Academic journal article Forum for Applied Research and Public Policy

Of Weapons and Wastes

Academic journal article Forum for Applied Research and Public Policy

Of Weapons and Wastes

Article excerpt

Earlier this year, two large boxes of nuclear wastes were lowered a half mile into the ground at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant just outside of Carlsbad Caverns National Park. The boxes were the first load to be permanently buried in a 3,000-foot-thick wedge of salt that has lain undisturbed--until now--beneath the New Mexico landscape for a quarter of a billion years. Burying the boxes was a watershed event for the nuclear industry.

Wastes have always been the Achilles' heal of the industry. What can the industry do with substances that will still be radiating deadly rays long after humanity has passed into oblivion? WIPP is providing a partial answer, at least for less dangerous wastes such as tools, rags, and protective clothing contaminated with plutonium, americium, and neptunium.

The opening of WIPP after 25 years of political turmoil also offers hope that we will one day come up with workable disposal policies for the more dangerous wastes from nuclear weapons and nuclear power plants.

For the moment, however, we do not have a good solution for highly radioactive wastes, and the industry is stranded in nuclear gridlock, according to Stan Albrecht, dean of the College of Humanities, Arts, and Social Science at Utah State University. Albrecht says that neglect, fear, distrust, opposition, and failures to anticipate public response lead us into this morass. We need to learn from past mistakes as we search for workable solutions based on public input and appropriate incentives, he says.

In 1982, Congress passed the Nuclear Waste Policy Act to prevent nuclear gridlock from happening. Seventeen years and $7 billion later, however, we are still in the design and evaluation phase, says James Williams, president of a nuclear waste consulting group in Denver. Williams says that tradeoffs will have to be made between safety, equity, and costs if we hope to permanently dispose of highly radioactive spent fuels from our nation's nuclear reactors.

One solution that France, Germany, Japan, and the United Kingdom have tried is to reprocess spent fuels to recover plutonium and unused uranium. …

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