Finding a Solution to Nuclear Waste: A Policy Analysis

Recommendations and Conclusions

Ideas on how to dispose of nuclear waste safely and securely haven’t changed much since the 1970s.  Attendees at the 2010 American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) meeting in San Diego noted that similar ideas and similar presentations have been made for well over 30 years—with the exception that the expected date of opening of storage facilities are no longer announced as being 10 years off, but now are considered at least 15 to 20 years before they open (Plumer, 2010).  The biggest opponents in the U.S. to facilities for nuclear waste storage tend to be not those who live in the immediate area, but those who live a bit farther away and who don’t personally reap the economic benefit of jobs and operation of the facility (Plumer, 2010).

The problems are getting worse. Goodell (2010) pointed out that the state of the nuclear industry in the U.S. offers little hope of finding an effective solution to dealing with nuclear waste.  Nuclear engineers from the power industry point out that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), charged with the task of ensuring safe nuclear power, is merely a “lapdog” for the nuclear power industry, with license renewals rubber-stamped, even for plants decades older than their designed lifespan, and even when showing a long history of serious safety lapses, radiation leaks, rusty pipes, and even cooling towers literally falling down at the site (Goodell, 2010).

Given this lack of regulatory oversight, it seems unlikely that an effective program for handling nuclear waste can be expected in the near future.  The NRC may recognize that one of its largest problems is nuclear waste, but it still does not require nuclear power plants to have a way to keep the stacks of spent fuel rods held at the plants cool in the event of a major power loss. (That inability to cool the spent fuel rod pools in Fukushima led to explosions in two of the plants there as well as significant radiation releases.) Despite recognizing the problem, the NRC has done nothing to try to solve it, perhaps because utility companies are reluctant to fund the cost of disposing of the waste they generate (Goodell, 2010).

Perhaps the only solution that may resolve the problem is to rescind the Price-Anderson Act that absolves utility companies from  most of the financial liability of disasters from their nuclear power plants. If this is done, utility companies may begin to take note of the fact that natural gas and wind-generation are both more cost-effective than nuclear power, as well as substantially cleaner.  Even solar power may soon be cheaper than nuclear power  (Goodell, 2010).

Abandoning nuclear power may seem extreme, but it may be cost effective sooner rather than later, particularly when the total costs of nuclear power—environmental, mining, waste disposal, and disaster liability—are all taken into account. Of course, that still does not deal with the tens of thousands of pounds of existing nuclear waste, but at least we would no longer be generated tons more every year.


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