by Rodney Adams
There are numerous reasonable and safe methods for long term storage of the residues of nuclear power plant operation. The materials have been adequately controlled for over forty years with essentially no record of hazardous discharges to the environment or injuries to workers. Many countries, notably Sweden, France, and Japan have carefully planned and implemented strategies for dealing with nuclear waste.
Unfortunately, the nuclear waste issue in the United States has become a political quagmire that threatens the very existence of a technology currently providing a large quantity of reliable electricity from abundant fuel sources without producing any air or water pollution. Amazingly enough, anti-nuclear groups have even managed to portray the large number of proposals for spent nuclear fuel disposal as proving that there is a problem.
Apparently, they believe that there should be a one-size-fits-all solution with unanimous agreement. The fact that most of the proposals would effectively isolate the waste from the environment has been lost from the debate.
Official representatives of the nuclear industry in the United States look with green-eyed jealousy at the centrally-planned and implemented solutions of other nations with operating nuclear power plants. They are currently trying to implement a similar program here. The effort is doomed to fail. Our system is different, our history is different and our people are different. We need a solution that will work in the United States, not one that is copied from other countries. A free market approach to nuclear waste offers much better chances for success.
NUCLEAR INDUSTRY'S POSITION
For the two years, the Nuclear Energy Institute -- a lobbying group that represents nuclear utilities, equipment manufacturers and service suppliers -- has defined its top priority as forcing the Department of Energy to meet its legal responsibility to accept spent nuclear fuel from utility power plants by the Congressionally mandated deadline of 1998. This message has been repeatedly stated at industry gatherings, in mailings to member organizations and in messages to the Citizen Energy Alert Network (CEANet), the NEI's grass roots organization.
In its lobbying efforts, the NEI frequently raises the spectre of premature plant closings with the associated loss of hundreds of jobs if plants run out of storage space for spent nuclear fuel. The organization puts steady pressure on congressmen who represent districts with nuclear power stations to introduce legislation to solve the problem.
The CEANet's newsletter, The Energizer, uses words like "the government would build a central facility . . .", "the government would provide multi-purpose canisters . . .", "the government would set up a transportation system . . ." and "the government would continue to study potential sites. . ." This topic has been on the cover of the bi-monthly newsletter for seven issues in a row.
This child-like faith in the ability of the United States federal government to effectively and efficiently handle such a large, industrial undertaking is surprising, considering the federal government's demonstrated inability to move forward on its contractual obligation. The utility industry has paid more than $10 billion dollars over a 15 year period for a service that is not being performed. It is time to fire the contractor.
The Department of Energy is resisting the idea that it has a legal obligation to take possession of the waste. Even if the DOE acknowledged the fact that the Congress assigned it responsibility for accepting nuclear waste in 1982, there is no indication that the DOE will be physically capable of accepting any waste by the 1998 deadline. Activist groups are pointing to the impasse as proof that there is no acceptable solution, and there have been two separate attempts by anti-nuclear congressmen to mandate a moratorium on new nuclear power plants until the centralized waste storage facility is actually built and licensed.
WHY IS OUR GOVERNMENT DOOMED TO FAIL IN THIS EFFORT?
Our system of government is designed so that it takes a long time to implement a government program. It is also designed to provide ways to further slow the process if there are significant numbers of people with a strong interest in preventing the program's success.
The program to store spent nuclear fuel is almost as contentious as nationalized health care, with very powerful forces opposed to any solution that will make it possible to again building nuclear power plants.
Some of the opposition is based on almost religious grounds. Groups like Greenpeace and Earth First seem to believe that man is inherently evil and that anything that man has created must be bad for the environment.
Other groups opposed to practical solutions to nuclear waste are more pragmatic. They sell coal, oil and natural gas to power plants, manufacture equipment to burn fossil fuels, transport fossil fuels, operate fossil fuel generating plants, or provide services to fossil fuel power plants. This is a huge and powerful lobby with effective and vocal representation at the highest levels of government.
