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The Other Nuclear Option

If nuclear energy is as safe and clean as Bush says it is, why does the United States have so much trouble safely disposing of its nuclear waste?
 
 
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Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch isn't exactly known for his strong environmental record. He's a staunch Republican who, in addition to serving as a senator since 1976, plays the piano and has made a little cash on the side as a Christian recording artist.

He's described the Kyoto Accords as a waste of time, and he's one of the Senate's most vocal supporters of the Bush administration's energy and environmental policies. He's for drilling at ANWR and other protected sites, supports road-building in wilderness areas, and is rated as one of the senators least likely to vote for legislation supported by the Sierra Club, League of Conservation Voters and other environmental groups. What's more, he uses the Republican buzz-term "environmental extremism" like it's going out of style.

So it came as some surprise when, along with Utah's other senator, Robert Bennett, and Nevada senators Harry Reid and John Ensign, Hatch sided with environmental groups, and pissed off the nuclear energy lobby in the process, by presenting the Spent Nuclear Fuel On-Site Storage Security Act of 2005 last year.

The legislation requires that the nuclear waste produced at commercial power plants around the country remain where it was created until the federal government makes good on its now 24-year-old plan to move all of the nation's nuclear waste to an underground storage facility, where it can live out its deadly radioactive half-lives without threatening nearby populations.

Nuclear power has again become a seductive alternative to oil and coal as a fuel source as America struggles to find enough energy to meet consumer demand. The nation's reliance on nuclear power as a source of energy has steadily increased since the 50s, when then-president Dwight D. Eisenhower assured Americans that nuclear technology could be used for good. In his State of the Union speech on Tuesday night, Bush announced his intention to rely on "clean, safe nuclear energy" to fight our national oil addiction. But one aspect of its energy production remains the same: Nuclear waste never goes away, and the U.S. government still doesn't have a viable plan to get rid of it.

Hatch's support of the on-site storage bill is part of his ongoing opposition to the creation of a "temporary" above-ground waste storage facility in Skull Valley, Utah, a vast stretch of Utah desert approximately 40 miles east of Salt Lake City. His vehement resistance to storing nuclear waste in his state is just one example of an ongoing headache faced by the Department of Energy and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission: everyone wants to find a "safe" place to store the nation's 77,000 tons of radioactive nuclear waste. It's just that no one wants it in their backyard.

Where is the West Desert?

Hatch, along with other legislators, public officials, local activists and members of the Native American Goshute tribe -- on whose land the temporary waste site would be located -- have fought for years to keep radioactive waste out of western Utah, where citizens already suffer from severe radiation-related illnesses due to nuclear fallout of bomb testing during the cold war. It's fine, they agree, to want to find a safe place to permanently store the nation's nuclear waste. But why risk an accident by transporting the stuff twice: once to the temporary facility and then again to the permanent one?

Utah's own "environmental extremists" beg the question further: Why does this waste keep getting made if we have nowhere to put it?

"Ultimately, we have to stop producing this stuff," says Pete Litser, executive director of the Shundahai Network, a Utah-based coalition of activists and native Americans opposed to nuclear proliferation. "We're creating hazardous material we don't know what to do with."

Charged with creating a plan for the disposal of "spent nuclear fuel from commercial nuclear reactors and high-level radioactive waste from national defense activities" by the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982, legislators came up with what seemed like a great idea: Put the waste somewhere sparsely populated with few environmental regulations, amidst good, patriotic U.S. citizens that rarely ask questions and are happy to help out Uncle Sam. One of those flat, square-like states where there aren't any cute owls or polar bears to mourn or big trees to sit in.

Enter the lower Great Basin, also known as Utah's West Desert, or Eastern Nevada: a region of the country so unremarkable no one even knows what to call it. Land of the nuclear test site, numerous bombing grounds and military bases, and some of the country's most heinous polluters, like MagCorp, which holds the title of " nation's worst toxic air polluter." It is also the site of the government's proposed permanent nuclear waste storage facility: Yucca Mountain, where scientists' insistence that seismic activity and groundwater levels make it unsafe for waste storage has delayed the site's opening indefinitely.

Inconsequential to most Americans, the "west desert" area is also the site of numerous Native American reservations, with thousands of miles of land given to the Western Shoshone and Goshute tribes in treaties. For this reason, Litser's Shundahai Network is fighting the development of both Skull Valley and Yucca Mountain.

Margene Bullcreek, who lives on the Goshute reservation less than two miles from where the temporary waste facility would be built, claims that her people's culture of self-reliance and harmony with nature is threatened by the shady politics of the "deal" to store the waste on the tribe's land in exchange for much-needed money to improve tribe members' quality of life.

"We're saying this is racism," says Bullcreek, the tribal leader of those opposed to storing nuclear waste on the tribe's land. "I'm concerned that it will affect our health. But my big, big fear is about how the federal government is taking away treaty land." If this encroachment on Goshute land does occur, it would hardly mark the first time the government has ignored tribal treaties for its own convenience. But filling Skull Valley with radioactive waste is a move that will have profound health and environmental consequences for thousands of years.

A "voluntary community" resists

In the early '90s, aware that the Yucca Mountain project was behind schedule, the DOE began looking for places to temporarily store nuclear waste. The Department partnered with Private Fuel Storage (PFS), a consortium of eight utility companies that own nuclear power plants, to find a site for temporary storage.

