The energy crises of the 1970s provided a windfall for the nuclear power industry. In its quest to wean the United States from dependence on foreign oil, the Carter administration's energy policy featured expansion of nuclear energy to meet the country's electricity needs.
Indeed, nuclear energy offered several advantages over both oil and coal -- the main fuels then consumed by electric utilities. Not only was the uranium used to fuel nuclear power plants in sufficient supply in the United States, but it produced power without emitting the sulfur dioxide and other pollutants produced by burning coal. Its main weakness -- and the industry's eventual undoing -- lay in the deadly radioactivity of uranium and its by-products.
Hopes for nuclear power's central role in the country's energy mix ended on March 28, 1979, when a valve burst at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant near Harrisburg, Pa., spilling radioactive water into the building where the reactor was housed. Although the accident caused little apparent damage outside the plant itself, it underscored the dangers inherent in nuclear power and effectively halted further expansion of the industry in the United States. Facilities already licensed or under construction were completed, so the total number of operable reactors in the United States continued to grow in the 1980s. But since peaking at 112 in 1990, the number of reactors in operation has fallen to 103.
With little prospect of further commercial development of nuclear energy in the immediate future, the most pressing issues facing the industry and policy-makers involve the transportation and storage of the mounting volume of nuclear waste. Policy-makers have settled on a single repository for the permanent disposal of all high-level waste from commercial nuclear power plants -- a massive facility now under construction at Yucca Mountain, 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas, Nev. President Clinton has proposed spending $234 million -- a $71 million increase over 1999 -- to complete the project.
Yucca Mountain's opening has been repeatedly postponed because of political opposition from Nevada lawmakers, who don't want their state used as the country's nuclear waste dump, and technical concerns about the site's seismic stability and potential for groundwater contamination. The permanent facility is not expected to be ready for use until 2010 at the earliest.
But because nuclear power plants are running out of room for storing their radioactive wastes on-site, utilities and many Republicans support a bill (HR 45) that would open Yucca Mountain immediately for temporary waste disposal, even before the final assessment is complete. Citing environmental risks, President Clinton has threatened to veto the measure.
As an alternative, Energy Secretary Bill Richardson proposed on Feb. 25 that the federal government take legal responsibility for nuclear waste stockpiled at 72 commercial power plants until a permanent repository is ready for use. But Sen. Frank H. Murkowski, chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and other lawmakers said that does not alleviate the problem.
Environmentalists and consumer advocates support the president's stand. “Polls show that people have a gut reaction against the transportation of nuclear waste,” says Wenonah Hauter, director of Public Citizen's Critical Mass Energy Project. “But somehow that doesn't translate into congressional action on this issue.” Passage of HR 45, she says, would result in “100,000 shipments over a period of 30 years moving through about 43 states and exposing 50 million Americans to high-level nuclear waste. It's irresponsible to move this waste until there's a better solution.”
Nuclear-waste storage will pose more problems as reactors are decommissioned, or taken out of service. A harbinger of difficulties to come is already apparent in Germany, whose newly elected center-left government has called for the shutdown of all 19 of the country's nuclear power plants. But the plan has run afoul of claims by France and Britain that it violates contracts they have already negotiated for reprocessing spent nuclear fuel from Germany.
In the United States, utility deregulation poses a different set of problems. Public Citizen predicts that introducing competition to the industry will force utilities to close many nuclear plants earlier than they had anticipated. Of the 103 nuclear plants in operation, as many as 90 could be forced to close before their scheduled dates, a process that may cost up to $54 billion.
That prediction seemed to be confirmed last month, when Southern California Edison announced plans to begin the lengthy process of decommissioning one of its three reactors at the San Onofre nuclear complex in Southern California next year, 13 years ahead of schedule. With storage space in short supply for the waste from operating plants, technicians face an even greater task in disposing of an entire reactor. The reactor vessel alone weighs several hundred tons and is so radioactive that only one storage site, located across the country in Barnwell, S.C., is considered secure enough to hold it. But because of its weight, the vessel cannot be transported intact and will have to be cut into pieces before shipping.