The French nuclear energy company Areva announced it is developing a new technology that could answer the most common question posed by opponents of nuclear power: what do we do with the waste?
If the new technology is successful, fission-fusion reactors could permanently destroy the radioactive uranium isotopes produced during nuclear fission, drastically reducing the need to find geological repositories for nuclear waste. The waste would never be completely eliminated, but Areva says it could be reduced to the point at which one or two geological repositories could store all the world's waste, as opposed to the hundreds predicted if nuclear takes off as a major global energy source in coming decades.
Research on fission-fusion systems is nothing new, but the current greenhouse gas crisis is pushing nuclear forward as a possible front-runner in the quest for a coal and oil-free economy. President Obama recently announced eight billion dollars in federal loan guarantees for the first construction of new nuclear plants since the 1970s, and proposed up to $54 billion for nuclear in next year's budget. A recent Gallop poll shows 62 percent of Americans favor a resurgence of nuclear power, the highest percentage since polling began on this subject in 1994.
If a resurgence of nuclear power is inevitable as policymakers look for viable green technologies to replace coal and oil, then Areva's breakthrough is encouraging. But a large faction of environmentalists remain wary and unimpressed. Although the new fission-fusion reactors may greatly reduce the problem of waste disposal, they do nothing to address the great environmental and human health hazards associated with uranium mining. Read about it on the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research web site here.
And sadly, in the wake of former Interior Secretary Stewart Udall's death, we are reminded of generations of victims of cancer and respiratory disorders linked to uranium mining, victims Udall began advocating for as early as the 1970s. With the scramble to find carbon-free energy sources, many advocates are eager to use the new disposal technology as evidence that the nuclear record is clear. Udall's legacy, with any luck, will remind proponents that this story is far from over.