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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

International Proposals for Nuclear Waste Sites

Air Date: Week of

So far, no country has built a permanent facility to store its worn out reactor fuel. Safe places are hard to find, and few people want one in their back yard. But some think the solution is an international dump to hold everybody's waste.

Highly radioactive nuclear reactor waste should be securely stored, yet at reactors around the world it is stacking up in open pools. No country has built a permanent disposal site. But now some groups are proposing that international sites be built to take waste from many nations.


CURWOOD: Even if nuclear power could be produced without risk of accident and very inexpensively, it would still have a major dilemma: what to do with the radioactive waste. When the fuel rods in a nuclear reactor have run their course, they have to be replaced. New rods go in and the old rods come out, but they're still highly radioactive. So they must be kept away from people and the environment. So far, no country has built a permanent facility to store its worn out reactor fuel. Safe places are hard to find, and few people want one in their back yard. But some think the solution is an international dump to hold everybody's waste. Living on Earth's Daniel Grossman has our story.

(Voice over loudspeaker, muted)

GROSSMAN: You might expect nuclear-reactor waste to be sealed away in a concrete vault deep beneath the Earth. But in the Pilgrim nuclear plant near Boston, highly radioactive used fuel is stored in a water-filled tank that looks more like a YMCA swimming pool.

TARANTINO: This is it. Spent fuel pool. It's about 38 feet deep, holds all the fuel that we've ever used at Pilgrim.

GROSSMAN: Pilgrim official David Tarantino says the used fuel is submerged in water to keep it cool and to shield the intense radiation. In 26 years of operation, Pilgrim has only generated enough waste to fill up a 3-car garage, a surprisingly small amount considering that the facility can supply enough power for a small city. But the waste is extremely hazardous, and that has some experts worried.

GALLUCCI: I don't think anybody in the nuclear industry in the environmental world would say that things are fine with respect to the disposition of spent fuel and radioactive waste from nuclear power reactors.

GROSSMAN: Georgetown University Professor Robert Gallucci says Pilgrim is only 1 of more than 400 reactors worldwide storing reactor waste indefinitely. Not a single country in the world is even close to building a permanent burial site.

GALLUCCI: It is not a good idea to plan, for the next century or more, to leave this material in open ponds in major cities around the world.

GROSSMAN: Why not? First, because the metal rods holding the fuel corrode, and cement tanks leak.

GALLUCCI: Second, there's the vulnerability to either accident or a terrorist attack.

GROSSMAN: And spent fuel contains plutonium, which a government or terrorist organization could craft into nuclear weapons. The US is considering building a burial site in Nevada called Yucca Mountain, but some experts question its safety, and the nuclear tomb may never be built. Robert Gallucci is most concerned about reactor waste in countries with nuclear weapons ambitions, like India, Pakistan, and South Korea. He says what the world needs is 1 or more centralized sites to take reactor fuel from many nations. And while most nuclear utilities and their neighbors would like to get rid of the stuff, there are some who believe it offers a lucrative source of opportunity.

(Squealing; voices)

GROSSMAN: At Krasnoyarsk-26, a city in the heart of Siberia, technicians board a train bound for a huge underground plutonium factory. Scientist Yevgeniy Velikhov says Russia could rent out space here for storing used fuel for other countries, until they come up with a permanent disposal plan. Dr. Velikhov is president of the Kurchatov Institute, Russia's leading nuclear research center. He says Krasnoyarsk-26 is not prone to earthquakes and already has secure storage carved from a mountain.

VELIKHOV: It is no access to terrorism, no access to any accident like airplane crash or bombing, because this storage already designed and built to withstand a direct nuclear weapons hit.

(Doors shut; motors hum)

GROSSMAN: Dr. Velikhov's is only 1 of a number of competing proposals for a Russian fuel storage site. All of them would generate hundreds of millions of dollars for the cash-starved country, which could fund the clean-up of Russia's decrepit nuclear weapons industry and keep underpaid nuclear technicians at Krasnoyarsk-26, like those servicing this reactor, from taking their skills, and possibly some stolen plutonium, abroad.

(Clanking, humming)

GROSSMAN: Leaked Russian documents show that the nation is already negotiating with countries like Switzerland, Germany, and South Korea. The Clinton Administration appears divided on the issue. One official said Russia should deal with its own clean-up problems first. And the Russian idea may flounder without American approval, because the US has veto power over disposal plans at many foreign reactors.

(Music and chimes. Woman's voice: "Nuclear power produces 17% of the world's electricity, without contributing to the greenhouse gases that cause global warming. Like any other form of power generation, it produces waste.")

GROSSMAN: Russia's not the only one that wants to get into the nuclear-fuel-disposal business.

(Music. Woman's voice continues: "And Pangea is an organization devoted to promoting a safe world solution to the problem.")

GROSSMAN: As this confidential video explains, a multinational company called Pangea is proposing not to store spent fuel but to bury it permanently. Pangea Vice President Ralph Stoll says his company has scoured the world looking for a private site with the best physical characteristics.

STOLL: Good, stable geology. Minimal rainfall. Flat terrain. No natural resources identified in the area. And remote from population.

GROSSMAN: The firm also wants a democracy with no known plans to make nuclear weapons. Ralph Stoll says one country fits the bill.

STOLL: We think that's Australia.

(Music and woman's voice-over continues: "Pangea, leading a global solution for the disposal of nuclear materials.")

HILL: Australians are fairly concerned, if not outraged, by this news that they are going to be dumped with a whole lot of plutonium.

GROSSMAN: Australian Felicity Hill heads the United Nations office of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom. She says ever since environmental activists made public Pangea's promotional video, the firm has been under attack.

HILL: The reaction's been fairly loudly, and clearly, No.

GROSSMAN: The Australian government has come down firmly against the plan. Pangea says it's not giving up, although it faces opposition on many fronts, including concerns about how spent fuel would arrive in Australia.

MULLINS: The latest news this morning, a tractor trailer carrying radioactive material crashed and caught fire early today on Interstate 91 in downtown Springfield, Massachusetts. Authorities are now calling ...

GROSSMAN: This 1991 crash did not release any radioactivity. There have been no serious highway accidents with reactor fuel. But Mary Olson of the Washington-based Nuclear Information Resource Service says the thousands of shipments needed to fill up a site in Australia, Russia, or any other place would dramatically increase the risk of such accidents. She says every country should care for its own waste.

OLSON: No matter where we choose the site, this stuff is going to leak out. So even if we get it there safely, it's only a matter of time. Unless there is the commitment to continue stewardship. And I would hazard the guess that that commitment is greater when it's closer to the people who made it.

GROSSMAN: Political and technical obstacles will certainly delay and could halt any international spent fuel site from opening. But nuclear utilities aren't letting that stop them. And at storage pools around the world, the radioactive fuel rods continue to stack up. For Living on Earth, I'm Daniel Grossman.



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