Politics of nuclear waste

By Ernest Klema
Copyright 1998 Bangor Daily News
September 30, 1998

With Maine Yankee shut down, one thorny issue that must be resolved is what to do about the U.S. Department of Energy's shameful refusal to meet its legal obligation to take highly radioactive spentfuel that is still sitting at Maine Yankee and other nuclear power plants around the country.

Environmental claims notwithstanding, the nuclear waste "problem" is a political issue that can be overcome with the right strategy and leadership.  Electricity consumers have contributed more than $ 14 billion into the Nuclear Waste Fund that was set up in 1982 expressly to pay for federal managmement and disposal of spent fuel rods.  Maine ratepayers have paid more than $ 170 million to the fund.

But the Energy Department has spent less than $ 7 billion on the waste program, while Congess has diverted the balance to offset the federal budget deficit and fund other programs.  Certainly the government has a responsibility to do better than just pocket the money.

Meanwhile, dozens of nuclear plants are running out of on-site storate capacity.  Regrettably, the opening of a central storage facility in Nevada has been held hostage by politicians of various stripes who are trying to curry favor with small but vocal anti-nuclear constituencies, despite a ruling from the U.S. Court of Appeals affirming the federal government's obligation to take the spent fuel.

Congress must resolve this impasse.  The House and Senate need to iron out differences over bills to establish the Nevada facility -- and do so by a veto-proof margin.

But perhaps the strongest case to be made for resolving the issue is that our nation's economic and environmental health depends on nuclear power, the only major source of electricity that produces no acid rain, smog or greenhouse-gas emissions.  Wouldn't it be ironic if public opposition to nuclear power, led by environmental activists, resulted in a world beset by rising levels of greenhouse gases and other pollutants from fossil-fuel plants?

If nuclear plants elsewhere in the country are forced to shut down prematurely in the face of economic pressures aggravated by the spent-fuel standoff, the trend toward greater use of fossil fuels in electricity production will speed up, pushing greenhouse emissions ever higher.

That is a real danger.  The Energy Information Administration, data-collecting arm of the Department of Energy, has warned that 24 nuclear plants might close prematurely,reducing U.S. nuclear capacity from approximately 100,000 megawatts to about half that by 2020.  Carbon emissions would rise to 45 percent above the 1990 level.  Keep in mind that the Clinton administration approved a global warming treaty last December that commits the United States to reducing greenhouse emissions to 7 percent below the 1990 level in a little more than 12 years' time.  It is difficult to see, therefore, how carbon emissions can be reduced if there is less nonpolluting nuclear power.

In reality, far greater quantities of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides would be spewed into the atmosphere -- not a comforting thought at a time when health authorities estimate that almost 100,000 Americans a year are dying prematurely from air pollution.

Most everyone applauds technologies that reduce air pollutoin.

Yet nuclear power has never received credit under the Clean Air Act for reducing emissions of sulfur dioxide and other pollutants that would otherwise spew from the smokestacks of fossil-fuel plants.

Congress needs to rectify this oversight by allowing utilities to receive tradable credits for nuclear power.

Anyone who questions nuclear power's importance in the years ahead should consider that utilities in Maryland, South Carolina and Georgia have submitted applictions to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to keep nuclear plants in those states operating beyond their original 40-year licensing period.  To rely on wind power rather than nuclear power, the utility in Maryland calculated, would mean building enough windmills to cover 400 square miles.

Hydro power?  That would require flooding 2,600 square miles.  Solar power?  Far too expensive?

Let's recognize nuclear power's important contribution to clean air.  If the era of environmental responsibility has arrived in national politics, let construction of a central storage facility for spent fuel be its first victory.

Ernest D. Klema of Northeast Harbor is dean emeritus of engineering at Tufts University and a fellow of the American Physical Society and the American Nuclear Society.

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