Currently Indisposed: Managing Radioactive Waste. (Global Notebook)

Article excerpt

For nearly 50 years, the world has steadily increased its production of nuclear energy without a permanent strategy for disposing of radioactive waste products.

Radioactive waste has long been the Achilles' heel of nuclear power. As concerns over global warming and instability in the Middle East drive most countries to seek alternatives to fossil fuel, nuclear power has emerged as an appealing source of clean and sustainable energy. Although operational hazards still account for a large part of the public anxiety over nuclear energy, the increasing reliability and efficiency of nuclear power plants has shifted the focus to their radioactive byproducts. Each year, activists voice concern over the adverse impact on the environment and the possibility of deriving weapons-grade plutonium from spent fuel.

In June 2000, Germany announced its plan to phase out its 19 nuclear power plants over the next 20 years, making it the largest industrial state to abandon nuclear energy. With nuclear power accounting for a third of the country's electricity, Germany's decision to abandon nuclear power at the cost of becoming even more reliant on emissions-producing fossil fuel and imported energy reflects the widespread fear of nuclear power and the waste it generates.

While the amount of waste produced by nuclear power plants is very small compared to that of conventional power plants using fossil fuel, it also requires much more elaborate and potentially dangerous treatment. High-level waste--the most radioactive byproducts of nuclear power plants--takes thousands of years to lose its radioactivity. With over 400 nuclear reactors now providing 16 percent of the world's electricity and more than 30 new reactors in construction, nuclear waste is accumulating rapidly. Many interim storage facilities are nearing capacity, forcing some countries to increase their waste exports at high cost and risk disaster during transport. Even countries like Germany that have decided to move away from nuclear energy must deal with the waste that will have accumulated by the time reforms are implemented.

The first question in nuclear waste disposal is reprocessing, which can recover a significant quantity of usable material for nuclear reactors and reduce the amount of high-level waste that must be stored to about three percent of the original spent fuel. France is by far the most nuclear-reliant country in the world, with 78 percent of its electricity coming from nuclear power, its La Hague plant reprocesses not only French fuel, but fuel from countries such as Germany, Japan, and the Netherlands. Reprocessing spent fuel, however, also yields plutonium that may be used in building nuclear weapons.

Along with questions about the cost-effectiveness of reprocessing--it is currently cheaper to purchase uranium than to recycle old material--the possibility of reprocessed fuel contributing to nuclear proliferation has deterred many countries, including the United States, from reprocessing spent fuel or supporting the implementation of regulatory policies in other countries. In September 2002, for example, Iran announced that it would reprocess its spent fuel instead of sending it to Russia as planned, adding to the international community's wariness about Iran's nuclear ambitions.

Most experts agree that the best way to deal with nuclear waste, whether reprocessed or not, is to bury it in deep geological repositories with a combination of natural and artificial barriers for safely containing the radioactive material. One complication is the desirability of allowing future generations to retrieve the stored nuclear waste and dispose of it more efficiently, though scientists believe this goal can be reconciled with safe burial. …