Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality
Breaking the Logjam
By David G. Young
Washington, DC, July 11, 2006 --
Allowing nuclear waste exports to Russia is a useful tool for reviving America's nuclear power industry. Actually exporting the waste, however, would be a disaster.
America's decision to negotiate an end to the ban on nuclear waste exports to Russia1 marks yet another milestone on the path toward the resurgence of the nuclear power industry in the United States. The decision on waste exports is important because it could help end a logjam that has long stymied the construction of new nuclear power plants in America -- nobody has been able to resolve the controversy over the disposal of nuclear waste.
This disposal controversy stems from an irrational public fear of nuclear power in general. Whenever discussing the issue, panicked nuclear detractors quickly bring up the Chernobyl disaster. But public perceptions of the world's worst nuclear disaster are completely out of synch with reality.
In the 20 years since the accident at Chernobyl, fewer than 60 people have died from the effects.2 By comparison, the conventional coal-fired power industry is far, far more dangerous. In 2004 alone, 6,027 people were killed in coal mines in China3 -- over 100 times the number of people killed in nuclear-related accidents over the past two decades. Anti-nuclear activists correctly point out that over the next several decades, thousands will die prematurely in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia from radiation-induced cancer. While this may be true, the scope of these deaths is completely eclipsed by the loss of life every single year from pollution-induced breathing disorders that can be traced to burning coal.
To be sure, the problem of safely operating nuclear power plants and disposing of the waste has nothing to do with science, and everything to do with politics and fear. Nuclear plants are already far more safe than coal plants. And there are ample options for safely disposing waste, as was highlighted by a British commission that publicly explored the various options in recent years.4 The conventional wisdom of burying waste deep underground may have drawbacks, but it is certainly viable. The trouble is that environmentalists and not-in-my-backyard activists have endlessly delayed the opening of America's underground waste disposal facility at Yucca Mountain in Nevada.
Allowing the export of waste to Russia could help bypass activists who are blocking nuclear power. The Russian government voted early this decade to accept waste imports as a money-making initiative. While a few European countries such as France have taken the bait, most of the world has not. This is because the United States, which produces uranium fuel rods for nuclear plants around the world, demands that any fuel it produces never be exported to Russia.
This ban is based on concerns about security of the waste and the threat that spent fuel could be turned into weapons. Not only would reversing this position allow America to export its waste, it would allow countries like South Korea and Japan, whose nuclear plants use American fuel rods, to export their waste to Russia as well.
With America moving to rebuild its nuclear industry, this change is quite timely. Just recently, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission granted the first license for a major nuclear plant in over 30 years.5 The new fuel manufacturing plant, in New Mexico, would make the fuel rods that once spent might be exported to Russia. Meanwhile, six different power plant operators have started working on NRC applications for approval of new American nuclear power plants.6
So long as the opening of Yucca Mountain remains blocked, however, anti-nuclear activists will have a club to beat over the head of the nuclear industry -- the industry has no place to put its generated waste. Allowing the export of the material to Russia for disposal provides an alternative answer.
But while shipping waste to Russia sounds great in theory, actually doing so is a completely different story. The unfortunate truth is that Russia has an unbelievably bad track record when it comes to properly disposing nuclear materials. While Russia embraces the prevailing strategy of deep underground disposal, it is nowhere nearly as far along as the United States -- no site has even been selected, let alone built.
Today, most waste in Russia goes to a reprocessing plant at Mayak, where radioactive byproducts simply pile up on-site in barrels or pools. The site is infamous for pollution caused by past accidents and intentional discharge. As recently as March, the director of the plant, Vitaly Sadovnikov, was fired by court order for dumping radioactive waste into a river, and diverting funds to his personal accounts. Despite such egregious findings of misconduct, Sadovnikov was reinstated by the federal government in May.7
Given this track record, shipping waste to Russia would be a disaster. It would only serve to redirect waste from America's safe but politically blocked disposal facility to Russia's irresponsibly mismanaged and dangerous facility. Doing so would be far worse than passing problems off to a neighbor -- it would be creating terrible new problems where none existed to begin with.
So long as the Russian option is merely used as a theoretical alternative to break the logjam on the future of nuclear development, all will be good. Actually shipping waste, however, should be out of the question.
Related Web Columns:
Bury the Waste, Not the Debate, December 21, 2004
1. BBC News, U.S. to Make Russia Nuclear Offer, July 10, 2006
2. Chicago Sun Times, Chernobyl Deaths Fewer Than predicted, UN Says, September 6, 2005
3. Xinhua, Coal Mine Deaths Kill 6,027 in China, January 17, 2005
4. David G. Young, Bury the Waste, Not the Debate, December 21, 2004
5. Associated Press, U.S. Grants 1st License for major Nuclear Plant in 30 Years, June 25, 2006
6. Physics Today, Nuclear Reactor Builders Are Josteling For Business as Energy Utilitieis Take Another Look at Nuclear Power, February, 200
7. Moscow News, Nuclear Waste Plant Chief Dismissed for Major Pollution Reinstated, May 29, 2006