Nuclear Dilemmas

A review of Fuel Cycle to Nowhere: U.S. Law and Policy on Nuclear Waste by Richard Burleson Stewart and Jane Bloom Stewart
The U.S. is far from resolving its nuclear dilemma, as outlined in the book Fuel Cycle to Nowhere: U.S. Law and Policy on Nuclear Waste (Vanderbilt University Press) by New York University professor Richard Burleson Stewart and environmental lawyer Jane Bloom Stewart. The problem is one of nuclear waste disposal. There are tens of thousands of tons of spent nuclear fuel stored at nuclear sites across the country “most of it packed in cooling ponds that are potential targets for terrorist attacks.” The Obama administration has rejected storing the waste at Yucca Mountain in Nevada—the only long-term storage solution that’s been made available so far—and the public has grown increasingly anxious about the safety of transporting and properly containing such dangerous radioactive material. (Despite the lack of a viable nuclear waste storage option, Obama has repeatedly supported further development of nuclear power in the U.S. as part of a clean energy strategy.)

Fuel Cycle to Nowhere traces the complicated laws that have led to the nation’s incomplete nuclear policies, details the ways that public perception helped shape legislative inaction and lays out strategies for overcoming these obstacles and storing nuclear waste. Though academic in tone, the authors don’t shy from calling failures to deal with nuclear waste “arrogance” on the part of the nuclear industry and Congress. Within the story of commissions and legislative acts is one of the environmental movement rising in the late 1950s and early 1960s in “organized opposition to nuclear power in the United States” both for its human and environmental consequences.

In all, the book is as complete a history as one is likely to find on the legal battles, cleanup issues, depository problems and public resistance to nuclear weapons and nuclear waste. The concluding chapter “Lessons Learned and Future Choices” paints a grim picture of the options available to the U.S. regarding nuclear waste. Even if the Yucca Mountain repository were built, there is already nearly enough spent nuclear fuel to fill it to maximum holding capacity. Meanwhile, as of 2009, 85% of spent nuclear fuel intended for Yucca is being stored in pools (the remainder is in safer dry casks). And the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has since “authorized many facilities to add to their storage pools up to five times the number of fuel rods authorized in the original licenses.” All of these pools are high-risk targets for terrorist attacks.