Historians using sketchy evidence estimate humans began farming the land about 10,000 years ago. Modern societies, after unlocking the secrets of the atom, are trying to design facilities that will keep nuclear waste away from underground water supplies and other parts of the environment for the next 10,000 years.
Protecting the next 300 generations against the dangers of nuclear waste is a challenge.Scientists need to find a site stable enough to withstand the movements of the earth and removed from underground water . They also need to develop a method for warning citizens of the 120th century to stay away from nuclear burial grounds. Although nuclear power provides electricity in 26 countries, not one has come up with a solution for disposing of spent fuel.
Despite the magnitude of responsibility waste-siting places on geologists, hydrologists, and anthropologists, pressure today rests most heavily on politicians. "Nobody wants the honor of having his state glow in the dark for the next 10,000 years," said Representative Morris Udall, author of the U.S. nuclear waste law. But safety, not political expediency, must be the criterion for choosing a site.
One hundred licensed nuclear power reactors and some half-dozen nuclear weapons production facilities are in operation across the United States. More than 20,000 metric tons of their byproducts, known collectively as high-level nuclear waste, have already accumulated in the United States alone. Temporary storage space is running out while government officials and utility executives wait for the nation's first high-level waste repository.
When Congress passed the U.S. Nuclear Waste Policy Act in 1982, many politicians hoped a waste-siting solution was not far off. They had finally reached an agreement that would share the disposal responsibility between the sparsely populated West, where many of the weapons plants are located, and the East, where large cities are powered by nuclear energy. The Department of Energy would choose three potential sites for the first repository in the West while concurrently nominating twelve candidates in the East. The Western repository was scheduled to open in 1998, with the Eastern site in operation shortly thereafter.
In May 1986, when the Department of Energy announced its three preferred choices for a Western site, Secretary of Energy John Herrington shocked the public by postponing indefinitely plans for a site in the East. To many, the decision reeked of politics. Eastern politicians, under fire from their constituents to "keep out the dump," had been granted breathing space in an election year. The carefully crafted legislation to balance regional interests was thrown on its head.
Western senators, incensed by the shelving of plans for the second repository, almost succeeded in eliminating all funding from the energy agency's nuclear waste budget. If the program had unraveled, the prospect of mending it back together would have been slim. Finding a workable solution within the context of the present law will be difficult; developing a site without the law would be unthinkable.
The first step is to agree on priorities. What is more important, choosing a site in order to meet the deadline or choosing a safe site that will keep radiation out of the environment for the next 10,000 years? The Department of Energy is already behind schedule on its studies of the proposed regions' rock and water characteristics. Instead of speeding up those investigations, the quality of which the proposed host states are already threatening to contest in court, perhaps the federal government should worry less about opening the repository by 1998, and worry more about identifying sites that will adequately protect the environment and future generations.
In Sweden, where all 12 nuclear reactors face mandatory retirement by 2010, spent fuel will be sent to a recently opened underground interim storage facility while the search continues for a permanent disposal site. This strategy gets the fuel away from the plant, allowing utilities to dismantle their retired reactors, and simultaneously gives the government more time to find a safe repository.
Canada, France, Japan and West Germany, each with more reactors than Sweden, offer few lessons for the United States or the rest of the world. Not one of these countries has officially designated a high-level waste burial ground, and studies are just getting under way to evaluate the potential of various rock mediums and salt structures. Canada, the United Kingdom and West Germany are testing aboveground concrete storage silos and reinforced concrete vaults, but these are temporary structures, not designed for permanent disposal.
The management of high-level waste is a classic example of proceeding full speed ahead with a program while relying on a futuristic technological fix for its safe implementation. The funds appropriated for reactor technologies and weapons production have always dwarfed those granted for research on waste disposal. We have created an intractable mess with our rapid development of nuclear power and weapons programs, but now that we are ready to grapple with it, let's proceed intelligently. The safety of future generations, not the outcome of the November elections, should be the overriding consideration of those charged with finding a site to dispose of our nuclear waste.