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Dangerous High-Level Nuclear Waste with Nowhere to Go

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The Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future is meeting today through January 28 in Atlanta, Georgia.

The Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future is meeting January 26-28 in Atlanta, Georgia

By Celia Sampol, DC Bureau 

Many nuclear power advocates appeared in front of the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future in Augusta, Georgia, on Friday [Jan. 7, 2011] in support of a permanent repository for nuclear waste and supported the concept of reprocessing nuclear waste.

Environmentalists opposed reprocessing because there is no permanent waste repository and reprocessing creates more waste. They believe reprocessing wastes taxpayer dollars on special interests.

BRAC went to Augusta because the Department of Energy’s massive nuclear facility, the Savannah River Site, and the Southern Company’s two huge new nuclear power plants under construction are nearby.

During a day-long meeting, the 15-person Commission, launched by President Barack Obama last January, heard from an array of speakers. Most of them criticized the Obama administration’s decision to abandon the Yucca Mountain project in Nevada, which was designed as a permanent repository for 70,000 tons of spent fuel from the 104 commercial reactors located in the United States. “It was a short-sighted decision with devastating consequences,” said U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC). He added that South Carolina has paid more than $1.3 billion to “build a hole that we are not going to use” so “we either want our money back or we want to use that hole.”

Graham also said that more nuclear power plants could “create new jobs in America that pay very well.” But “to those who wish to have a Nuclear Renaissance, we will not be able to get there until we come up with a waste disposal plan.” The Senator said he supports reprocessing because he believes it “make sense” and “could be achieved in a reasonable period of time.” He did not address the issue of disposal of nuclear waste created by reprocessing.

Graham praised the Obama administration’s support for the multi-billion dollar Mixed Oxide Fuel (MOX) program at SRS. The goal of this project, authorized in 1999 during the Clinton administration, is to dispose of 36 metric tons of surplus U.S. military weapons grade plutonium by irradiating it and turning it into fuel that can be used in nuclear reactors to produce electricity. Once the plutonium has been irradiated, it can no longer be used in a nuclear weapon without elaborate further reprocessing. This new technology is unproven. Currently commercial reactors in the United States are not designed to use MOX fuel.

“I would say something good about the Obama administration: Secretary Chu has been one of the best Secretaries of Energy I ever have to deal with. The administration, generally speaking, has had a good vision for the development of commercial nuclear power; they have put on the table loan guarantees more robust than under the Bush administration. Secretary Chu has also convinced me that another form of reprocessing, better than what the French, the British and the Japanese do, may be achieved in the next decade,” Graham said. (SRS received one of the largest amounts of Recovery Act funds in the country.) He believes the risk of proliferation from reprocessing is “overstated.”

Speaking on behalf of the Central Savannah River Area Chambers of Commerce, Brian Tucker said, “The federal government’s decision to abandon Yucca Mountain has sent a very bad message” to the local community and has made “SRS a de facto permanent repository.” He also supports the MOX program and believes that “blending down weapons-grade uranium into low enriched uranium suitable for fuel in commercial power reactors” and using it in Tennessee Valley Authority reactors to provide electricity is the “kind of well-executed, innovative, problem-solving technology that we believe can be brought to bear in helping to resolve the pressing issues being addressed by this Commission.”

Manuel Bettencourt, from the SRS Citizens Advisory Board, agreed with the Chamber of Commerce and stressed the fact that SRS has significant resources that could assist in research and development of ways to reprocess nuclear waste. The concept of reprocessing nuclear waste was also supported by Clint Wolfe, the executive director of Citizens for Nuclear Technology Awareness, who explained that coal and gas emissions threaten the world’s water and air while nuclear energy “has the potential to provide a clean alternative” and remains “safe.”

In opposition to reprocessing, environmentalist Tom Clements, the Southeast Nuclear Campaign Coordinator for Friends of the Earth who ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate from South Carolina on the Green Party ticket last year, told the Commission, “There is really no rush concerning high-level waste. There is time to make the right decision.” According to Clements, “the path forward in a medium term is to secure on-site storage, it’s not recycling or reprocessing. …We are all concerned about future jobs but reprocessing is not a good idea.” Clements raised concerns about proliferation, because reprocessing has been used to create plutonium, the core material for nuclear weapons, and noted that reprocessing will bring more high-level radioactive nuclear waste to South Carolina.

The activist said that the Department of Energy (DOE) is now proposing “a so-called energy park” at SRS and wants to create four experimental nuclear power plants capable of burning radioactive waste for fuel. Savannah River Nuclear Solutions, the consortium of private government contractors that operates SRS under contract with the DOE, defends the energy park and says that it could be the potential alternative to Yucca Mountain.

Clements said, “The environmental groups have not been involved in the discussion” of the energy park and “there was no discussion with the public.” He said, “Their (DOE) mission is clean up; they need to get back to that mission.” He added that the mission of the MOX plant was never to use the fuel for purposes like producing electricity. “I think it’s more about money going to special interests than anything else,” he said. “It’s going to be a grand battle” if government decides to push forward with reprocessing. “We don’t want South Carolina to become the new Yucca Mountain.”

Charles Utley, from the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, told the Commission that they should work toward a nuclear-free future for the nation. He said solar and wind power “have a great potential as clean energy sources” that will help ease dependence on foreign oil.

After the testimonies, the public made brief comments. A long line of witnesses pleaded against nuclear power. A student in environmental engineering came to the podium with her one-year-old sister and asked the Blue Ribbon Commission to take into account her sister’s future when making its deliberations.

At the end of the meeting, co-Chairman Brent Scowcroft noted, “There is a feeling in the country that the government keeps changing the rules with Yucca Mountain” and one of the problems the Commission faces is “how to set a system in which people can have confidence it won’t be changed with the next election cycle.”

The Commission’s next hearings will be in New Mexico January 26 through 28, where members will tour the Energy Department’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant and hold public meetings in Carlsbad and Albuquerque. The Blue Ribbon Commission is to publish a draft report in mid-2011 and a final report in 2012.

Master degree graduate in European Journalism, Celia Sampol has worked for five years as a reporter for the European press agency Europolitics in Brussels, Belgium. She has also collaborated with various famous French newspapers as Le Monde, Dernieres Nouvelles d’Alsace or Acteurs Publics. She moved to DC last September to pursue a career in political and environmental investigative reporting.

Subscribe to comments feed Comments (1 posted):

Rick Maltese on 01/27/2011 00:16:50
The idea that reprocessing causes more waste is crazy. Their different approaches and the best approach may be the most ignored and that is Molten Salt reactors which had a successful period of testing back in the 1960's and 70's.
The reason it was abandoned was because the need for nuclear weapons demanded the best way to get nuclear fuel for weapons. But now we want to get rid of nuclear weapons. So this technique should be revived and implemented.
It's time to reconsider this approach now the cold war is over.
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