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New Designs Are Great, but Where Does the Waste Go? : Latest nuclear-power technology still has no solution for deadly spent fuels

The nuclear power industry is promoting a second generation of power plants that looks good on paper. With oil prices on a roller coaster and environmental pressures raising the clamor for cleaner energy, the new plants might be very welcome. But a leak in the nuclear cycle that is all too symptomatic of U.S. energy policy renders even the best and safest designs necessarily unsatisfactory--perhaps for 20 years or more.

The most intriguing new models would be half the size of the 1,200-megawatt monsters of a decade ago, with fewer working parts and safety additives born of near misses like Three Mile Island. If a reactor’s core overheated, for example, water would be gravity-fed to cool it down with no need for electric pumps that might fail. Even nuclear critics admit the industry may be onto something.

But even this smaller, smarter, second generation of reactors is up against a formidable barrier that looked easy to push aside 20 years ago. Scientists are still trying to find safe ways to get rid of the deadly waste that accumulates while nuclear fuels produce power.

Nuclear plants produce the heat that sends steam through turbines by splitting atoms of uranium pellets that are packed into rods in the plant’s reactor vessel. Even after they are burned out--spent, as the nuclear industry calls them--the rods remain so hot, radioactive and dangerous to human beings that they must be sealed off from the environment for 10,000 years. Some scenarios of what future generations will face if the waste oozed into the air or water make the disaster at the Soviet Union’s Chernobyl power plant seem benign.

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The crisis in the Persian Gulf, where most of the world’s future oil supply will be pumped, is the most immediate reason to cheer on efforts to do a better and safer job of generating power with nuclear fuels. The demand for electricity is increasing steadily, despite strong conservation programs such as one put in place by the California Public Utilities Commission this year.

Another reason to encourage safe nuclear power is the threat of massive climate changes as a result of a thickening blanket of carbon dioxide. The gas is created wherever people burn fossil fuels, and it traps heat from the sun the same way a greenhouse keeps plants warm in winter. It would be easier to clean up the air if nuclear power could make it possible to switch cars and trucks that generate half of all smog from gasoline to electric motors.

In an effort to create a market, General Electric Co. and Westinghouse Corp. are developing reactors that are better than the 112 now in operation, though not better enough to qualify as a second generation of power plants. General Atomics in San Diego and other manufacturers are working on other designs, such as one whose uranium pellets would be coated with heat-resistant ceramics and cooled by helium gas. The goal in all new models is “safer.”

But no matter how safe reactors get, their exhausted nuclear fuels would require safe storage for thousands of years, just like fuel from today’s nuclear power plants. Utility companies know that. With no place for spent fuel rods except temporary placement in cooling ponds around the plants themselves, they are in no hurry to expand and create more spent fuel.

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As for energy policy, Washington’s Energy Department is fully aware that many years, perhaps decades, will be needed to solve the waste disposal problem. Even so, it wants to help finance development of new nuclear designs that manufacturers want on line quickly. But Congress should slow the process down: It must decide if it’s wise to invest more federal money in new reactors when the waste problem is so far from resolved.

Sure, one way to look at America’s options is that it can either endure overall global warning or cope with a more direct warming due to spent nuclear fuel leaking radioactivity from canisters in tunnels whose seals did not hold. But is that a real choice at all? Real choices will come only from a forthright energy policy.

Tuesday: Needed--a national energy debate

DEADLY WASTE

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High-level nuclear waste produced by commercial nuclear power plants in the U.S.( in tons ) .

1970-'75: 1,496 ’75-80: 4,993 ’80-85: 6,101 ’85-90: 8,661* * estimated Source: U.S. Council for Energy Awareness.


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