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Toward Sustainable Radioactive Waste Control: Successes and Failures From 1992 to 2002

September 2002

Citation: ELR 11059

Author: James D. Werner

I. Introduction

A. What Does Sustainability Mean for Radioactive Waste?

Using a primitive nuclear reactor, named "Chicago Pile # 1," Enrico Fermi's team achieved a controlled chain reaction inside a squash court under the spectator stands of Stagg Field at the University of Chicago on December 2, 1942.1 In 1992—a half century after the first controlled nuclear reaction [32 ELR 11060] on earth—the Rio Summit found no consensus on the meaning of "sustainability" in nuclear waste control. Ten years later, our technical understanding and regulatory efforts have improved, even as the global situation raises new concerns. But, we are still far from a consensus on what a sustainable approach to nuclear waste might mean.

Sustainability in nuclear waste2 may, in fact, be an oxymoron. Certainly, nuclear power is not "natural" to a greater degree than other human endeavors. Although uranium exists naturally in the earth's crust, the fissioning of uranium in reactors produces an almost wholly man-made element—plutonium—that does not otherwise exist on earth,3 and can produce a variety of unique environmental, health, and security problems. On the other hand, nuclear technology provides one-fifth of U.S. electrical power and a variety of medical and scientific benefits with less evident immediate and direct health impacts than other energy sources, such as coal. If we look for sustainability in the nuclear enterprise, not in its "naturalness," but in the possibility of consequences that are tolerable for the long run, then nuclear power might compare well with other major energy sources. A larger problem arises, however, from certain nuclear technologies that hold the threat of unparalleled destruction and calamity from nuclear explosions. In this way nuclear power—if it involves reprocessing and recovery of fissile material, e.g., plutonium, may present fundamentally different risks of a greater magnitude than other energy alternatives. If reprocessing and recovery of fissile material can be avoided, then the risks are more comparable to other human endeavors that result in long-lived wastes.

[Editors' Note: In June 1992, at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro, the nations of the world formally endorsed the concept of sustainable development and agreed to a plan of action for achieving it. One of those nations was the United States. In August 2002, at the World Summit on Sustainable Development, these nations gathered in Johannesburg to review progress in the 10-year period since UNCED and to identify steps that need to be taken next. Prof. John C. Dernbach has edited a book that assesses progress that the United States has made on sustainable development in the past 10 years and recommends next steps. The book, published by the Environmental Law Institute in July 2002, is comprised of chapters on various subjects by experts from around the country. This Article appears as a chapter in that book. Further information on the book is available at www.eli.org or by calling 1-800-433-5120 or 202-939-3844.]

Jim Werner is an engineer who directs the Reprocessing Policy Project in Washington, D.C., through support by the Ploughshares Fund. He is also a Senior Policy Advisory for the state of Missouri Department of Natural Resources. He served previously as Director of Strategic Planning and Analysis, and of Long-Term Stewardship for the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE's) Environmental Management program from 1993-2001. Previously, he was a Senior Environmental Engineer at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) (1989-1993), a Senior Environmental Engineer and Senior Associate at ICF Technology, a private consulting firm (1984-1989), as well as a staff analyst for the Environmental Law Institute (ELI) (1982-1984) and the Port Authority of New York/New Jersey (1982). He earned a Master of Science degree in environmental engineering from the Johns Hopkins University and a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Delaware. He is grateful to Robert DelTredici, Don Hancock, Daniel Hirsch, and Richard Miller for their contributions, and the support of his colleagues at DOE, NRDC, ICF, ELI, and the Port Authority.

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