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March 11, 2008

Guest Commentary by David Ross-Stevens: The case for nukes?

The Courier-Journal recently made a lukewarm pitch for nuclear power electrical energy. This 180-degree editorial policy change illustrates the brevity of institutional memory, and calls into question the newspaper’s commitment to environmental health.During the 1970s, the Bingham newspapers were dead set against building the Marble Hill nuclear power plant near Madison, Ind., 40 miles upriver. There were good reasons not to build then, and most are valid today.After several years of construction that cost more than $2 billion, Public Service of Indiana (now Duke Energy) threw in the towel. There was significant public opposition and safety/construction problems, but the company’s primary reason for stopping was economics. The monetary returns did not justify the project.Nuclear power plants are still expensive, but the main argument for not building them is that the industry does not know what to do with highly radioactive waste. In 1957, when the first nuclear plant was built in Shippingport, Pa., engineers were sure they would find a way to handle used uranium rods. Fifty-one years later, they still have not.This is no small matter. Radioactive wastes are among the most toxic materials on earth. Thousands of tons sit waiting. Any real solution must do the job for thousands of years; radioactivity breaks down oh-so-slowly.The federal government thought it had the answer: a $2 billion dollar hole in the ground in Yucca Mountain outside Las Vegas. But Nevada state government says no way. The majority of scientists now say the site does not isolate wastes as the government first thought it would.What about the wastes from the 106 U.S. nuclear power plants already operating? They are in temporary storage in pools of water (now filling up) at each plant site. They await transfer to a permanent site — which does not exist.What about France? About 80 percent of her electricity is produced by nukes. What does France do with wastes? They are held in “medium-permanent” sites in above-ground storage facilities similar to mausoleums, also awaiting a permanent engineering solution. Geologic isolation — deep underground burial in extremely dry areas unsusceptible to earthquakes — is generally thought to be the ultimate answer.How long must we oversee radioactive wastes? Thousands of years. For perspective, one must go back 232 years to this nation’s founding. That seems like a long time, and it is when you consider that this government —not the nation — is perhaps the oldest in the world. You can project oversight of radioactive wastes another 232 years; that also seems like a long time, but it falls well short of the thousands of years needed.Kentucky’s nuclear waste program is instructive. In the late-1960s then-Gov. Bert Combs extolled the virtues of establishing a low-level radioactive dumping ground in the state. He said it would generate an economic boom. His plan was partly successful with the creation of a site at Maxey Flat, near Morehead, in the 1970s. But it was spectacularly unsuccessful — in less than a decade, radioactive water began seeping off the site toward the Ohio River.The large trenches received tons of low-level wastes, things such as rags, lockers, mops and clothing that were then covered with earth. But trouble was, rain fell onto the sealed trenches, percolated through the debris and then predictably flowed off underground toward lower terrain.Presumably the Maxey Flat debacle is ongoing. Radioactivity still seeps away, and three decades later, Kentucky presumably is still paying for pumps and technicians to get tritium out of the trenches for treatment above ground.Waste-handling is still the main nuclear obstacle, but there are others. The economics are iffy. In fact, the industry won’t consider building plants without assurance that the federal government will pick up the tab for environmental and people damage in the event of an accident.Then there’s the big unknown of how to dismantle an obsolete nuclear plant. Do you take it apart and ship the pieces to unknown places? Do you mothball it onsite and set up a thousand-year priesthood to monitor its integrity? Maxey Flat should tell us something. And Yucca Mountain. And Chernobyl. Ask the people in Ukraine.Building a nuclear power plant — or even running one — is the least of our worries. Can we mine the ore safely? (We haven’t in the past.) Can we refine the uranium safely? (We didn’t at the Paducah facility.) Can we do the whole thing without subsidies through the nuclear weapons ore-refinement programs, federal research and the federal insurance plans?These are major questions over and above the waste problem.So now The C-J says nuclear energy’s time may have come? I don’t think so.  The author was The Courier-Journal’s first investigative environmental writer, from 1968-78. Contact him at leo@leoweekly.com