Nuclear Power: The Unfulfilled Promise of Cheap, Clean Energy

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Weeks later, the Times began publishing a series of stories documenting mismanagement by the AEC and its contractors. More than half a million gallons of deadly radioactive liquid had leaked from huge storage tanks at the AEC's Hanford facility in Washington state. Some of it was so hot it boiled from its own radioactive decay and had to be cooled to keep from melting the steel tanks. Similar problems were found at other storage sites in South Carolina and Idaho, where plutonium, one of the most dangerous substances on the planet, had been buried in ordinary steel drums despite stern warnings that the drums would leak. And they did.

The list went on and on, and it could be dismissed as ancient history now, except for this minor point. The situation hasn't changed that much. All these years later, there still is no safe and reliable way of storing the radioactive waste from the nation's nuclear power plants. In most cases, it is held in what looks like a swimming pool at the same site as the reactor that produced it, making it a tempting target for terrorists, according to one study.

George Kennedy died shortly after those stories ran in the Times. The AEC issued a press release denying that it had mismanaged the waste, but it never disputed any of the facts that came from Kennedy's file cabinet, and even from sources in the AEC itself.

What to Do About Nuclear Power?

Today, we are on the cusp of a renewal of the U.S. nuclear program, backed by a White House plan to offer $36 billion in loan guarantees for the construction of up to 20 new plants.

Even many environmental groups have quieted in former opposition to nuclear power. Proponents point out that it's virtually impossible for the United States to meet its energy and environmental requirements without it. They also say that all sources of energy come with costly baggage. Often overlooked in the environmental mess created by the Deepwater Horizon blowout and oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is the fact that 11 workers died.

No energy is cheap, in dollars as well as human life.

So nuclear energy is likely to get a reprieve, despite the horror we see in Japan, a nation with special sensitivity to radiation. Perhaps there is no other way.

But I keep thinking about the past and future of that sprawling reservation near the Columbia River in western Washington. There's enough radioactive waste there to destroy a large city, or possibly even a country. It has to be isolated, and contained, no matter what it costs. It will remain deadly for an incredibly long period.

So thousands and thousands of years from now, humans will still have to guard that site.

That's a sobering challenge for a nation that is still young.

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