Nuclear Waste Disposal and Issues of Health and Safety
November 22, 1996
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Topics covered in this forum:
- Will taxpayers or utility customers pay for nuclear waste cleanup?
- What is the best way to handle nuclear waste, at nuclear plants or at a central location?
- How can nuclear waste be transported safely?
- What is the status of the Rocky Flats Arsenal cleanup?
- Why can't nuclear waste be mixed with the ground it came from?
- How long before we have the techonology for a permanent solution to nuclear waste?
- Is Yucca Mountain the solution for America's nuclear waste?
- Is the nuclear industry more responsive to criticism than before?
- Viewer comments on nuclear waste
The Online NewsHour's editors asks
Is the nuclear industry more responsive to criticism now as opposed to a decade ago, and has the government taken strong enough measures to regulate nuclear waste?
Tom Carpenter of the Government Accountability Project replies:
The commercial nuclear industry is no more responsive to criticism now than ever. The March 1996 Time Magazine article about problems at the Millstone Plant only serve to highlighht the intransigence of this industry to internal and external criticism. In my view, the kind of attitudes expressed by utility executives and government regulators alike are too lax, dictated by tight budgets, and unresponsive to safety needs. With this combination, along with the aging of the nuclear reactors themselves, it is inevitable before a truly serious nuclear accident occurs with the loss of many lives.
Jim Werner of the Department of Energy replies:
Nuclear energy produces appropximately 20 percent of this nation's electricity. This share has remained relatively constant over the past decade. For a variety of reasons, no new plants have been ordered in almost twenty years. These reasons include the unfavorable economics of nuclear energy as compared to other sources of electricity, public opposition to the siting of new nuclear power plants, and the absence of a site for the disposal of nuclear waste. Over the past decade, public opinion polls have not indicated a significant change in public opinion with respect to nuclear energy. The responsiveness of nuclear utilities to concerns raised by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and others has varied over time and by utility. It is difficult to generalize across the entire industry. Many utilities have been excellent performers and have either had no problems or have responded well when concerns have been raised. Other utilities have not responded well and have had regulatory problems.
The current regulations governing nuclear waste are strong enough to ensure that if properly done the storage and treatment of nuclear waste pose no undue risks to the public health and safety for the immediate future. Thus, for example, it is considered safe to store spent nuclear fuel at nuclear power plants for up to 100 years.
The Environmental Protection Agency and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission have established standards for the permanent disposal of nuclear wastes. There is a general consensus in the scientific community that these standards are adequate to protect the public and the environment from the long-term hazards of nuclear waste. Under these standards, the risks to the public posed by the disposal of nuclear waste would be relatively small compared to many of the risks we face on a daily basis. Others believe, however, that our current scientific understanding is insufficient to be able to predict with any certainty that disposal systems will be able to last over the extremely long periods of time (many centuries) for which this waste will remain dangerously radioactive.
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