When discussing the need to curb global warming by cutting back on the use of fossil fuels, nuclear power is quickly put forth as an alternative. Supporters often point to the dominant use of nuclear power in France, Russia, and the UK. This argument is especially strong in our own region, where an expanding Westinghouse is involved in the planned construction of four new Chinese nuclear power plants. So the question that arises is how have these countries solved the problem of storing the radioactive waste? The answer is simple– they haven’t.
In the US, the disposal of waste that will remain radioactive for generations is symbolized by the name of a site in Nevada: Yucca Mountain. While the Bush administration is moving ahead with feasibility tests at great cost to the taxpayer, there are real concerns about the seismic stability of the area, and the danger of seepage into the ground water. These concerns are sufficient to render Yucca Mountain a political third-rail for presidential candidates.
Another country that is investigating geological disposal is Canada. However, the Canadian government has decided to stash its high-level waste in a repository that’s considered safe for only 175 years. By then, Canada’s logic goes, someone will have figured out a better way to deal with the waste.
In France, 59 nuclear reactors provide more than 70% of the country’s power. In 2006, the French government formally declared that deep geological disposal would be the reference solution for high-level and long-lived radioactive wastes. A favored site for the proposed storage is the clay formation at Bure in Lorraine. In 2006, Greenpeace cited evidence of radioactive leakage at this site. Meanwhile, the radioactive waste piles up in France. A recent Associated Press report highlights the concern of Europeans over the renewed interest in relying on nuclear energy without finding a solution to the waste disposal problem.
An alternative to storing nuclear wastes underground is reprocessing the waste material. This option was stopped in the US in the 1982 because of the potential proliferation of reprocessed nuclear materials into enemy hands. However, it has been resurrected as part of the Bush Administration’s Advanced Energy Initiative. The Global Nuclear Energy Partnership is a multi-national effort to develop a process whereby spent fuel is recovered and the waste is thereby consumed. This grandiose plan has quickly spawned its critics in the scientific community.