The Waste Problem

Because nuclear plants emit no carbon, nuclear power is emerging as a way of saving the earth from global warming. But the twin specters of nuclear waste and proliferation--nuclear material getting into the wrong hands--cast doubt on whether nuclear power can fulfill this promise.

When the uranium fuel of a nuclear power plant is "spent," what's left is a mixture of radioactive substances, of which 1 percent is plutonium--a highly toxic material used to make nuclear weapons. Because plutonium stays radioactive for tens of thousands of years, it must be kept in a facility that lasts a long time. Building such facilities is politically fraught. The proposed Yucca Mountain repository in Nevada is a legal and technical mess after decades of research and $9 billion in expenditures. France's repository program is also in deep trouble, and Germany's ground to a halt in the 1990s.

Meanwhile, nuclear waste keeps piling up--and the odds of its falling into the wrong hands increases. The world's spent nuclear fuel already contains enough plutonium to make about 200,000 nuclear bombs. To mitigate the waste problem, the nuclear establishment is advocating "reprocessing"--in which plutonium is separated out and recycled as nuclear fuel. Ninety-nine percent of what remains might be easier to dispose of, but the 1 percent that remains is pure (bomb-grade) plutonium.

The proliferation risk was enough for the United States to discourage reprocessing after the 1974 Indian nuclear test. The Bush administration is reversing that policy. This is a mistake. Reprocessing is already the cause of much trouble. North Korea got its plutonium from a supposedly commercial reprocessing program. Rising tensions between Japan and China over oil and gas rights have led Japan to consider its own nuclear weapons. With stocks of plutonium reprocessed in France, Japan could make its own weapons in six months. The world's most powerful countries should be careful of heading down a path that could lead to a nightmare.