February 16th, 2010
08:49 PM ET
13 years ago

Obama's nuclear power push faces obstacle: waste


The shuttered Zion Nuclear Power Station sits along the shore of Lake Michigan. (PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images)

Washington (CNN) - President Barack Obama's announcement Tuesday of loan guarantees for nuclear power plants may encourage new construction, but a problem still remains that has plagued atomic energy for decades: what to do with the nuclear waste?

On the left, opponents of nuclear power say the president should not be using taxpayer money to help build more power plants that will produce even more radioactive material, so long as the government has not figured out where to put it all.

"We haven't found a solution for the 100 nuclear power plants operating," said Stephen Smith of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. "And waste is building up on-site, with no solution."

On the right, critics fault the president for leaving the country without a plan for disposing of the waste, when he decided to pull the plug on the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste dump in Nevada. The government had spent billions of dollars studying the location.

South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, a Republican, said the president's decision was "spectacularly misguided, and breaks a promise" made "decades ago" by the federal government to handle the waste.

Sanford accused Obama of making a "Chicago-style" political play to help Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nevada, who faces a tough re-election bid in a state where the Yucca Mountain plan was unpopular. But the White House points out that the president opposed the site since he was campaigning as a candidate, on the grounds of both scientific questions and security questions.

Reid echoed those security concerns, saying any transportation of nuclear materials across the country could open a vulnerability.

"Leave it on-site where it is," he said last year. "You don't have to worry about transporting it. Saves the country billions and billions of dollars."

Currently, 70,000 tons of radioactive waste are stored at more than 100 nuclear sites around the country, and 2,000 tons are added every year.

After uranium has been used in a reactor, the spent fuel remains radioactive for thousands of years. It is taken out and put into a pool of water, or above-ground in canisters made of concrete, steel, and lead. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission says the canisters are currently certified for up to 90 years of use - but that term may be extended.

During a visit to the Dresden nuclear plant in Illinois a few years ago, Christopher Crane of Exelon Nuclear stood next to a storage cask and showed CNN how little radiation escapes.

"If you stood here for an hour," he said, "you would pick up the same amount of radiation as you did by flying from Washington to Chicago to visit us today."

But both supporters and opponents of nuclear power largely agree that storing the material in casks at nuclear plants is no long-term solution.

"This generation was responsible for creating the waste," says Jack Edlow, whose Washington, D.C.-based company transports nuclear material, "and this generation should make the decision to focus on it."

In January, the Obama administration announced a blue-ribbon panel would take a new look at the problem, headed by former Democratic congressman Lee Hamilton and former Republican National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft.

Going back to square one could add years to finding a solution - but the problem they're tackling is measured in centuries.
–CNN's Brian Todd contributed to this report.

Filed under: Energy • President Obama
soundoff (38 Responses)
  1. Liberals to eat crow again.....

    nuclear waste...

    single payer......

    expanded war in Afghanistan......

    gay marriage......

    Obama continues to make the left wing eat crow.......love it.

    February 16, 2010 11:08 pm at 11:08 pm |
  2. John Starnes Tampa Florida

    Obama needs to insist that these new reactors run on thorium, which the U.S. has vast amounts of, generates very little radioactive waste, can't have a run away Chernobyl-style meltdown, plus does not produce materials that could be used to build nuclear weapons. India has VAST experience with thorium reactors....as our ally they could show us how. Even existing nuclear power plants can be retrofitted to run on thorium, a metal so barely radioactive you could walk around with a piece in your pocket! Mr. Obama....thorium for these new power plants.....PLEASE!!!

    February 16, 2010 11:10 pm at 11:10 pm |
  3. Mr Independent

    Again he lies, I knew it when the phrase "implement more nuclear energy" came out of his gob, one thing he is is consistent, anything he says that even moderately sounds sensible is a smoke screen for what he really means.
    He is the true dirty pool Politician, in all sense of the term and proves it more each day. 2012 cannot come soon enough.

