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Nuclear engineer discusses possible solutions to the problem of nuclear waste disposal.



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PETER THOMPSON: This week the minister for industry, science and resources, Nick Minchin, reiterated his clear position on the issue of a nuclear waste disposal facility being built in Western Australia. He rejected out of hand approaches from Pangea Resources Australia to even discuss plans for such a venture, even though it is estimated it would employ up to 23,000 people, boosting the state and federal budgets by up to $2.2 billion each year. Well, the figures sound enticing but many Australians are relieved there won't be a nuclear disposal site in our backyard. But this also raises the question of responsibility for nuclear waste disposal and what efforts needs to be made by the world community to find a solution to the problem.

 

To discuss this we are joined by Arjun Makhajani, who is the President of the Institute for Energy and Environment Research. Arjun is a nuclear engineer and a vocal critic of America's nuclear program, and he joins us now from Takoma Park, Maryland.

 

Arjun, welcome to Radio National .

 

ARJUN MAKHAJANI: Thank you very much for inviting me.

 

PETER THOMPSON: I know it is a long way from Maryland but does Western Australia make sense as a nuclear waste disposal site to you?

 

ARJUN MAKHAJANI: No, Australia has no nuclear power and at this stage I think every country that has nuclear power should take responsibility for its own waste management.

 

PETER THOMPSON: We, of course, export uranium quite happily.

 

ARJUN MAKHAJANI: Yes, well, that is quite another question as to whether you should be relying on exporting uranium, the subject of a different program. I think that….

 

PETER THOMPSON: No, I want to make the link there between the fact that, in Australia, I think we do regard ourselves as being in the nuclear fuel cycle because we do export uranium.

 

ARJUN MAKHAJANI: Yes, the amount of radio activity in uranium is minuscule compared to the amount of radioactivity in spent fuel. Once you take uranium into a nuclear reactor it becomes immensely more radioactive. You can carry around some uranium in your pocket; if you try to carry around some used reactor fuel in your pocket you would be dead.

 

PETER THOMPSON: Now, the case for Western Australia is that the area suggested is remote, although not too much is known about the detail, it is certainly remote and geologically stable. They are obviously ticks when it comes to a relatively safe site for nuclear waste disposal.

 

ARJUN MAKHAJANI: The nuclear establishment has never met a repository it did not like, but the reality is that every place that has been carefully explored has been found to have very serious problems. This is because it is one thing for a geologist, as a scientist, to say: well, it has been stable for a very long time. It is another thing to do an engineering project and make a prediction with very high confidence that you are sure that what you put in the ground is going to stay in there for millions of years as a matter of engineering prediction. Those are two completely different things. We can say: well, the earth is, sort of, billions of years old and places have been stable for millions of years. But those kinds of statements have large uncertainties in them, and there are new things being discovered all the time.

 

A few years ago, for instance, here in the United States, it was said that Yucca Mountain, Nevada, which was selected as the only site for investigation in '87, it was a very good place because it was in a desert, it would be very dry, it would be above the water table and so it was exceedingly suitable, the best place in the United States some claimed, or one of the best anyway.

 

PETER THOMPSON: What's proven to be the case?

 

ARJUN MAKHAJANI: Well, Yucca Mountain is mired in technical controversy because, first of all, research done here and elsewhere, including field research, some of which we had analysed - rock samples from the tunnel - indicate that water has entered the repository from the bottom and flooded it so that….

 

PETER THOMPSON: Let me just clear this point up for a moment, that Yucca Mountain is now being used, am I right in saying, as the waste dump for spent nuclear fuel in the US and….

 

ARJUN MAKHAJANI: It is not.

 

PETER THOMPSON: It's not?

 

ARJUN MAKHAJANI: It is not. It is under investigation, and it has … $5 billion have already been spent, and even the department of energy, which really wants to open it, cannot yet declare it a safe site. And its own consultants have recently said that a lot of issues remain to be resolved.

 

PETER THOMPSON: The proposal is to build a five-mile tunnel into Yucca Mountain, isn't it?

 

ARJUN MAKHAJANI: The tunnel has been drilled but it is supposed to be an exploratory tunnel for scientific investigation. And the scientific investigations so far have indicated that this repository would, by the department's own calculations, actually do very little to contain the radioactive waste that is put in it. Everything would have to be, essentially, contained by the container, the metal container that will be used to package the waste.

 

PETER THOMPSON: Just leaving aside land-based solutions, what about under the sea? You believe there might be some future in burying the stuff under the seabed.

 

ARJUN MAKHAJANI: Well, I am not against looking at land-based repositories or under the seabed. I have even proposed … we have proposed - I am going to propose in a paper I am going to publish in the next weeks and the Australians can get an early peak at it because that will also be an international kind of proposal - is that we should look under the earth's crust, that is we should try to send it out of the biosphere where there are no living things. Under the earth's crust is very far down under.

 

We can look in the sub-seabed. I also think sub-seabed is going to be very difficult because we do not understand the complexity of the ecological life on the sea floor. We are only beginning to get a look at it now. And I am also not against looking at geological repositories. I don't think there is any good solution, which is why I think we have to first stop making, or get to a road where we are phasing out nuclear power. And until the countries that have built 400,000 megawatts of nuclear power understand that this is essentially an artefact of the Cold War and we ought to get rid of it because it is dangerous, costly, and not a sound technology, I don't think countries ought to be offering themselves up as sacrificial lambs for somebody else's waste.

 

PETER THOMPSON: Now, there has been a start made on this given that Germany is already moving in that direction. Do you believe there is any possibility of international agreement, or agreement by many nation states to phase out their nuclear power?

 

ARJUN MAKHAJANI: Well, a number of countries have already decided that this is not a good thing. Sweden is phasing out nuclear power; Germany … in Britain, actually there is a de facto phase-out going on. In the United States no new nuclear power plant has been ordered since 1978. And today there are … a few years ago there were 111 power plants operating; today there are 103. So the number of power plants is going down pretty steadily even in the United States. In France they have admitted that natural gas is cheaper than nuclear power.

 

But I think that before any international solutions are offered, there ought to be a very firm commitment that this Cold War technology will be phased out. I am not against thinking about international solutions but I think it is highly premature because it is going to encourage even more irresponsible behaviour on the part of those who created this technology without adequate safeguards on the safety issues, without adequate thought to non-proliferation questions and without adequate thought to waste.

 

PETER THOMPSON: Arjun, thank you very much; good to talk to you.

 

ARJUN MAKHAJANI: You are very welcome.

 

PETER THOMPSON: Arjun Makhajani, who is the President of the Institute for Energy and Environment Research; and he was talking to us there from Takoma Park, Maryland.