About 90 miles north of Las Vegas, deep in the Nevada desert, the US Department of Energy has spent $4bn (£2.5bn) digging a great big tunnel through a mountain. The department has the backing of George Bush to try to win approval from safety regulators and Congress to spend another $54bn building a whole lot more, until there is a 68-mile network of tunnels crisscrossing the site.
When the tunnels are finished, in 2010, the DofE hopes to store 70,000 tonnes of nuclear waste in them, encased first in metallic oxide ceramics, then stainless steel strengthened with zirconium, then nuclear grade stainless steel, then a chromium nickel steel alloy and then concrete. It is expected that these "emplacements" will be left for about 80 to 100 years, and that they can be retrieved from the site at any time if people think there is a better way of dealing with the waste. Ultimately, the plan will be to close the tunnels and seal them.
The tunnels and emplacements are part of the Yucca Mountain nuclear repository. It will be the most expensive single construction project in US history. And it might just save the world's nuclear industry from financial ruin.
Sir Brian Flowers, chairman of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, was the first to sound a warning about the waste problems facing nuclear power. He said that until the industry knew what it was going to do with its legacy – how it was going to decommission old power stations, what it was going to do with its waste – it could not be allowed to expand. Sir Brian said this in 1976. A quarter of a century later, the questions have not been answered.
Alan Marples, nuclear expert at consultancy Arthur D Little, is even more blunt: "The financial problems at British Energy and BNFL are almost a sideshow. The big issue is nuclear waste."
It's not just an issue for the US and UK; it's a mounting problem for every country with nuclear reactors.
France, with Europe's largest nuclear programme, has started an evaluation that will decide whether it goes for a repository like Yucca, disposes of the waste in a deep hole from which it can never be retrieved, or separates it up and stores it in lots of smaller sites. It plans to decide on this by 2006. Finland and Sweden have already decided: they are building repositories. The UK, which has been pondering the problem since the late 1980s, has decided to have a consultation, with a planned deadline of 2007. "Let's hope it is not another consultation about a consultation," says a senior nuclear industry figure.
In Britain, the industry appears split between two distinct camps. There is Nirex, the body set up in the 1980s to deal with the problem, which proposed building a repository next to BNFL's infamous Sellafield site in Cumbria only to have that £5bn plan torpedoed five years ago. And then there is BNFL, which has invested hundreds of millions of pounds in fuel reprocessing and favours storing the fuel above ground for 100 years while a better solution to the problem is found. BNFL's recent conversion to this way of thinking led it to reassess its nuclear waste liabilities earlier this year and write off nearly £2bn, a move that would have made the group insolvent if it were not state-owned.
Dealing with the issue is complicated by all sorts of factors. There are the financial problems of British Energy, which could be even worse if its accountants took a strict view of the potential liabilities to do with decom- missioning its nuclear reactors. And then there is the £40bn cost of setting up the Liabilities Management Authority, the government body charged with cleaning up the radioactive mess created by BNFL, the UK Atomic Energy Authority and the Ministry of Defence's nuclear weapons programme over the past 50 years. The prospect of the LMA seems so daunting that Tony Blair is expected to postpone plans to put a Bill that would create it in next week's Queen's Speech.
And then there is the pressure created by the US going ahead with Yucca. Congress first backed the building of a repository in 1983, and by 1987 Yucca had been chosen. Though the decision was made by the DofE on ecological grounds, even Mike Voegele, the project's chief science officer, admits it was politics that swung the decision in favour of Yucca. No one wants a nuclear project in their back garden, and the two other states on the shortlist, Texas and Washington, had more political muscle than Nevada.
Since then, the DofE has been almost at war with the state, whose governor, Kenny Guinn, tried to veto the project, only to be overruled by Congress. Nev-ada has passed a law banning Yucca, taken out five lawsuits trying to stop the project, and even revoked its water rights. "Sites should have been chosen for geological reasons, not their remoteness," says Steve Frishman, who is co-ordinating the battle against Yucca for the state.
Yucca is indeed remote – only 40,000 people live anywhere near it – but Dr Voegele says the tuff rock Yucca is made of, the fact the waste can be stored above the water table, and Nevada's low rainfall all make the location ideal.
He admits there is an issue about getting the waste to Yucca, given that most of it is stored at the reactors, and most of them are in the east of the US.
But with President Bush's backing, all Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham needs do is convince the Nuclear Safety Commission. The licence application is due to be considered on December 2004, a convenient one month after the next presidential elections.
The Commission is supposed to be independent. However, politics tends to get in the way of dealing with the waste issue, and politicians find it hard to deal with issues stretching beyond the next election.
But, as Arthur D Little's Mr Marples says: "Every day you delay, the waste decomposes a bit more, and so do the containers holding it, making the problem bigger and more expensive."
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