Core debate

Over the years, this column has expressed opinions that could be labeled as “anti-nuke.” But my beef has never been with nuclear energy per se, but with the ferocious waste it creates. In her book Power to Save the World: The Truth About Nuclear Energy, Gwyneth Cravens presents updated information concerning nuclear waste, info with real potential to be a deal-changer.

She describes a new kind of reactor, the integral fast reactor, or I.F.R. The one functional I.F.R. in existence here in the United States (now without funding) is at the Idaho National Laboratory near the town of Arco, and it’s obvious there have been some serious improvements made in the atom-smashing game. “The I.F.R. efficiently recycles fuel, in the process reducing long-lived reactor waste by 99 percent, and is inherently meltdown-proof. Fast reactors could create enough fuel to power the entire country for more than 500 years while rendering weapons-grade nuclear material into fuel and rejuvenating spent fuel onsite.” Folks, we ain’t talkin’ about Chernobyl here (and it’s absurd to use that disaster as a reason to be against nukes. Chernobyl was to modern nuclear technology what a ’74 Pinto is to the Indy 500).

The I.F.R., capable of re-burning and re-burning spent fuel, thereby greatly reducing the final amount of nuclear waste that ultimately must be disposed, represents major progress. But, in the end, you still have some radioactive trash to deal with. With the I.F.R., you’ve done something one would normally think impossible. You’ve made plutonium palatable. Cravens: “You burn up the plutonium and make waste that has only about a 400 year half-life, as opposed to waste that has to be isolated for 10,000 years.”

Because if the waste can be processed so it’s no more dangerous than raw uranium in 400 years, it would now seem to be much more in our technological comfort zone. When the assignment is safe storage for 10,000 years, well, that’s a little dicey, to put it mildly. Four hundred years, though, sounds downright doable.

Would we want to do it at Yucca Mountain? Probably not. Us Nevadans have just become so bitchy about this whole nuke waste thing. We probably can’t even be bought off at this point, although a billion bucks a year from the feds might smell pretty good right about now to our state treasurer. There’s an alternative. A nuclear waste facility that’s been working efficiently, safely, and smoothly near Carlsbad, N.M., called the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant. WIPP was originally built to store only the nuke waste from military sites. One of WIPP’s designers says, “From just a technical pont of view, the best place on dry land to store all nuclear waste—wherever it comes from—is at WIPP. Geologically and hydrologically, it’s the safest.”