High-level nuclear waste has been piling up in the U.S. for decades, and we still have no permanent home for it.
Policy makers have been wrestling with the issue since at least 1982, when Congress mandated that waste be stored deep underground. In 1987, lawmakers chose Yucca Mountain in Nevada as a permanent repository; while it was being built, utilities simply stored spent fuel inside cooling pools at nuclear-reactor sites, while paying the government to permanently dispose of the waste.
But billions of dollars and decades later, the U.S. is back to square one. Nevada wasn’t happy hosting the nation’s nuclear-waste dump, and the Obama administration formally pulled the plug on Yucca Mountain in 2010.
We asked Jack Spencer, senior research fellow for nuclear-energy policy at the Heritage Foundation, Edwin Lyman, senior scientist in the global security program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, and Richard K. Lester, head of the department of nuclear science and engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, to weigh in on the issue. Here are edited excerpts:
MR. LYMAN: The problem with Jack’s answer is that it presupposes that reprocessing provides benefits for nuclear-waste management. The opposite is true: Reprocessing is the worst possible alternative to deep geological disposal because it greatly increases the cost, as well as the dangers, of waste management.
Reprocessing increases the total volume of nuclear waste sevenfold over direct disposal; those multiple new waste streams present additional challenges for storage, transport and disposal. Even worse, reprocessing produces copious quantities of concentrated nuclear-weapon-usable materials, primarily plutonium. One large reprocessing plant can produce about 1,000 bombs’ worth of plutonium each year.
Adding insult to injury, this technological disaster costs a lot of money. If Jack’s free-market utopia for spent-fuel management did come to pass, it would be the death knell for reprocessing. [President] Reagan told the private sector if it wanted reprocessing, it would have to pay for it. What happened? The utilities went with Yucca Mountain instead.
Read more at How Should We Deal With Nuclear Waste?