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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Solving Nuclear Waste

Air Date: Week of

Now that the Yucca Mountain repository is all but shut down, where does the high level waste go? Host Jeff Young talks with Dr. John Garrick, chairman of the Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board, to find out what other nations are doing with their radioactive spent fuel.


YOUNG: Time is a major factor when it comes to nuclear waste. Some radioactive materials produced in reactors can last thousands – millions – of years. With Yucca Mountain’s apparent demise President Obama has asked a bipartisan panel of experts to recommend waste solutions. Another expert panel’s work gives us some strong hints about what those solutions might be. The U.S. Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board – an independent body – recently surveyed 13 other nuclear nations to see how those countries handle the waste. Physicist and engineer Dr. John Garrick chairs the review board.

GARRICK: There’s unanimous agreement, almost, that the best approach to the disposal of high level radioactive waste and spent nuclear fuel is deep geologic disposal. So, that’s a major finding of the survey, and frankly a major accomplishment of the international nuclear energy program that there is good consensus on what might be a reasonable solution.

YOUNG: And is anyone actually doing that yet or close to doing it?

GARRICK: Well, France, Sweden and Finland – they have established target dates to begin repository operations. Finland’s target date is the nearest and that’s 2020; Sweden, 2023; and France’s target date for beginning of operation of their repository is 2025. There is one other country, Germany, that has announced that it has lifted the ban on studying a site in Gorleben for possible development of a deep geologic repository. So, you have Germany, France, Sweden, Finland, and U.S. that are pretty much on a track towards sighting something with a bump in the road with respect to the U.S.

YOUNG: Bump in the road? That’s how you characterize what’s going on with Yucca Mountain?

GARRICK: Yeah, that’s – well, we know that for the time being at least that Yucca Mountain has been shelved. We don’t know whether it will be considered in the mix of options to be studied and perhaps reconsidered. That will all depend upon the outcome of a blue ribbon commission that has been established by president Obama.

YOUNG: So, if all of these other countries are looking at deep geological storage, is that really the only option here? What about reprocessing spent nuclear fuel?

GARRICK: Yes, there are countries that use reprocessing. Japan is one certainly. France is one. Others are planning to reprocess. The United Kingdom has been reprocessing. But the issue of reprocessing is a very dubious one at this point because of economic considerations, because of the value received is not quite to the extent that it was envisioned as a waste management option. No matter how much reprocessing we do, there will always be a certain amount of waste that we’ll have to contend with by some method of disposal.

YOUNG: So Finland is probably closest to actually putting waste in the ground. And curiously, it seems there that people are fairly receptive. In fact, I read that one community’s competing with another, even suing another, to win the right to be the disposal area. That’s a difference that we have kind of a hard time relating to here after the experience with Yucca Mountain, isn’t it?

GARRICK: Well, I think the one thing you have to take into consideration is that Finland has four nuclear power plants. Finland has a population of – what? – five to six million people, and the political and technical decision making process is just ever so much more simple.

YOUNG: Well, you know, that raises a point. I know technical is the middle name of your organization, but is this really at the end of it all a technical problem?

GARRICK: Well, to a lot of technical people, it is not. It has some technical issue associated with it, but most of the problems associated with sighting are problems of the type of finding a community or a region that would be willing to host – be the host location for a repository. And this is complicated by the baggage that anything nuclear tends to carry with it. It’s just a very difficult situation to sell. It’s more of a political problem than a technical problem.

John Garrick

YOUNG: So, you looked at all these options, what different countries; what’s your preference – you, personally – what do you think we ought to be doing here?

GARRICK: We need to get the message out that there is a solution to the nuclear waste problem. And I think as long as we continue to consider alternatives that are temporary, interim, and storage is in that category. We leave the question open as to whether or not there is really a solution. I think one of the real problems with the whole nuclear program is that we have not as a result of our leadership developed a national will to support it and let sound science and public acceptance be the principle drivers for our decision making. And I think if we did this it would go a long ways to solving the problems.

YOUNG: Well, Dr. John Garrick, thank you very much.

GARRICK: Thank you.

[MUSIC: Nuke Waste Q&A: Thunderball “Angela’s Lament” from Scorpio Rising (ESL Music 2001)]

YOUNG: John Garrick is chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Technical Review Board. And next week we follow the Yucca Mountain money. Consumers paid billions to dig that hole in the ground and could pay even more.

KRAFT: If things continue the way they are, the rate payer will continue to pay and get no services because they’re shutting down the Yucca Mountain project which was the only thing that program was currently paying for.

YOUNG: A nuclear money meltdown. That’s next week.

[MUSIC: Nuke Waste Q&A: Thunderball “Angela’s Lament” from Scorpio Rising (ESL Music 2001)]

YOUNG: Coming up: A sound idea to tackle the bark beetles chewing up western forests – that’s just ahead on Living on Earth.

ANNOUNCER: Support for the environmental health desk at Living on Earth comes from The Cedar Tree Foundation. Support also comes from the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund for coverage of population and the environment. And from Gilman Ordway for coverage of environmental change. This is Living on Earth on PRI – Public Radio International.



Click here for the Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board’s report to Congress on nuclear waste.

Read IEEE’s feature on Scandinavian waste solutions.


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