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Don't put nuclear waste on military bases

IS A NUCLEAR waste storage facility coming to a former military base near you? Last week the House of Representatives voted to establish temporary storage facilities for nuclear waste at federally owned facilities, including military bases slated for closure in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Maine.

Republican Representative David Hobson of of Ohio, who sponsored the measure, claims it is a stop-gap solution to the problem created by delays in licensing the waste repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada.

Congress approved Yucca Mountain as a geologic repository for the nation's high-level nuclear waste.

But we can solve this problem without increasing the environmental burden on already contaminated military bases in New England. The nation has a nuclear waste crisis, but this is not the way to resolve it.

The current crisis is a time bomb that Congress set ticking in 1982 when it passed the Nuclear Waste Policy Act.

The Department of Energy was to begin shipping spent fuel from nuclear power reactors to a permanent storage facility in 1998. But a permanent repository has not yet opened and it is questionable if it ever will.

In 1987 Congress selected Yucca Mountain as the sole national site for high-level nuclear waste. The site turned out to have complex geological and hydrological conditions, forcing the Energy Department into years of study. Last summer, licensing of Yucca Mountain was further delayed when the US Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., ruled that the Environmental Protection Agency standards on Yucca Mountain violated federal law and must be rewritten.

To make things worse, the site became embroiled in allegations of scientific fraud in April when the US Geological Survey disclosed e-mail messages implying that scientists made up data to meet quality assurance requirements.

In the meantime, utility companies that owned nuclear power plants became angry that they were still paying to store the waste at reactor sites. When the 1998 deadline came and went, the utilities filed lawsuits against the federal government for breach of contract.

Hobson is attempting to resolve these issues by proposing temporary nuclear waste storage facilities at federal sites.

This is the wrong solution for four reasons.

First, many nuclear reactor sites already have their own temporary storage. After its life in the reactor core, used nuclear fuel is placed in deep pools adjacent to the reactor facility. Once the pools began to fill up, utility companies bought dry casks to store the overflow. These dry casks are concrete and steel structures that passively cool the fuel. About 25 reactor sites (out of about 70) already use such technology.

Second, plans already exist in the private sector for a large temporary spent fuel storage facility in Utah. Private Fuel Storage wants to open a 40,000-metric-ton site west of Salt Lake City on the Goshute Indian reservation. It is close to receiving a license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Third, the facility envisioned by the current legislation would have to be licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission -- a lengthy process. It has taken Private Fuel Storage eight years to obtain a license.

Fourth, and most significant, the $10 million appropriated is a fraction of what such a plan would finally cost. The $10 million will perhaps buy a study of where such a facility should be sited, but it will not cover the costs of opening such a facility by 2006, as Hobson has requested.

At a reactor facility it costs at least $10 million just to pay for the concrete storage pads, licensing, security systems, cask welding systems, transfer casks, slings, tractor-trailers, and startup testing. This doesn't pay for the casks themselves, which run about $90 to $210 per kilogram of spent fuel. For a small, 5,000-metric-ton facility, the casks alone would cost $360 million to $840 million.

There may indeed be a need for a small amount of federally funded storage for nuclear waste. But, rather than dumping the waste on former military bases, the government should offer to pay for at-reactor dry cask storage and take title to the waste as well.

This proposal, already suggested by Democratic Senator Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico, would provide a cheaper alternative to developing an entirely new site.

What's most important though, is that Congress take the problem of nuclear waste seriously. Temporary storage facilities are just that: temporary. They do not solve the problem of what to do with this highly toxic material that will outlast many generations. We, as the producers of this material, have an obligation to develop and implement a solution. And so far, we have decided that the best solution is geologic disposal.

What Congress may have to grapple with is whether Yucca Mountain is the right site.

What New England needs is for the closing military bases to be cleaned up and put to good use, not to add to their already-large waste burden.

Allison M. Macfarlane is a researcher at MIT and editor of ''Uncertainty Underground," a forthcoming book on the technical uncertainties in nuclear waste disposal at Yucca Mountain.

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