Nuclear Issues That Never Go Away

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Illustration by Fotolia/Franck Boston
Addressing a core nuclear issue, congress approved a bill providing for the construction of a permanent nuclear waste disposal site. It remains to be seem whether one will ever be built.

The power source once promoted as “clean,” “safe,” and “too cheap to meter” is now beset at every turn. However much governments may support nuclear power, a litany of nuclear issues undermines it again.

The Breeder Reactor Survives (Barely, Again)

Congress found room in its busy lame duck session to discuss the future of the yet-to-be-built Clinch River Breeder Reactor at Oak Ridge, Tennessee. As you may recall, the intended plutonium-producing power plant escaped elimination from the budget in September 1983 by only one vote. Well, in December — like a political cat with nine lives — it again narrowly survived Congress. Early in the month, the House voted against funding the project, but the Senate voted otherwise (again by a margin of just one ballot), and a conference committee restored the monies. It’s not all smooth sailing for the breeder, yet, however; the agreement also banned any new construction on the reactor, and called for a study to determine the project’s validity.

Green Light on Nuclear Waste Disposal

Although legislators were of two minds about the breeder — the Senate for and the House against — they acted single-mindedly when it came to the problem of radioactive materials disposal by passing the Nuclear Waste Policy Act. The bill provides for the construction of “temporary” repositories for high-level nuclear waste and spent fuel; establishes a program to research — and by the year 2000, build — a permanent underground “dump;” and for the first time gets the government into the commercial waste disposal business. Although the act was backed by tong-time conservationist Morris Udall of Arizona, most environmental groups opposed it, objecting to the federal subsidy of commercial nuclear power —which is what government takeover of utility waste disposal amounts to — and to provisions that can prevent states from refusing to store radioactive trash within their boundaries.

Even now, many states object to the disposal of such materials within their borders. Two years ago, for example, Montana voters banned the practice in their state. When the legislature later attempted to amend the law to allow the dumping of uranium mill tailings, the citizenry rejected that proposal as well.

Likewise, last fall voters in Massachusetts approved an initiative preventing the construction of nuclear power plants or waste disposal sites without prior voter approval. The measure puts their legislature in an uncomfortable bind, too, because Massachusetts belongs to a consortium of New England states that’s trying to decide how and where to dump the region’s radioactive rubbish. The other members of the organization are now threatening to expel the Bay State, since the referendum essentially disqualifies it as a possible site.

Meanwhile, as legislators at all levels become more and more embroiled in the problem, voters are becoming less and less sympathetic to the idea of living near nuclear detritus. The conflict over how and where to dump such radioactive material will undoubtedly heat up — and like the waste itself, the debate will likely be with us for a long, long time.

Three Mile Madness

Since we’re on the subject of contentious nuclear issues, it’d be hard not to mention the builders and operators of the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant, who are now wrangling with one another over just who, exactly, should take the blame for the reactor’s troubles.

General Public Utilities, the parent company of TMI operator Metropolitan Edison, has filed a $4 billion suit against the plant’s designer, the Babcock and Wilcox Company, charging B & Wwith “corporate misconduct” and “reckless indifference” in failing to keep the utility informed of problems in the reactor’s design. Babcock and Wilcox, meanwhile, has returned the charges, blaming GPU for “negligence and recklessness and, in certain respects, deliberate and willful misconduct.”

Lawyers are already sharpening their pencils and their wits for what promises to be a long battle.