While the world’s attention is focused on nuclear power — more on its obvious risks than its equally real benefits, at least for now — it’s a good time to ponder a problem that won’t go away even if no new nuclear plant is ever built.

That is the question of what to do with the 71,862 tons of spent nuclear fuel being stored at more than 100 sites around the nation, including in Wiscasset, the former location of the Maine Yankee plant.

The national high-level (dangerously radioactive) nuclear waste amount is growing by about 2,200 tons a year, and not only does it comprise a source of hazard in case of natural disaster, it is a potential target for terrorist attack.

The sites are well-guarded, of course, but as we learned in Japan, huge earthquakes and 30-foot tsunamis can make a wreck of humanity’s normal precautions.

But there is a better way. The federal government has spent $9 billion preparing a much more secure storage facility for the waste at the now- famous Yucca Mountain site in Nevada, but local opposition and political influence has kept the facility from becoming operational.

So, instead of being buried deep underground in a geologically stable rock formation, the waste is scattered around the country, where it remains far more vulnerable to either attack or natural disasters.

Although Congress created a federal mandate for long-term storage as far back as 1982, with a deadline for accepting it of 1998, the Yucca Mountain site wasn’t selected until 2002 and remains only partially constructed.

It’s time to stop fooling around.

While President Obama supports the continued development of nuclear plants, which now provide about 20 percent of U.S. electricity, and has approved guarantees for their construction, that pledge contains a huge gap as long as he avoids a decision on the long-term storage of spent fuel.

New reactor designs are capable of automatic shutdown without radiation release in case of disaster, and some of them would use less hazardous forms of fuel.

As long as new plants are resisted, however, we continue to rely on older designs that are less safe and efficient. And we continue to accept the obvious hazards of dispersed and exposed above-ground waste storage.


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