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Where The Nuclear Waste Goes

Brendan Koerner asks, If not Yucca, where? Where do we stash all the nuclear waste? For the time being, metal casks scattered around the country are holding the existing waste, but those casks only last about 100 years, and we need a sturdier, longer-lasting option. So, if Nevada manages to tie up Yucca in lawsuits for all eternity, that leaves us with...

There are several promising techniques in the pipeline, starting with accelerator-driven transmutation of waste, in which proton beams are used to reduce a substance's half-life. ATW is a favorite of Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., who gives it a shout-out on his anti-Yucca Mountain page. But skeptics claim that ATW is far too expensive and laborious, and will never be able to handle anything more than a token amount of waste.

There is also great interest in using microbes to either trap dangerous isotopes in calcite deposits or cleanse uranium from groundwater. And chemists at Northwestern University recently announced that layered metal sulfides show promise for the remediation of certain types of nuclear waste.

While these cleanup techniques are at least several decades away from commercial viability, we already know how to recycle nuclear waste. Nuclear recycling is every bit as controversial as Yucca Mountain, however. Several European nations currently use the PUREX process, in which spent fuel is bathed in nitric acid so that uranium and plutonium can be extracted. But PUREX isn't used in the United States because of its high cost, as well as the perceived risk of weapons proliferation.

Many in the American nuclear-power industry favor the development of UREX+, a recycling process that ostensibly addresses these concerns. The end products could then be used in advanced burner reactors. But UREX+ has plenty of critics (PDF), who contend that the process is neither as clean nor as proliferation-resistant as it's cracked up to be.

Or we could clasp our hands together and pray hard for the onset of nuclear fusion. But, hold on. How does France deal with this problem? French reactors reprocess their spent fuel, which reduces the total volume of waste. (On the downside, doing so creates plutonium and ups the risk of proliferation, while the reprocessing plants have an unfortunate habit of leaking radioactive liquid onto Normandy Beach and into the Channel.) Still, even the fractional amount of waste that remains—a French family of four generates "a glasslike nugget the size of a cigarette lighter" every few decades—adds up, and has to go somewhere.

French people seem to trust nuclear power more than Americans do, and gaze a bit more fondly on their scientists and technocrats. But that doesn't mean they enjoy living near radioactive-waste repositories any more than your average Nevadan. According to this Frontline report, in the late '80s, French people in the countryside grabbed their pitchforks and rioted over a proposal to bury the waste in rural areas. So the government came out and announced that, no, okay, it only wanted to put the waste there temporarily—and would watch over it—rather than bury it for good. That seems to have appeased the rabble for now, but the government's still noodling over a longer-term solution (deep-underground burial looks like the top prospect). Meanwhile, Greenpeace has charged France with fobbing thousands of tons of waste off on  countries like Russia—and where it ends up remains murky.

--Bradford Plumer