Monday, March 22, 2010

Ron Smith: Nuclear Waste - Opportunity or Imposition

The town of Carlsbad, in southern New Mexico, is famous for the enormous and widely visited Carlsbad Caverns, some 20 miles south of the town. Much more recently, Carlsbad has also become known as the site (just east of the town) of the first operating deep-geological repository for long-lived nuclear waste. I first visited what became known as the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in the middle of 1999, the year it opened and I was there again, a little over twelve months later, at an international meeting devoted (of course!) to discussing the disposal of nuclear wastes.

On this second occasion, the group of which I was a part was given a reception by the local authority, during which the Mayor of Carlsbad expressed his delight at the development of WIPP and was fulsome about the benefits to the community that had come from it, in terms of well-paid employment and money for infrastructure development. He went on to say (slightly tongue in cheek, I think) that he would welcome nuclear material from the various countries represented at the meeting. I say ‘tongue in cheek’ because he would have been aware that any serious moves along these lines would have brought him protracted grief from state and federal officials and politicians, as well as from armies of antinuclear activists from around the country. The fact remains that WIPP could take in long-lived nuclear wastes from around the world and hold them safely and securely, and that this would be very good business for the City of Carlsbad. It would just require the appropriate regulatory framework to be adopted by state and federal authorities. It should be added here that there is only one sovereign state that has specifically adopted law that permits it to take in nuclear waste from other countries and that is Russia.

The key notion in all this is to see the development of this kind of facility as an opportunity that might be sought, rather than an imposition to be resisted. This applies equally to the establishment of nuclear waste repositories within states to deal with their own spent materials. Efforts to establish such facilities continue to face mindless opposition around the world, but increasingly there are cases of communities who have seen local advantage in offering to provide them. The latest of these is the Ngapa people of Muckaty Station in Australia’s Northern Territory and what we see here is Australian Greens and other left-wing political activists indulging their irrational anti-nuclear prejudices at the expense of indigenous people, whose interests in other contexts they purport to defend. It is particularly irrational in this case in view of the genesis of much of the waste involved, which is spent sources from nuclear medicine, with many of the sources having been produced at the Lucas Heights reactor, just south of Sydney. Unless Australia is to eschew the advantages of nuclear medicine, it cannot continue with a head-in-the-sand attitude to the waste material it produces. It should be added here that there are also low-activity wastes from industrial and educational activities, as well as returned material from the reprocessing of spent fuel from Lucas Heights.

Of course, what is proposed for Northern Australia is small beer compared to the sort of infrastructure required to deal with waste produced from nuclear power programmes in other parts of the world, or from a major nuclear weapons programme, as in the case of WIPP. An Australian repository need not be very extensive, nor deep underground, like the WIPP plant. But its establishment would be a great improvement on present ad hoc storage arrangements as well as bringing some money and development to the region. It might be added also that the rewards in this case are nowhere near as great as could have come from an earlier plan (which was scuttled some dozen years ago) to establish a global spent fuel repository in Western Australia: the Pangea Project.

There are design standards for near-surface low and intermediate level waste repositories of the sort that Australia presently requires and plenty of already-operating examples to study. The present author has visited such facilities in the UK, Sweden, Germany, Japan, Korea and whatever else may be said of them they are not appropriately described as ‘dumps’. They are invariably spotlessly clean and meticulously ordered as, of course, they need to be, since the chief danger that they are designed to guard against is the escape into the environment of even a speck of radioactive material which might be inhaled or ingested. On the other hand, ‘dump’ is a good pejorative term, which suggests carelessness and danger, and it is understandable that anti-nuclear activists like to use it. It is a great pity that the media thoughtlessly tends to follow them in this practice, since it makes rational discussion more difficult and unnecessarily prejudices the interests of entrepreneurial parties, (both indigenous and other) as well as those of the general citizenry.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

My concern is the waste which is active for 100,000 years. Storing something for that long will impose massive costs and risks, so much so that I doubt nuclera would be cost effecttive if the true cost of storage were taken into acocunt.

The greenies do not seem to realise that their fixation with man-made global warming is driving governments towards nuclear power. If Nuclear power is being proposed as a solution to burning fossil fuels, then I would stay with fossil fuels.