concrete casks, awaiting shipment to an unknown, unscheduled final destination. Numbers of them are within major population centers.

Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. spends over $1 million a year to store some 150 tons of nuclear waste in temporary bunkers at Calvert Cliffs, but that space will be filled within another decade and another on-site facility will probably be built. As for exposure, the distance between Calvert Cliffs and Baltimore is one-half the distance between Las Vegas and Yucca Mountain.

Yet there are serious reservations about the temporary storage in Nevada that transcend regional political tussle.

The area is streaked with earthquake faults, with a half-dozen inactive volcanoes under its surface, which could set off a cataclysmic nuclear reaction of stored radioactive waste within the geologically active formation.

Despite test drilling 2,500 feet into the mountain, there is no end in sight for the conclusive studies needed to confirm stability of the underground nuclear storage for 10,000 years.

The Department of Energy optimistically forecasts that a permanent central storage facility could be in operation by 2010, but that assumes that Yucca Mountain is the certain repository regardless of testing results.

Committing to a temporary storage facility there would add to the case for building a permanent network of storage tunnels in Yucca Mountain, minimizing possible doubts that could be raised by comprehensive testing.

Filling up

Moreover, projections show that the storage space contemplated for Yucca Mountain could be used up within five years of opening -- setting off a new round of debate and litigation.

That's even if no new nuclear power generators are built. None has been ordered in two decades, but nuclear units still produce 20 percent of U.S. electric power.

There are also fears about the safety of long-distance transport of this toxic trash to Nevada.

So what is the likely solution? Continuation of the status quo: more open-end study at Yucca Mountain, increasing amounts of on-site storage at commercial nuclear power plants, no public hearings to block these on-site storage facilities.

One possible change. A federal appeals court recently ordered the federal government to pay unspecified penalties to nuclear utility companies if it does not accept the radioactive waste by 1998. Taxpayers would pick up the bill, even if electric customers (mostly the same people) see some rate relief. The temporary solution, indeed, becomes permanent.

Michael K. Burns writes editorials for The Sun.

Pub Date: 8/15/96

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