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Of Weapons and Wastes

Earlier this year, two large boxes of nuclear wastes were lowered a half mile into the ground at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant just outside of Carlsbad Caverns National Park. The boxes were the first load to be permanently buried in a 3,000-foot-thick wedge of salt that has lain undisturbed—until now—beneath the New Mexico landscape for a quarter of a billion years. Burying the boxes was a watershed event for the nuclear industry.

Wastes have always been the Achilles’ heal of the industry. What can the industry do with substances that will still be radiating deadly rays long after humanity has passed into oblivion? WIPP is providing a partial answer, at least for less dangerous wastes such as tools, rags, and protective clothing contaminated with plutonium, americium, and neptunium.

The opening of WIPP after 25 years of political turmoil also offers hope that we will one day come up with workable disposal policies for the more dangerous wastes from nuclear weapons and nuclear power plants.

For the moment, however, we do not have a good solution for highly radioactive wastes, and the industry is stranded in nuclear gridlock, according to Stan Albrecht, dean of the College of Humanities, Arts, and Social Science at Utah State University. Albrecht says that neglect, fear, distrust, opposition, and failures to anticipate public response lead us into this morass. We need to learn from past mistakes as we search for workable solutions based on public input and appropriate incentives, he says.

In 1982, Congress passed the Nuclear Waste Policy Act to prevent nuclear gridlock from happening. Seventeen years and $7 billion later, however, we are still in the design and evaluation phase, says James Williams, president of a nuclear waste consulting group in Denver. Williams says that tradeoffs will have to be made between safety, equity, and costs if we hope to permanently dispose of highly radioactive spent fuels from our nation’s nuclear reactors.

One solution that France, Germany, Japan, and the United Kingdom have tried is to reprocess spent fuels to recover plutonium and unused uranium. President Carter issued an executive order in 1977 indefinitely suspending commercial reprocessing, however, and William Sailor, a policy analyst at Los Alamos National Laboratory, believes the reasons for the executive order are as strong today as ever. There is still no economic incentive to reprocess spent fuel, and it is unlikely there will be one for decades, if ever, he says.

For more than 50 years, the Department of Energy and its predecessor stored nuclear wastes at nuclear weapons sites around the nation. DOE is finally cleaning up these sites, but, as Katherine Probst from Resources for the Future and Michael McGovern from the Center for Verification Research point out, these sites will never be completely clean. A stewardship program will therefore be necessary, based on site monitoring, information management, and enforcement of environmental controls.

One stewardship approach DOE is trying out at the Nevada Test Site is ecosystem management. Charles Malone, an environmental scientist for the state of Nevada, says that ecosystem management shows great promise for the long-term sustainability of the site, and he recommends that DOE expand the approach to all its nuclear weapons sites.

As the nuclear weapons industry continues to dry up, communities that supported weapons facilities during the Cold War are feeling the economic fallout of lost jobs and other ripple effects, according to Karen Lowrie, Michael Greenberg, and Michael Frisch from Rutgers University. DOE has a moral obligation to help mitigate these effects, the authors contend.

Finally, Val Loiselle, a nuclear industry consultant, and Walter Kritsky, a vice president for US Ecology Nuclear Equipment Service Center, look at the future of the nuclear industry. They conclude that there is life after Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, but success will require planning, extending the expected lives of existing nuclear plants, promotion and public awareness of the benefits and tradeoffs of nuclear energy, a good design for the next generation of nuclear plants, and an ample dollop of good fortune.

The Editors

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