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U.S. Nuclear Power: A Global Warming Answer that Leaves 72,000 Tons of Waste

It’s natural that the nuclear crisis in Japan is causing people to rethink nuclear power. Frankly, it would be crazy if it didn’t. But the problem with energy choices in general is that it’s actually pretty hard to  change your mind once you’ve chosen a direction.  Nuclear power proves the point.

For most of the commentators, and most of the public, the debate spurred by the Japanese crisis is over whether we should use nuclear power at all, and what can be done to insure that the  reactors themselves are safe.

Yet a crucial element in the crisis at Fukushima Daichi is that it’s  the nuclear waste –the storage containers of spent fuel rods–that’s the source of much of the actual radiation risk.

Right now we’re storing our nuclear waste the same way the Japanese have: at the reactor sites themselves, either in water-filled tanks or in so-called “dry cask” storage containers. That works well enough, at least in the absence of a 9.0 earthquake and tsunami.  But no one believes it’s a permanent solution. And most nuclear engineers will tell you that disposing of nuclear waste is actually the most complicated, dangerous problem they face.

So far, however, the American response to any possible permanent solution has been “pass.” The French recycle their spent fuel and reuse it; in fact they also “reprocess” waste for other countries like Germany.  That’s an option the United States passed up decades ago because of concerns about the safety of transporting the fuel and that terrorists might try to get hold of the reprocessed fuel.

There was also the possibility of burying the stuff at the proposed Yucca Mountain waste repository in Nevada. Not surprisingly, no one in Nevada much cared for the idea, and there’s been scientific debate over whether the site is truly safe enough. President Obama has followed through on his campaign promise to sidetrack the project. There’s also a federal blue-ribbon commission examining the alternatives. So far, however, there’s no consensus for a better idea.

We can buy time – the techniques we’re currently using to store spent fuel will last for decades, provided we don’t face a catastrophe like the one that has hit Japan. But this isn’t a problem that’s measured in decades. It’s measured in millennia. Some forms of nuclear material need to be stored safely for 10,000 years. Just to put that in perspective, 10,000 years ago human beings lived in nomadic tribes that were still learning to domesticate animals.

Most importantly of all, this is a problem we’ll have to deal with even if we never build another nuclear reactor anywhere on the planet. We’ve already got 72,000 tons of spent fuel in the United States alone, and we’ll still have to get rid of it, even if we shut down every reactor in the country tomorrow.

And of course, we’re not going to do that. Nuclear power accounts for about one-fifth of the electricity in the United States overall, and depending on where you live, it could be a lot more than that. Vermont gets 80 percent of its power from nuclear, and reactors provide about half of the electricity in Connecticut, New Hampshire, Illinois and South Carolina. Put another way, nuclear provides 70 percent of the greenhouse-gas free electricity we have – the other major power sources are all fossil fuels. Renewables are a very small part of the mix.

That’s not even counting what’s likely to happen overseas. China and India, both desperate for electricity to fuel their booming economies, are sticking with their commitments to nuclear plans. China alone has 27 reactors building and wants to add 160 more, although is beginning to build some so-called pebble-bed reactors that might be safer. India wants to add 58 reactors to the five it already has. Given the staggering demand for energy worldwide – and the global realization that we have to control carbon emissions – it’s not likely that nuclear power will be taken off the table.

There is no perfect energy source. They’ve all got problems, and for all the promise of wind and solar, right now we can only generate electricity from them when the wind is blowing and the sun is shining. Since we need electricity all the time, we’ll still back-up power that works 24/7, which right now mostly comes from coal, natural gas or nuclear.

Every energy choice we make resonates throughout society, requiring choices about public infrastructure, economics, technological investment. That’s why changing our energy mix is such a slow process, so much slower than so many people in the environmental movement have hoped.  Coal has been in widespread use for 200 years; petroleum for more than a century; and nuclear power for five decades. Changing our minds about any of these energy sources takes  time, too.

With both nuclear waste and global warming, we may be living with the implications of our choices for a very long time indeed.