August 2001 IBEW Journal
Yucca Mountain and The Waste Disposal Dilemma
A pressing problem for the U.S. nuclear power industry is the lack of a permanent national repository for spent nuclear fuel. Federal legislation passed in 1982 established a national policy for managing nuclear waste and directed the U.S. Department of Energy to identify a safe area for permanently storing spent fuel.
The proposed site for permanent underground storage at Yucca Mountain in Nevada has been studied for three decades but remains controversial. The federal governments efforts to establish permanent underground storage for nuclear waste are more than a decade behind schedule.
Currently, some 40,000 tons of nuclear waste are being stored in short-term facilities at or near the plants that produced it. But on-site storage was never intended as a long-term solution and, inevitably, the temporary storage pools will fill up.
Just what to do with used nuclear fuel is a technical and political conundrum that is getting new attention as the Bush administration advocates a greater role for nuclear power, reported The New York Times on June 4.
U.S. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham is expected to recommend by the end of the year that Bush go forward with plans to seek licensing of the [Yucca Mountain] site, although the project continues to draw strong opposition from Nevada officials and lawmakers, The Washington Post reported June 6. In June the Bush administration unveiled final health and safety standards for a proposed nuclear waste depository [at Yucca Mountain] in the Nevada desert that officials hope will allow construction of the long-stalled project, according to the Post. Construction of the storage site for 78,000 tons of radioactive waste would be vital to President Bushs plan to address the nations long-term energy needs partly by expanding the use of nuclear power plants.
Delegates to the IBEW 35th International Convention of 1996 approved a resolution in support of nuclear energy and of legislation to ensure a national nuclear waste disposal facility. Resolution No. 13, Sections 1 and 2, states support of: 1) legislation that creates an integrated, environmentally sound and secure high-level radioactive waste system that ensures timely central storage, safe transportation, and permanent disposal of spent nuclear fuels and nuclear by-products and 2) the siting, construction and operation of environmentally sound low-level radioactive waste facilities.
The Bush administration energy plan recommends studies on whether to revive the idea of reprocessing spent nuclear fuel, a technology that could simplify waste disposal but remains controversial because of nuclear proliferation concerns. Proponents of reprocessingin which plutonium is chemically salvaged from spent nuclear fuel for reuse in a reactorbelieve it could reduce the amount of nuclear waste that must be disposed of in underground repositories. Reprocessing was banned in the United States in the 1970s because of safety concerns, but the process is still embraced in Japan and Europe.