The United States is currently reviewing 18 new construction applications for nuclear power plants, and is considering doubling the allowable temporary above-ground storage limit for radioactive waste. This would raise the current 20 year limit to 40, with the idea that in 40 years researchers will have come up with a solution for permanent storage. But scientists and industry leaders are no closer to consensus than they were when the first nuclear power plants began operating in the '50s. Many remain skeptical about the proposed extra twenty years, wondering if they will bring us anything more than dangerous waste piled up in our backyards.
Power utilities are championing nuclear power as the new "green" fuel since its production does not produce any greenhouse gases. But many environmentalists, as well as citizens living near nuclear plants, argue the waste is too dangerous to be considered "clean," even if the actual power generated does not hurt the environment.
Quoted yesterday in Bloomberg News, Georgui Kastchiev, senior scientist for nuclear safety at the University of Vienna's Institute for Risk Research said, "New plants will continue to be built with no concern for where to put the spent fuel. A solution to the problem is constantly being moved to some point further in the future."
No one debates a viable solution for safe, long term nuclear waste storage remains elusive. Where industry leaders and anti-nuclear activists differ is their perception of the level of risk taken when nuclear waste is stored in above-ground casks. Although designed for 20 or more years of storage, casks are vulnerable to weather and terrorists attacks. Storing waste underground is equally controversial because of unpredictable seismic shifts that could release radioactive waste into soil and groundwater.
Even so, fifty new plants are currently being built worldwide. China is building 16 with 90 proposed, and the United States is reviewing 18 applications. Japan and India have also expressed interest in building nuclear power capacity in coming years.
One General Electric executive went as far as to call spent fuel an "opportunity," pointing to the unused energy in the waste.
Meanwhile, the long debated repository at Nevada's Yucca Mountain has been abandoned, after $9 billion in utility company funds paid for investigating the safety of the site.