Saturday, March 27, 1999
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Senator considering nuclear waste option

New Mexico's Sen. Pete Domenici indicates there might be an alternative to storage in Yucca Mountain.

By Tony Batt
Donrey Washington Bureau

      WASHINGTON -- Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., set off a buzz this week when he suggested there might be a workable alternative to the permanent storage of nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain.

      But Domenici's idea of transmutation, which would reduce the amount and toxicity of high level nuclear waste, is at least a dozen years away from reality and could cost billions, experts say.

      The Clinton administration is conducting transmutation research only because Domenici inserted $4 million in this year's budget to perform the work at the Department of Energy laboratory in Los Alamos, N.M., according to a department official in Washington.

      "Transmutation is not an alternative (to a repository at Yucca Mountain)," said this official, who requested anonymity.

      In the department's view, a repository would still be needed.

      "If transmutation is pursued and proves effective, it would enhance geological repository performance," the department official said.

      "I think it probably needs to be looked at, but my understanding is that we don't get rid of all the nuclear waste. It's not without its drawbacks," said Bob Loux, executive director of the Nevada Agency for Nuclear Projects.

      In transmutation, a high-powered accelerator, or atom smasher, bombards nuclear waste with neutrons to diminish its toxicity. In this way, high level nuclear waste is converted to low level nuclear waste, making it more manageable.

      High-level nuclear waste requires storage for 10,000 years. Transmuted waste would require storage for 200 or 300 years.

      "It is possible that we could deploy a demonstration facility in about a dozen years and it would take about eight more years to reach full scale," said Gregory Vantuyle, project leader of transmutation at the Los Alamos laboratory.

      The Congressional Budget Office estimates building an accelerator to transmute nuclear waste and operate it for 40 years could cost $9.5 billion.

      However, Vantuyle said Los Alamos built an accelerator for about $1 billion.

      In addition to potentially solving the problem of nuclear waste storage, Domenici thinks accelerator technology will provide a long-term solution for the production of tritium and medical isotopes.

      "Los Alamos has a long history of using accelerators, and there is a core group of researchers there with a lot of knowledge," said Charles D. Ferguson, a physicist and senior research analyst at the Federation of American Scientists in Washington. "But I'm not sure the technology is there yet to make a transmutation accelerator work."

      Vantuyle expressed confidence that the necessary technology will be developed. "We just have a lot of engineering demonstration work to do," he said.

      One of the Los Alamos scientists who has championed transmutation is Charles Bowman. In 1995, Bowman proposed a controversial and later debunked theory that entombed spent fuel at Yucca Mountain, 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas, could detonate a nuclear explosion.

      Under legislation Domenici plans to introduce in the coming weeks, one accelerator would be deployed at the Nevada Test Site for the transmutation of nuclear waste.

      Another accelerator would be built for the production of tritium, a radioactive gas for nuclear warheads. Although a site has not been determined, a leading contender for the tritium accelerator is the Energy Department's facility at the Savannah River Site in Aiken, S.C.

      The Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry's chief lobbying arm, is open minded about Domenici's proposal.

      "The fact that this would keep a repository open and make (spent nuclear) fuel retrievable for 100 years or more may make possible a convergence of the repository program and transmutation," said NEI spokesman Steve Unglesbee.

      Environmentalists are more guarded. "I'm sure there is some motivation to bring funding to the labs, but I hope there is an underlying desire to take a look at transmutation as a solution (to nuclear waste storage)," said Rick Nielsen, executive director of Citizen Alert in Nevada.

      When Domenici announced his plan to introduce the transmutation legislation, Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., made a point of grabbing his attention before he left the room to tell him he would be willing to work with him.

      Reid and other members of the Nevada congressional delegation remain opposed to interim storage of nuclear waste in their state, which Domenici's plan would require.

      But even though they will not vote for Domenici's bill, Nevada lawmakers see it as a vehicle to undercut other legislation that targets their state for interim and permanent storage.

      "What Domenici says is smart," Reid said. "We haven't studied our nuclear waste policy for 20 years, and we need to take a new look."

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