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Sturm College of Law


Nuclear power, Nuclear waste


Nuclear power remains controversial on many levels. On the up side, the lifecycle emissions for nuclear power are second lowest only to wind in comparison to all other primary sources of electricity generation. Nuclear power compares favorably against coal-generated electricity on additional fronts including fewer transportation impacts and before Fukushima, historically lower radiation releases than coal. Its land footprint per kilowatt hour is the smallest for any generation source, including renewables. Last, but not least, the United States has significant domestic reserves of uranium to fuel the plants. On the down side, the civilian nuclear power industry is not competitive in the United States (some would argue not viable) despite the advantages of being developed through military research funding and almost 60 years of liability caps, loan guarantees, and government infusions of cash. Also, before the current nuclear renaissance sparked by government incentives, 1978 marked the last year a new nuclear plant was ordered in the United States, and all plants ordered after 1974 had been canceled or converted, costing ratepayers billions for utilities’ miscalculations. The cost and safety of nuclear power leaped again into the headlines when on March 11, 2011, a tsunami struck the Fukushima nuclear reactor facility in Japan. Hundreds of thousands were evacuated from a 12-mile zone around the plant, and many will never be able to return to live on or farm this land. Radioactive releases into the air and sea have contaminated water and food up to 200 miles from the accident. In addition, some estimates place the cost of cleaning up the Fukushima disaster and compensating its victims at as much as $257 billion. While not addressing the safety or generation cost issues in depth, Fuel Cycle to Nowhere: U.S. Law and Policy on Nuclear Waste (hereinafter “Fuel Cycle”) by Richard Burleson Stewart and Jane Bloom Stewart tackles one of the other major drawbacks to nuclear power generation — the disposal of wastes. Thirty-nine U.S. states currently contain nuclear wastes at 129 different sites. Tens of thousands of tons of SNF is stored at power plants across the United States, and at least 77 of these plants are “without a disposal destination or even a plan for one.” Much of the radiation released during the Fukushima disaster was not from the power generation part of the reactor, but instead from spent nuclear fuel (SNF) at the site. The United States has been concerned for decades about these “swimming pools in the backyards of the nation’s nuclear reactors…filling up with…deadly radioactive waste.” In its attempt to be comprehensive, Fuel Cycle often gets caught up in details that make it difficult to navigate for anyone other than an expert in this field. But if the goal of the book was to influence the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future, then it seems to have succeeded because the final report of that commission to the Secretary of Energy published on January 26, 2012, incorporated several of Fuel Cycle’s recommendations. Perhaps one of the most telling statements in Fuel Cycle comes in the very first pages of the book: “The history shows that the most important and difficult challenges are not technical but political, institutional, and social.” This observation could apply beyond the nuclear waste debate to so many other aspects of our nation’s dilemma over developing sustainable energy sources.

Publication Statement

This article was first published in the Journal of Energy & Natural Resources Law, Vol 30 No 3, August 2012, and is reproduced by kind permission of the International Bar Association, London, UK. © International Bar Association.