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Finding a Solution to Nuclear Waste: A Policy Analysis

The Impact of Nuclear Power and Nuclear Waste

Rogner (2010) made a case that nuclear power plants, if properly operated and maintained are low-cost generators, with high profit margins for their utility companies.  Thus, the appeal of nuclear power for utility companies has been substantial. However, he also noted that utilities do not actually bear the entire cost of such plants because governments are required to share "some economic risks" in the form of extensive tax roll-backs, guaranteed minimum electricity rates, loan guarantees, subsidies, and extensive limitations on liability in the event of failures. The stated compensation to the public for the underwriting of nuclear power was that there would be a stable, long-term , and secure supply of energy. 

There are potentially huge fiscal impacts in the event of disasters that go beyond the physical damage to the environment. For example, the Fukushima disaster is estimated to cost $250 billion in clean-up and recovery costs. Of that, only about $150 billion can come from TEPCO, the utility owning the plants. Thus, it is likely the Japanese government - in other words, the taxpayers - will undoubtedly be liable for the remainder of the expense of recovering from that disaster.  In the U.S. similar issues arise.  If a Fukushima-type disaster struck here in the U.S., the liability of the utility owning the affected plant is limited by the Price-Anderson Nuclear Industries Indemnity Act to only about $12.6 billion (as of 2011) - the rest of any recovery cost, tens or hundreds of billions of dollars, would have to be paid by the taxpayers.

Rogner listed the benefits of nuclear power as not impacting climate change and plentiful availability of uranium and thorium. Rogner also noted the environmental issues with nuclear power included problems with mining operations, extensive water use, generation of radioactive waste during mining ("tailings"), and the waste of spent fuel from the reactors. However, not all nuclear power experts are as positive about nuclear power as Rogner. 

Fukushima disaster has driven home the necessity of planning for even the most unlikely sequence of events when dealing with a technology as inherently dangerous as nuclear power. Macfarlane also noted that nuclear powers have dealt with the problem of waste disposal in an ad hoc manner rather than in a carefully thought-out solution.   Consideration of nuclear power in Macfarlane's opinion must account for all aspects of the nuclear power generation process, from mining the original ore to disposal of the final waste products.

Macfarlane pointed out the essential need for considering issues of waste disposal at the beginning of development of a nuclear power program, rather than waiting until the end of the program. Nuclear powers all over the world have tried to establish appropriate repositories, only to meet with local opposition, construction delays that run into years or decades, and ongoing protests.  Macfarlane detailed such experiences in France, Canada, Japan, German, the United States, with only Sweden, Finland, and possibly France having a well thought-out nuclear waste disposal plan.

In 2006, the Bush administration announced a Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP) with the goal (among others) of developing an effective solution to nuclear waste disposal.  Suggested goals for this partnership included:

  • Development of new generation of nuclear reactor which use the dangerous byproducts of current reactors as fuel;
  • Development of  technology to reprocess spent fuel from existing reactors, but do so in a way that does not separate out the plutonium so it cannot be used as weapons; and
  • Establishment of a secure transportation network to carry nuclear waste from its generation point to a processing or storage facility.

While the goals sound good, it should be noted that these are almost exactly the same goals the nuclear power industry has always had. Unfortunately, the GNEP is longer on goals than on ideas for how to achieve them.  The result of GNEP may well be to increase nuclear proliferation while accomplishing very little in terms of creating a global cohesive policy on nuclear waste.

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