PFS claims it has met all the requirements needed to store the waste on Goshute tribal land in Skull Valley, Utah. According to federal regulations, locating a temporary storage facility requires that the owners of the land serve as "a willing host." PFS claims that the Goshute tribe is not only a willing host, but a "voluntary community." In fact, says PFS spokeswoman Sue Martin, it was the tribe that approached them about locating the waste dump on their land.

"The Goshute tribe contacted one of the PFS members," says Martin. "They said, 'If you're considering places to put your facility, please consider our reservation.'"

But members within the tribe claim that the "deal" struck with PFS wasn't in keeping with tribal governance processes. Bullcreek, who has spearheaded the opposition of PFS's plan, says the functioning tribal leadership is corrupt, that attempts to hold the tribe's regular elections have been delayed five times, and that Leon Bear, the acting chairman of the Goshute tribe, signed a lucrative agreement with PFS without the permission of the majority of the tribe's adult members.

"A week ago we filed a lawsuit with the Bureau of Indian Affairs about our tribe's problems with leadership, corruption and bribery, and how our tribal members have been hurt by this process," Margene Bullcreek told AlterNet. Now, her allies within the tribe are suffering more than ever, she claims, because the money that has been given to the tribe from PFS has not been dispersed among the tribal members. Leon Bear did not return requests to be interviewed for this article.

"Mr. Bear has kept any monies that have been given to the tribe to himself and his supporters," says Bullcreek. "He's got new trucks, new clothes -- the rest of us are back in the '80s. We need health care, we need education and we need homes." But, she protests, not at the expense of the land which was given to them as long as grass grows and water runs, as the U.S. government promised.

"No matter what, there's no guarantee against man-made accidents," Bullcreek said of the potential health and safety hazards of nuclear waste. "We can't sacrifice our land; we can't sacrifice our culture and who we are as indigenous people. We've done that enough already."

A rocky future for a permanent facility

The DOE examined several options for dealing with nuclear waste and finally decided on storing the stuff deep underground, where it would ideally be safe for at least 10,000 years, even though scientists estimate it will be at least 170,000 years before the waste is no longer dangerous.

Opponents of the underground repository at Yucca Mountain, a rural, out of the way location in southern Nevada, argue that science has never been a concern for the federal government when it comes to nuclear waste disposal. According to a growing cadre of scientists and legislators, Yucca Mountain is geologically unfit to be the repository of the country's 77,000 tons of nuclear waste.

In addition to questions about its geological viability, the Yucca Mountain site has been plagued by countless other glitches. Internal whistleblowers have come forward throughout the construction process, claiming that technical safety and performance processes were not up to par.

Originally slated to open in 1998, design flaws, contracting problems, and numerous lawsuits have delayed the opening of the repository indefinitely. Nevada Sen. Reid and other opponents of the site have alleged numerous times that the DOE and NRC are simply stalling, and that storing nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain is so obviously unsafe that it is only a matter of time before the idea is scrapped completely.

Setbacks and problems at the Yucca site so stymied the DOE's plans for nuclear waste storage that the department finally decided to work with private waste management companies to find a place to "temporarily" store the waste.

Upon passing the responsibility of finding temporary storage to PFS, the federal government essentially washed its hands of the responsibility to deal with the more difficult aspect of storing the waste. It is now the task of PFS to assure that the storage containers, transportation of the spent fuel and location of the site meet federal standards.

"We've had to prove that the storage containers and site could withstand potential disasters, like earthquakes, a plane crashing into [the storage tanks], everything," said PFS spokeswoman Martin. "Everything has to be approved by the NRC (nuclear regulatory commission). We won. All those specifications have been approved and certified by the NRC."

Though PFS claims it has passed each test, the company has still not received a license, an oversight Martin claims is due to "administrative complications" at the NRC. Recently, six of the eight partners in PFS have pulled out of the project, claiming that battles blocking the approval of the site have so protracted the process that by the time the facility is approved, the companies will no longer need it.

The plan is no plan

Though high-level waste comprises the smallest amount of waste produced and waiting for storage, it is the most dangerous and most difficult to dispose of. While the nuclear industry would like to downplay just how much of this stuff needs a safe place to hide, there are at least 40,000 tons of high-level nuclear waste in the United States awaiting disposal, and thousands more tons are produced each year. So from the get-go, if Yucca Mountain were to miraculously open tomorrow, it would already be more than half full and filling all the more quickly if the Bush administration gets its way.

The administration has recently launched a "Nuclear Power 2010" program, introduced in 2002 by the DOE as a "joint government/industry cost-shared effort." The program calls for the construction of new nuclear power plants and determine new regulatory processes. There are currently 103 working nuclear power plants in the United States, and many of these plants are running out of room to store spent nuclear fuel. In the meantime, spent nuclear fuel rods and other hazardous material sit stored where it was created, often in leaking or improper storage casks, waiting to be moved to its final resting place.

While angling for short-sighted plans and ill-conceived proposals, the government has essentially ignored other methods of disposing nuclear waste. Among the more promising methods are two kinds of chemical reactions that can reduce the radioactivity of the waste, and a third method involves using natural tectonic movement at the bottom of the sea to recycle the materials back into the Earth's mantle. Instead, the federal government is promoting sites like Skull Valley and Yucca Mountain as the best, final solution for radioactive material, despite the concerns of scientists and complaints of the area's residents.

Nicole Makris works for the SPIN Project and has written for Mother Jones , Hyphen Magazine , and other publications.