Sun, Apr 09, 2006 - Page 17 News List

Not in my backyard

By Lisa Zagaroli  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , WASHINGTON

A handout picture provided by Greenpeace shows the Russian ship Kapitan Kuroptev arriving in the port of St. Petersburg with nuclear waste. The Russian vessel transports to Russia nuclear fuel and waste produced in Europe.

PHOTO: AFP

Engineers from around the world come to Malcolm Gray for lessons about how to dispose of their nuclear waste.

Gray acknowledges there are technical matters that aren't completely resolved. No country has actually started burying its waste yet, after all. But the science isn't really going to be the hard part, he tells them.

"To get the social acceptance is the difficult and tricky thing," says Gray, a Vienna, Austria-based engineer who manages the International Atomic Energy Agency's (IAEA) training and development program for high-level radioactive waste disposal.

Though 33 countries have spent nuclear fuel from electricity production, only the US, with Yucca Mountain, and Finland, with Olkiluoto, have singled out actual sites for its burial.

The question of what to do with the world's nuclear waste is a growing concern as more countries look to nuclear power to solve their long-term energy needs and the Bush administration considers the global role the US will play in keeping that power source safe from terrorists.

The Department of Energy last week unveiled major nuclear waste legislation it hopes will accelerate progress on the stalled Yucca Mountain project and plans this summer to submit a new timetable for when the government will begin accepting waste for burial.

Though it is years behind schedule, the US is unique in that it even tries to maintain deadlines, says Charles Fairhurst, a professor emeritus who headed the civil engineering department at the University of Minnesota.

"The United States, we always have timetables," says Fairhurst, who once chaired a National Academy of Sciences panel on waste isolation. "We're always setting deadlines which we've never met."

"A lot of countries don't give timetables, so the issue doesn't become quite as focused."

Fairhurst has been a consultant to the Swiss nuclear waste program, an adviser to the French, and was also involved in the Swedish project.

"A number of countries are making good progress, but for various reasons, they don't feel under the same time pressures as the US," he says.

At the end of last year, there were about 284,000 tons of spent fuel in storage worldwide, with about 54,000 tons of it in the US, said Steven Kraft, senior director of used fuel management at the Nuclear Energy Institute, a policy organization for the commercial nuclear industry.

There's one conclusion that all of the countries who have a plan, even a loose one, can agree on. Waste that could be radioactive for tens of thousands of years should be buried in the ground.

A number of nations considered a range of options that included shooting the waste into the sun, embedding it under polar ice sheets and burrowing it below the ocean floor.

But burying it in dry, stable ground is considered the safest option for both transporting it and disposing of it by every country that has made any decisions.

"Of the 33 nations that currently have inventories of used fuel, 23 have specific plans to develop a geological depository," Kraft said. "The others don't seem to have any plans just yet."

What nations are grappling with is site selection.

The scientific question centers on whether they should go with clay, salt, granite or some other formation that will keep the radioactive waste safe from seepage, penetration and disruption as it takes centuries to cool.

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