Nuclear folly

July 03, 2006

Bipartisan celebration greeted news last week that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission had licensed, for the first time in 30 years, a major commercial nuclear facility, to be built near the small New Mexican town of Eunice.

Republican lawmakers saw proof of the resurgence of nuclear power in the United States as an alternative to fossil fuels. Democrats spoke of high-paying jobs that would come to an impoverished section of the state.

Just one rub, though. The nuclear enrichment plant, scheduled to be ready for operation within eight years, will produce a toxic and corrosive waste for which there is currently no disposal site anywhere in the country - and no certainty of one being available soon. In fact, the only designated nuclear waste disposal facility in the United States is still fighting a two-decade-long battle to win regulatory approval.

Building first and dealing with the consequences later is shortsightedness in the extreme. The attraction of new, potentially cleaner energy sources and short-term economic gains simply doesn't justify failing to resolve the nuclear waste issue before building new facilities.

New Mexico expects its problem will be solved by the enrichment plant's private owners, an international consortium that plans to have a second facility built to decontaminate the waste so it can be buried. These disposal plans also have to overcome a series of hurdles, though, including finding a site.

What the rest of the country has to worry about is the precedent set in New Mexico.

Nuclear reactor waste far more dangerous than what's left over from the fuel enrichment process is piling up at plants around the nation, including Maryland's Calvert Cliffs. There's no place else to put it. If the disputes surrounding the federally designated waste site at Yucca Mountain in Nevada aren't resolved soon, local space will run out. New Mexico Sen. Pete V. Domenici has proposed creating temporary waste sites on federal land, but his legislation faces a stormy trip through Congress. Creating more waste of any type before disposal options are certain only heightens the danger.

Nuclear power is no panacea for America's energy woes in the best of circumstances. It produces only electricity, and thus can't easily replace the shrinking supplies of oil burned for transportation. And though cleaner than coal, nuclear power is not without adverse environmental impacts.

Even so, with improved technology and sounder safety procedures, nuclear power deserves a place among the various energy sources on which the nation relies - but only if political and industrial leaders can agree on what to do with the nasty leftovers.

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