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No dumping

"No dumping" Continued...

Issue: "Tilting at turbines," July 17, 2010

"The radioactive nature of the stuff we work with is the least of our concerns," said Andrew Rice, a radiochemist working on cleaning up radioactive waste at Hanford, a former plutonium reactor in Washington state. "What you worry about is getting electrocuted, falling off something, and breaking your neck. The nice thing about radiation is it tells you where it is. The most dangerous thing you do every day is drive to work."

Still, no new plants were built in the entire country until Southern Company filed for a license in 2006 to build a plant in Georgia. The Obama administration has put up $8.3 billion in loan guarantees for the plant, which is expected to be operational in the next six to seven years. Plants do require billions in capital to build, usually demanding government funding. But other countries are building plants in quantity-China is planning about a hundred over the next 20 years. France draws more than 75 percent of its electricity from nuclear power, and even exports its electricity.

Some are working to lower the capital costs. Microsoft chairman Bill Gates, who has poured his wealth into development work through his foundation, says he sees greater benefits in developing cheap nuclear power for the poor than finding a cure for malaria. He has invested millions in a U.S. venture, TerraPower, to develop compact nuclear power reactors that would lower capital costs and run off of depleted nuclear fuel, in effect recycling waste and lowering the demand for uranium enrichment.

For now the waste problem looms large. Few places in the United States share the eagerness found in Andrews for storing radioactive waste, even with the compensation it entails. That's why Andrews may be taking waste from 36 other states.

"There are solutions to the waste problems-the major problems are political, not scientific," said Rice, the radiochemist.

Most of the country isn't famished for cheap power. The Pacific Northwest, where Rice works, has few nuclear power plants and relies on cheap hydroelectric power from dams along the Columbia River and elsewhere. Most of the country's 104 plants are in the East, concentrated around metropolitan areas.

"I thought by now we would have gotten back into the nuclear business," Rice told me. "But America remains capable of providing power for itself. Once we're really hurting for power, you'll hear people saying 'Now why am I against nukes?'"
Email Emily Belz

Emily Belz
Emily Belz

Emily, who has covered everything from political infighting to pet salons for The Indianapolis Star, The Hill, and the New York Daily News, reports for WORLD Magazine from New York City. Follow Emily on Twitter @emlybelz.


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