If even a single nuclear power plant is forced into premature closure because of a lack of spent fuel storage space, the market demand for fossil fuel products and services will measurably increase. Replacing the annual output from a typical 1000 MW nuclear plant would require either 4 million tons of coal, or 2.6 million tons of oil, or 65 billion cubic feet of gas Of course, the actual replacement power would probably come from a combination of the three. The value of the fuel alone would be between $160 million and $500 million at current fuel prices. If a shuttered nuclear plant's output must be replaced with new construction, the new plant would probably cost at least $1 billion. These are serious dollars and provide the pressure groups with adequate motivation and financial support for actions designed to constipate the nuclear industry.
Another group who is opposed to finding a simpler solution to the waste problem is the army of bureaucrats in the Department of Energy who see nuclear waste as their means to remain employed until retirement age.
Nuclear weapons production and testing programs have virtually been eliminated compared to the agency's heady days in the 1960s and 1980s, there is little interest in nuclear power research programs and alternative energy programs do not seem destined for significant breakthroughs. Lengthy site characterization studies and a big construction program for centralized spent nuclear fuel handling facilities would provide lifetime job security to the bureaucrats.
WHY NOT JUST GIVE UP AND SHUT DOWN THE PLANTS?
There are many people who have a vested interest, whether they know it or not, in finding a cost-effective means to safely handle spent nuclear fuel. Manufacturers -- like the automobile, steel and textile industries -- who are heavily dependant on reliable, low cost electricity should favor a solution. Municipal governments and retail consumers who prefer to spend as little as possible on electricity should be clamoring for spent fuel handling that costs less and works better.
Although there has been a great deal of commentary about the high costs of nuclear power plants, the fact remains that the majority of the cost of a nuclear plant is the capital cost of construction. In the case of the 109 operating plants in the U.S. this is a sunk cost that will have to be paid, one way or another, even if the plant is closed. Operating a nuclear plant is relatively cheap; there are many whose total operating and maintenance costs approach a penny per kilowatt hour. Nuclear power is a major reason why some large customers are able to buy off-peak power for as low as 1.0 cents per kilowatt hour. That rate would not cover the fuel cost for most fossil fuel generators.
Companies that would like to build and operate new nuclear power plants and their highly-educated, well-paid workers would benefit in a huge way if the nuclear waste was treated like other potentially hazardous industrial materials. As new technology is brought to the industry and a new emphasis is placed on lowering nuclear power costs, electricity users could gain access to ever cheaper and cleaner electricity that they can use to make their lives more productive and comfortable.
IS THERE ANOTHER PATH AVAILABLE?
It is possible that the nuclear waste issue would disappear from the public consciousness were it not for the dedicated efforts of the nuclear industry and nuclear industry opponents to keep it in the spotlight. Nuclear waste storage sites are poor photo opportunities; water filled pools full of fuel rods glowing with a beautiful blue color or rows of dry storage containers behind a tall fence simply do not excite the same kind of interest as scenes from oil spills or spectacular explosions. The storage sites certainly do not directly affect as many people as the constant stream of pollutants that issue from the smoke stacks of fossil fuel-burning power plants.
Every day, private industry handles hazardous material with far more potential for danger than spent nuclear fuel. Our streets, highways, and waterways are constantly employed to transport molten sulfur, fertilizers, pulverized coal, gasoline, and crude oil. Factories handle materials like mercury, lead, arsenic, and cadmium on a routine basis all without much public comment. To be sure, there is regulation of all of the above materials, but proper handling and disposal is viewed as simply a cost of doing business.
There are numerous companies that specialize in handling the problems of hazardous waste disposal. They have made a business out of taking over the burden of waste handling from manufacturers, municipalities, and hospitals that would rather focus on their primary business. There have even been recent court decisions that defined hazardous materials as items of interstate commerce, subject to federal, not state regulation.
Given even a small amount of encouragement, it would seem that these specialists in waste management would be interested in serving a market as large as that for spent nuclear fuel. The government has collected over $11 billion in the Nuclear Waste Fund during the last 13 years. That is serious money and should attract highly professional firms. Even so, it represents only a one mill charge per nuclear kilowatt hour produced.
Private organizations would almost certainly be able to come up with a less costly plan than that currently envisioned by the Department of Energy. Instead of a massive central facility requiring the establishment of a completely new transportation and service infrastructure, private firms might compete to establish distributed storage sites near a concentration of power plants. They would probably ensure that their sites were close to existing transportation routes. Instead of digging deep holes in solid rock, private enterprise would probably opt for monitored, above ground sites. These would be built with far lower construction costs and provide a means of easier site relocation if necessary.