    February 16, 2010 11:10 pm at 11:10 pm |
  4. Bill Surrey

    Simply burying the spent rods is a mindless idea. Shelf life is 25 thousand years. Just how does one think that far ahead? Hydro electric is much more cost effecient here in B.C. Solar panels would make more sense to meas well. Massive desserts in the southwest. Perfect place to achieve free power from mother nature with no dangerous side effects. Low maintenance as well.

    February 16, 2010 11:16 pm at 11:16 pm |
  5. Peter s

    Ask the same question to the Chinese or the Indians! both economies are booming! the reason being they careless! why should we care

    February 16, 2010 11:32 pm at 11:32 pm |
  6. Gary

    There are issues of how to safely dispose of the nuclear waste, but we need to figure this out. We need more nuclear power. Obama is right on this issue. More Solar, more wind power, more nuclear, more natural gas and even more oil!

    February 16, 2010 11:55 pm at 11:55 pm |
  7. Sandra South Carolina

    Who in their right mind thinks "Governor" Sandford has any credibility?

    February 17, 2010 12:21 am at 12:21 am |
  8. Jimmy James

    After collecting billions in taxes ( which were passed on to consumers) the treehuggers have blocked Yucca mountain from being used for storage. It was clearly a typical move for treehuggers. Can't stop nuclear power so throw a roadblock up to make it less safe. In 2005 congress passed a bill authorizing billions in loans for nuclear plants to be built but treehuggers have successfully blocked them. Treehuggers don't want nuclear power. They don't want solar power ( it will affect the wildlife in the Mohave desert). They don't want wind power ( here in Mass they blocked the cape wind farm project claiming it will hurt fish and birds). So exactly what is clean energy for treehuggers?

    February 17, 2010 12:41 am at 12:41 am |

    You got to be kidding me! I knew when this guy was running, and I saw all that money from the nuclear power plants companies, that he would find a way to pay them back - with OUR TAX DOLLARS? I am sick of this guy – and I'm a Democrat. He's not trustworthy, will bargain away every principle this party and our country stands for. VOTE HIM OUT IN 2012.

    February 17, 2010 01:23 am at 1:23 am |
  10. ThinkAgain

    Yep, people think nuclear power is great because it doesn't create a lot of carbon.

    It does create spent waste that no one wants to store in their backyard.

    It also creates a HUGE amount of extremely hot water (water is the most efficient method for cooling), which must also be gotten rid of.

    When this hot water is poured into rivers, streams and the ocean, all sorts of marine life are impacted.

    This has a ripple effect on all the industries that rely on these marine creatures, such as commercial fishing.

    Nuclear power is a great idea – on paper. We need to come up with something better.

    February 17, 2010 01:25 am at 1:25 am |
  11. ThinkAgain

    Just ask the French how they feel about their nuclear power plants – specifically, where they store all the radioactive waste.

    February 17, 2010 01:26 am at 1:26 am |
  12. Sgt. USMC

    Move it to congress and rename it as the new republican party, we'll make more progress than we did with the grand old party of filibastards.

    February 17, 2010 01:47 am at 1:47 am |
  13. jules sand-perkins

    If fear of the nuclear waste is rational, and a solution cannot be found by the most brilliant scientists our government pays for such work, we cannot have atomic energy.
    However, it must be determined that opponents are correct.
    The most excited opposition I have heard to nuclear energy came from extremely liberal 1930s-style American communists whose underlying motivation was a hatred for our country and a desire to see it fail in comparison to places like Soviet Russia and Cuba. A typical line from one these "right thinkers" would be, "who gave us the right to pollute the universe?"
    If there is no solution to the problem, we cannot have nuclear energy.
    I am not convinced that the opponents are not just more America Haters with an agenda as baseless as those of PETA and the salesmen of Global Warm–oh I forgot–now they call it Climate Change. (Thank G-d for email!)

    February 17, 2010 04:16 am at 4:16 am |
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