THE BLOG
07/07/2006 01:47 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Nuclear Waste: "Not in My Backyard!" Then Whose?

The enveloping miasma of climate change and its risk to us and future generations calls for dynamic action to forestall and hopefully prevent the disasters ahead.

It calls for a clear understanding that this is not a local, regional, national, continental, nor even hemispheric issue, but one that is fully global in its reach, its origins, and its ultimate impact. It will affect each and every one of us in some important way. And because of its universality, we cannot conquer the problem alone, though we can accomplish much through deed and example. Clearly, though, its global dimension demands a global response -- and the time for meaningful cooperation on a world scale is slipping away.

In my opinion -- and some will disagree -- the most effective and quickest way to reduce fossil fuel emissions, other than massively curtailing consumption, is to embrace the enormous potential of nuclear power. The question before us then is how to expedite the construction of nuclear facilities and get them up and running in the shortest time possible. Certainly, one of the major constraints is the storage and disposal of nuclear waste. This is not the only concern delaying nuclear power-plant construction, but it, more than any other, seems to be the elephant in the room that is holding back the broad and expeditious application of nuclear energy.

Concurrent to nuclear waste storage sites, we also need to develop advanced recycling technologies that do not produce separated plutonium. This would significantly diminish nuclear proliferation concerns, while recycling used fuel would dramatically reduce the amount of waste requiring permanent disposal.

Understandably, the cry of "not in my backyard" -- even when the backyard is thousands of miles away at Nevada's Yucca Mountain -- has been raised to a deafening level, drowning out reasoned arguments. And this scenario is being replicated in virtually every corner of the world where nuclear power is being contemplated or expanded.

Yet France, where nearly 80 percent of that nation's electricity is generated by nuclear power (vs. about 20 percent in this country, where the newest nuclear facility dates to the 1970s), finds no such objections. One has to wonder why the French, not otherwise celebrated for their quiet acquiescence, accede to a set of conditions that, on their face, would have American communities up in arms.

The answer is not clear because, in large measure, the entire issue is shielded by a decree of "national security," which is meant to block debate. You see, France sends thousands of tons of nuclear waste to Russia each year. And though we know some details of the arrangement, much is still kept from public view. And that's a pity. France's arrangement just might provide the kernel of a solution to the global problem of nuclear waste. If the Franco-Russian program could be applied globally, it could offer a solution that transcends borders, is effective, environmentally rational, and secure.

There are vast reaches of the world where nuclear waste disposal would have a truly minimal social impact and present the least possible environmental concern. Siberia, the Australian outback, and the Gobi Desert, the Canadian Shield among others, come to mind. Stretches of land that could provide an urgently needed "backyard" to allow the world to get on with the pressing need to expand the use of economical, carbon-free nuclear energy.

The International Atomic Energy Agency, working under the auspices of the United Nations, already oversees the inspection and monitoring of nuclear power and fissionable materials around the world. The IAEA has, in its way, become the world watchdog on nuclear matters. Could the agency not also take on the oversight of international nuclear waste sites that would be accessible to all the world's nuclear power plants? The IAEA or some similar agency could be given full control over both storage and security at the sites. Admittedly, working out the details of agency oversight of nuclear waste depots would take some doing, but given the importance of the issue, it need's be done.

Such a program could be very profitable for any country agreeing to undertake nuclear waste storage. The Russian government, for example, recently passed a law to allow additional storage of nuclear waste on Russian soil. The Ministry of Atomic Energy, or Minatom, claims that 10,000 to 20,000 tons of high-level nuclear waste could be imported over the next decade for storage and reprocessing, and it expects to earn $20 billion from the waste-storage business. Russia is considering two separate sites, Chelyabinsk-65 (for reprocessing) and the Novaya Zemlya archipelago in the Northern Arkhangelsk region (dust off your atlas).

Australia, with some 30 percent of the world's uranium reserves, is currently meeting 20 percent of the world's need. With nuclear expansion in China and India, this off-take will grow considerably in the years ahead. Business proposals aimed at Australia, which has ideal geological conditions for waste storage, are proliferating. The Australian government is not unaware of these overtures, which promise to be highly profitable.

Now for a suggestion closer to home -- and forgive me if I duck the slings and arrows that will be coming my way. Rather than drilling the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, with the wide and intrusive footprint ANWR oil development would entail, what if we set aside a very significantly smaller landmass as our own Novaya Zemlya archipelago to serve as a national depot for nuclear waste? We could then get on with building nuclear energy plants here at home and start taking a big bite out of our fossil fuel emissions. The caribou and polar bears would still have ample room to roam and happily carry on. And do not forget, they, too, have a vested interest in stopping and hopefully reversing global warming!