Private companies might even decide to initiate recycling programs once they accumulated a sufficient inventory of raw material in one location to make the effort worthwhile. Almost 95% of what is currently considered to be spent fuel is potentially useful for energy production.
It is highly unlikely that professional waste management companies would spend billions of dollars in "site characterization" studies or on bureaucratic program overhead. They would be particularly interested in removing as much waste as possible from current nuclear plant sites if they were paid by the container.
It would be important for the health and safety of all concerned for this effort to be completed by qualified and well-trained people. Fortunately, the waste in in a form that is can readily be monitored and controlled. One of the easiest contaminants in the world to find is radioactive material. It continuously sends out a homing beacon, letting searchers know exactly where it is. There is a reason why doctors use radioactive tracers in medical diagnosis procedures.
REASONS WHY THE PRIVATE ENTERPRISE MODEL HAS BEEN SHUNNED
The nuclear enterprise in the U.S. has never been run by entrepreneurs or free enterprise adherents. It has been led by equipment suppliers who entered the business through the knowledge they gained from defense contracts and by utilities with government protected monopolies. The leaders of these firms have a corporate welfare mentality. They generally look to the government for solutions to their problems.
Another factor is that people have had decades worth of indoctrination telling them that nuclear power and its associated materials are somehow so different from the rest of the materials that are found in daily commerce that they must be directly controlled by government organizations. This idea is simply wrong. In fact, the only serious environmental difficulties associated with nuclear energy are found in facilities controlled directly by the government for nuclear weapons production.
Congress should declare that waste generators are responsible for their own waste material. It should clearly state that spent nuclear fuel belongs to the entity that purchased the fuel in the first place, not to the federal government. It should direct the DOE to return all remaining money in the Nuclear Waste Fund to the utilities that initially contributed the money. It should make the site at Yucca Mountain available for purchase by utilities or waste handling specialists.
Electric utilities need not dedicate their resources to becoming experts in the business of safely storing radioactive waste for extended periods of time. This function might be best served by specialist firms who can generate significant economies by gathering the waste into regional locations. The money that is currently available for the purpose of handling spent nuclear fuel should allow adequate incentives to be offered to communities that agree to allow site construction. The incentives can be in the form of jobs, special payments for infrastructure construction, or contributions to the local school system. The specific benefits to the community can be subjects for negotiation between the waste handler and the community.
Federal regulators will still play an important role in monitoring the handling of spent nuclear material, but there should be no role for the government in planning the disposal or in paying the costs. The proper job of regulators is to provide a consistent set of rules designed to protect the health and safety of the general public. They should specify monitoring criteria and safe exposure levels and require all participants to follow the same rules.
By shifting the responsibility for spent nuclear fuel to private enterprise, instead of the federal government, there will be fewer opportunities for politically connected pressure groups with sometimes hidden agendas to stop effective solutions.
There will still be people who do not like the nuclear industry, but they will not be able to squash a beneficial industry merely by political pressure. One of the beauties of a free market is the fact that it endows innovators and problem solvers with enough power to overcome the opposition of established interest groups. In this respect, the market is superior to the political process. Allowing markets to do what they do best has traditionally been a major contributor to the general welfare of the United States.
Rodney Adams is half right, that the federal government is not competent to store wastes which cannot suffer any leakage for 10,000 years. However, given the private sector experience with Love Canal and the hundreds of sites subject to a Superfund cleanup, his confidence in the private sector is misplaced. Most of the really notorious cases of negligence with technology, including Three Mile Island, Bhopal, Ford Pintos blowing up, and cargo doors blowing off of DC-10's, resulted from design and operation decisions made in the private sector, where immediate shareholder benefit will always be more important than other people's lives, especially lives yet to come.
Rodney also needs to consider that time and the Second Law of Thermodynamics are against him. You don't need a statistician to tell you that, given enough time, any possible accident will happen. Ten thousand years is a lot of time, let alone forty.
The famous theological conundrum is, can God create a rock too large for Him to lift? It has its echo here on Earth: man in his technological wizardry can create wastes he cannot be trusted to maintain.