THE MISSING NUCLEAR DEBATE

During my 25 years in the U.S. Senate, I've dealt with a number of tough problems. But there's one that has proven especially difficult. Whenever the issue involves the word ''nuclear,'' headlines focus only on negatives.

I've been working to generate national dialogue on a set of interrelated questions involving nuclear technologies.Why do we store nuclear waste at hundreds of sites throughout the nation, rather than at just a few? How can we use new reactor designs both to provide the energy we will need for the future and to avoid exacerbating global warming concerns?

How will we ensure that our nuclear weapons work if the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, soon to be debated by the Senate, prohibits nuclear testing?

Above all, how can we dampen the national hysteria that seems to break out whenever we try to discuss nuclear issues logically?

The United States needs to engage in serious debate on nuclear technologies. First, we should discuss generating more nuclear power to meet the growing demand for electricity without producing greenhouse gases.

This country has developed and licensed a next generation of nuclear power reactors that are more advanced and safer than any in operation in the United States. But we are selling these plants only overseas.

With nuclear power already providing 20 percent of our electrical energy, it makes sense to ask how we can best use this significant resource in the future.

We have canceled research and development on an even more advanced generation of reactors that would reduce the risk of nuclear proliferation to other countries.

If U.S. companies are going to sell reactors overseas, we should lead in the development of these technologies and consider using them here.

We also need to discuss the 1977 decision to halt plans for reprocessing spent nuclear fuel. That decision forced us into burying all of our nuclear waste rather than considering ways to use it to generate additional nuclear fuel.

The decision also is complicating plans to destroy excess weapons plutonium in civilian reactors.

We debate defense policy every year, as we should. But we don't debate energy policy, even though it costs twice as much as defense and even though energy shortages are likely to be a major driver of future military challenges.

The steady accumulation of spent fuel at reactors around the country poses another obstacle to nuclear power.

The country needs to move accumulated wastes out of populated areas into well-secured interim storage.

And in the years before a permanent repository is built, we should study approaches, such as the transmutation of waste in particle accelerators, that would dramatically reduce the toxicity and lifetime of that waste while recovering some of the energy content of spent fuel.

Nuclear waste issues don't stop with spent reactor fuel. There is an increasingly desperate need in the country for low-level waste repositories.

In California, important medical and research procedures are at risk because the state government is being blocked from fulfilling its responsibilities for low-level waste at facilities such as Ward Valley.

With regard to our nuclear arsenal, I have proposed reducing its size and lowering the alert status of our nuclear systems.

Within the limits of current treaties, we should set our stockpile size in accordance with the threats we face. We also should seriously consider doing away with land-based nuclear missiles.

At the same time, let's admit that without nuclear testing it will cost more, not less, to make sure that our nuclear deterrent remains reliable.

Once reliability is ensured, we can talk about the pros and cons of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

Are we ready - financially and scientifically - to go down this new, untried path?

Consider food safety as one more example of a nuclear technology hampered by questionable decisions.

Irradiation of food to kill harmful pathogens is not widely used in this country, largely because of opposition from some consumer groups. But there is no scientific evidence of danger.

I applaud the Food and Drug Administration's recent decision to approve irradiation of beef products.

It remains to be seen if the public will accept this positive step.

We cannot afford to abandon nuclear technologies that hold such promise.

The time has come for a careful and scientifically based re-examination of nuclear issues in this country.

For the full story: Log In, Register for Free or Subscribe