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. Nuke Guy

    Two words: "reprocessing" and "vitrification." If we reprocess the fuel, we can eliminate over 90% of the waste involved, and recycle the usable material to keep future costs down. The remaining waste, what little of it there will be, can be vitrified, and stored safely underground so that if never leaks into ground water or poses a threat to humans or the environment.

    February 16, 2010 08:56 pm at 8:56 pm |
  2. Frank P

    Typical decision from an inexperienced President to whom the problem of nuclear waste did not even occur!! This is only one example of how unprepared this guy is to lead this nation and how critical it is for his critics to voice their opinions loud and clear. Lets hope we survive another 3 years until we can throw him and his liberal/socialist agenda out of office once and for all. God help us all!

    February 16, 2010 09:00 pm at 9:00 pm |
  3. Four and The Door

    Kinda like closing Gitmo, huh? Great idea, but what do you do with the waste? These are all part of the learning curve in the development of management experience. Ready, Fire, Aim.

    February 16, 2010 09:07 pm at 9:07 pm |
  4. Randy

    This country is so screwed-up.

    Let me give you some advice...CNN.com.

    Next time you do an article on nuclear energy and nuclear waste...go talk to a gentleman named Bill Wattenberg. He is a renowned scientist and has a program on Sat and Sun nights on KGO radio in San Francisco. Ask him for his opinion on nuclear power and nuclear waste instead of getting it from a bunch of politicians (like Reid and Sanborn).

    And another blue-ribbon panel to further delay any action on this.

    This country is so screwed up.

    February 16, 2010 09:10 pm at 9:10 pm |
  5. Jeff Spangler, Arlington, VA

    I recall reading that about 50% of all guaranteed nuke loans go into default. If these "green" palnts are such a good idea, why won't utilities take the risk on their own without guarantees that an as-likely-as-not default will be paid by us?

    February 16, 2010 09:12 pm at 9:12 pm |
  6. J.Williams san diego

    Does any one believe that this clown would ever approve a nuclear plant? Remember another day, another lie from the liar in chief.

    February 16, 2010 09:14 pm at 9:14 pm |
  7. stormerF

    Obama knows what to do ,..open Yucca Mountain again,Hell we spent 22 years and 13 billion dollars developing a place for the spent fuel rods and he shut it down. It lays in the middle of a bombing range in Neveda not readily acessible to the public.It can hold from 10,000 years to 100,000 years of spent fuel rods and we only have enough since 1956 to fill a high school gym. Spent fuel rods are not weapon grade,It would be esaier to steal plutonium to make a bomb than use spent fuel rods.

    February 16, 2010 09:14 pm at 9:14 pm |
  8. j

    Nuclear energy is NOT a viable option. You'll be passing down to your children a bigger problem than the one with the deficit. Until they can come up with a viable solution with what to do with radioactive waste, that doesn't harm people or the environment, nuclear energy will continue to be a dangerous way to go to provide energy.

    I am completely against building new nuclear reactors.

    February 16, 2010 09:15 pm at 9:15 pm |
  9. ib

    This money should be spent on clean coal and getting the offshore oil that we have. The waste is to dangerous to fool with.

    February 16, 2010 09:17 pm at 9:17 pm |
  10. Jenn, Philadelphia

    It's about time. You can't keep saying we have to get off our dependence on oil without offering realistic solutions. It's going to take more than nuclear power, but this is a good start. The best solution is to think locationality. Wind, solar, nuclear and others geographically located throughout the country where it makes sense.

    February 16, 2010 09:17 pm at 9:17 pm |
  11. Andy from NYC

    How come the French don't seem to have a problem with waste disposal, yet they are 100% reliant on nuclear energy? Is it because they are advanced in their re-cycling methods and the US is behind?

    February 16, 2010 09:17 pm at 9:17 pm |
  12. Ryan

    This seems like a cop-out that was designed to pacify the republican cry babies and create jobs in a pinch.

    There has to be a better solution than running the risk of turning this nation into a radioactive Chernobyl one day.

    February 16, 2010 09:18 pm at 9:18 pm |
  13. Andy

    When I hear the name Obama and Reid(in that Obama is helping Reid),I believe I do smell a rat.And then they wonder why the American do not trust them.Not sure if they even care for trust anymore.

    February 16, 2010 09:19 pm at 9:19 pm |
  14. Mike in MN

    Obama seems to want us to be more like Europe so why doesn't he just find out what the French are doing with their nuclear waste and do the same and tell the nuts on the left to get in line.

    February 16, 2010 09:25 pm at 9:25 pm |
  15. John Bloom

    YUCCA Mountain needs to become operational. I took over TWENTY YEARS to identify an area that has no flow of groundwater and salt mines that provide natural shielding. It is the best location in the country for a Nuclear Waste Depository, to select any other place would be a major compromise in Nuclear Security and Safeguards.

