Nuclear Waste, A Shameful Legacy

Last week, Secretary of Energy Steven Chu ended the decades long federal plan to dispose of nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain in Nevada saying that that long planned waste repository is “no longer an option.” The Obama administration will instead allow spent fuel rods to remain in storage pools at the nations more than 100 nuclear reactor sites “while the administration devises a new strategy toward nuclear waste disposal.”

Some environmentalists are happy to see further derailment of a plan to permanently dispose of nuclear waste, since in any rational world the lack of any viable waste disposal plan for these incredibly dangerous materials should preclude the development of more nuclear plants. But it should be noted that neither rationality or regulatory responsibility has ever impeded the development of nuclear power in the past. The industry has existed since the 1950’s and reactors well past their intended design lives are being relicensed for decades more operation, despite the lack of any viable plan to dispose of their incredibly dangerous byproducts, which the federal government has been promising since the industry’s inception.

Nuclear apologists, are taking a new spin on it, like the recent Wall Street Journal guest editorial “There Is No Such Thing as Nuclear Waste” by William Tucker, who continues his outrageously irrational argument that an technology that produces the most dangerous byproducts known to man is a “green solution”.

In his argument for reprocessing spent nuclear fuel, Mr. Tucker acknowledges “when they emerge, the fuel rods are intensely radioactive — about twice the exposure you would get standing at ground zero at Hiroshima after the bomb went off.” And he acknowledges that beyond the highly radioactive Uranium 238 and all the other irradiated materials that encase and surround the fuel rods, “of the remaining 5% of a rod, one-fifth is fissionable U-235 — which can be recycled as fuel. Another one-fifth is plutonium”.

Plutonium 239 is an intense carcinogen, which causes cancer from exposure to dust size particle. It is also the core material for creating nuclear weapons. This element isn’t naturally occurring, yet it has a half-life, the time it takes for only half the atoms to decay, of over 24,000 years. Recognizing that human civilization itself has existed far less than half that long, how green and environmentally responsible could it possibly be to plague future generations with dispersing this incredibly nasty stuff around the world?

Along with his suggestion that it is wise to leave nuclear waste lying in storage pools at the more than 100 nuclear plants around the nation where they provide ideal terrorist targets, Tucker argues that it is wise to start shipping these materials over our roads and through our cities to reprocessing facilities. Through reprocessing they can be made more pure and even more dangerous as nuclear fuels. They then become even more ideal terrorist targets, either for hijacking to create rogue nuclear weapons or just blown up in transport using conventional explosives to create aerosol dispersal “dirty bombs”.

Unlike the legacies of two thousand or so years ago, which have dramatically shaped history around people, ideas and myths of that period, our generation is leaving a shameful legacy that could shape history for at least 100,000 years with very real and hugely dangerous materials which don’t occur naturally, all in our short term selfish greed for cheap energy. The craziest part is that the myth our legacy to the future is based on has already proven to be blatantly false and absurd. Nuclear power doesn’t provide cheap energy. In fact the industry has proven economically to be a completely unjustifiable boondoggle.

Nuclear power development has stalled for over three decades because it is ridiculously expensive.  Even in our crazy boom years when anything could be financed, private finance was not available for nuclear power, despite over half a century of massive federal subsidies and taxpayers being saddled assuming the industry’s liability, along with its growing and unsolvable waste disposal costs. Developers and backers of existing nuclear plants lost massive amounts of money and many were bankrupted while the industry propagandists were promising use energy “too cheap to meter”.  Plants are being operated by companies who bought them for pennies on the dollar of their initial development costs, while the rate payers of the utilities who initially made those imprudent investments have been saddled with paying off those debts for decades.

The Bush administration had been pushing for expedited permitting for new generation of nuclear  technology, while ramping up yet more federal subsidy for this ridiculously expensive and economically irrational solution.

And the nuclear propaganda machine has been aggressively jumping on the climate change bandwagon suggesting that Plutonium and other nasty ingredients of their fissionable, highly radioactive, carcinogenic and toxic material stream are more environmentally friendly than carbon dioxide, one of the essential molecules of all life.

Hopefully Dr. Chu’s closure of the Yucca Mountain project is what real environmentalists are hoping for – the beginning of the end of our nations insane and shameful experiment with nuclear power. But it would be completely irresponsible for the federal government to have enabled and created this horrid environmental legacy for the millennium without proposing any viable solution to address it.  Along with ending the subsidies, liability exclusions and licensing for nuclear power operators and properly decommissioning existing plants, we need a real solution like that Yucca Mountain was intended to provide to permanently dispose of this horrible legacy of technological arrogance gone wild.

Today, our nations nuclear plants are nearing or past the end of their intended design lives. Hopefully the Obama administration will be the government that finally acts responsibly, shutting down the nuclear industry and solving the huge, daunting and shameful nuclear waste problem permanently.

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Filed under Climate Policy, Economic Policy, Energy Policy, Environmentalism, Fundamental Perspectives

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