    Mr TWO FACED President is talking out of both sides of his mouth. How can one believe President Obama supports Nuclear Power when HE CLOSED YUCCA Mountain through an Executive Order, by de-funding the project. The Nuclear Industry, unlike any other industry, pays for it's own regulations and for over 30 years has been taxed to pay for a Nuclear Waste Depository. In fact the Nuclear Industry was poised to sue the Federal Government because the Government took the money and never opened a High Level Nuclear Waste Depository.

    February 16, 2010 09:31 pm at 9:31 pm |
  16. OIFVet@USC

    [Quote from article] "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." [/Quote]


    There is a solution. Reinstate the initial spent fuel repossessing program that the Carter Administration and Clinton Administration did away with. Both of those administrations, especially the Clinton Administration, were hell bent to end nuclear power in America. A world flush with cheap foreign oil didn't help matters much either. Now, with the aid of a very powerful environmental lobby and so-called "green" companies all too happy to take taxpayer money for startup capital, we are now 35+ nuclear powered electrical generating plants behind. When this congress and administration are given their walking papers in 2010 and 2012, the new congress and administration had better look at nuclear development, new oil and gas development, and realistic alternative energy development, like geothermal, as if the very fate and survival of this country depends on it, because it does.

    February 16, 2010 09:32 pm at 9:32 pm |
  17. Llib Setag

    Use NASA to help NRC dispose of spent fuel rods?

    Unmanned rocket with protected rods launched towards the sun?

    February 16, 2010 09:58 pm at 9:58 pm |
  18. mac from pa

    Can somebody help this guy out please please please does he know where he is going?
    This looks like a snuggle up to the right another phony attempt to lure the republicans into looking like the fools.
    first he shuts down yucca now he wants nukes? nahhhh I dont think so
    But on the other hand it would be a green job and you could tell who work there by the glow they have IN THE DARK

    February 16, 2010 09:59 pm at 9:59 pm |
  19. Steve, NY

    We should talk to the French Government and see how they do it. Eighty percent of their energy needs is done with nuclear power and they obviously have found a way to get rid of therir nuclear waste.
    The press in this country is to quick in throwing darts, and this gets the people all riled up. The Press needs to work with the government rather than work against them.

    February 16, 2010 10:03 pm at 10:03 pm |
  20. John Harper

    Holy shlamolee. Okay, two things. First off, this announcement Obama made about the funding is NOT his plan. That money is money that was planned in a 2005 Energy Act! Yes, that's right, under the *Bush* administration. And they broke ground on the new reactor's *last summer*!! This has been in process for five years, Barack! How he can make it sound like this is his idea is beyond me.

    Second, the simplest solution for the nuclear waste is for some president to have enough mental acuity to realize that Carter's executive order to ban "breeder reactors" needs to be reversed. Breeder reactors use less material, and generate less waste (by *far*) than the reactors we are now using. The reason Carter killed them is because they can be used to generate more weapons-grade fuel. So don't do that! Just use the more efficient reactors for power!

    This is not a difficult decision. Someone just needs to take it!

    February 16, 2010 10:48 pm at 10:48 pm |
  21. AR

    Thorium-powered nuclear reactors would be an acceptable alternative as the reactor burns up radioactive material and the leftover amount is much less and considerably more short-lived.

    February 16, 2010 10:52 pm at 10:52 pm |
  22. Andrew Norris

    The proposed designs for the new nuclear power plants are Westinghouse AP1000 reactors, as part of the proposed design the mentioned waste can be stored indefinitely on site in specially designed water pools; not mentioning the several passive safety systems...

    February 16, 2010 10:52 pm at 10:52 pm |
  23. Jerry

    The reality is the new plants can use 90% of the previously generated waste for fuel, Where is the problem with that hollywood ??

    February 16, 2010 10:53 pm at 10:53 pm |
  24. m smith

    The president has been talking about exploring the possiablity of more nuclear plants since before he was elected. The repos said he was against nuclear energy. Now that he seems to be for it they are complaining that we have nowhere to store the waste. But that has not changed since before Obama was elected. So whats the big deal now? Maybe they should get togeather and figure out a way to store it. Isn't this what they where hollering about before??? Or are they just the party of No. No ideas either just talk.

    February 16, 2010 10:57 pm at 10:57 pm |
  25. Jesse from Maryland

    The vast majority of the nuclear waste is reusable in all sorts of medical and scientific applications. We need to revisit the antiquated nuclear waste policies put in place under Jimmy Carter and write a law that takes into account the scientific progress of the past thirty years.

    Once we start recycling the reusable portions, we'll find that storing the small portion that remains is quite feasible in places like Yucca mountain, thousands of feet underground and under the water table.

    Nuclear power is absolutely essential to a truly green economy, and the sooner the radical environmentalists realize this, the sooner we can have a realistic assessment of what steps truly need to be taken.

    February 16, 2010 11:01 pm at 11:01 pm |
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