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We received an energetic response to our December story on nuclear waste.
February 1, 2005

Nuclear-waste disposal

In his important article (“A New Vision for Nuclear Waste,” December 2004), Matthew Wald proposes waiting until we can develop a waste package that would keep radionuclides out of the environment for a few thousand years. Well, we don’t have to wait; we already have that technology. If we were to encase the spent fuel in copper and place it in a repository below the water table (a reducing environment), we could be assured that neither the waste package nor the spent fuel itself would react with water and release radionuclides. Sweden is planning to do just this. The problem with Yucca Mountain is that it’s dry—an oxidizing environment. Furthermore, Wald advocates a single centralized facility to store waste in the interim. But he does not consider the cost of transporting the spent fuel to this facility or the security risks that transportation entails. It is arguably safer, and cheaper, to keep the spent fuel at reactor sites in dry casks than on the nation’s highways, subject to sabotage.

Allison Macfarlane
MIT Security Studies Program
Cambridge, MA

The Yucca Mountain project is doomed to failure if one examines the Department of Energy’s pathetic record of performance on dozens of poorly managed megaprojects, including the superconducting supercollider, the laser fusion program, the National Ignition Facility, and the Clinch River breeder reactor. All were sold to Congress by one of DOE’s overzealous fiefdoms, and approved based on pie-in-the-sky promises. Then, when actual construction was initiated, the same old story came to light in the form of delays and cost overruns. True to form, the Yucca Mountain project is proceeding without a clear set of criteria while spending billions of ratepayers’ dollars and is now more than 10 years behind schedule.

Thomas Bullock
West Covina, CA

Matthew Wald makes the simplistic statement that Yucca Mountain “won’t work,” but then concludes that the waste should be stored in casks at one central location. Yet that is precisely what is planned at Yucca Mountain. Totally overlooked is the fact that the waste will be easily retrievable from the repository, just as it would be at an above-ground storage site, until we choose to seal it. We do not give up any options by proceeding with Yucca Mountain. If we find a better way to process and dispose of the waste during that time, it can be transferred to another facility. In the more likely event that we decide that it is fine just where it is, based on more detailed analyses showing satisfactory repository performance or, better yet, by coming to our senses concerning acceptable doses and risks, we will not have to do anything further. Regardless, Yucca Mountain will provide safe, secure storage for any interim period.

James E. Hopf
San Jose, CA

The idea in this article seems like a plot from The Simpsons: “This week, Homer contracts with Smithers to dispose of Mr. Burns’s nuclear detritus by building a pad in his backyard. Bart has other plans.” Shortsighted planning got us this far in our pursuit of nuclear energy; why not continue with the policy? Our children’s children’s children will be able to handle this deadly poison, since they will be motivated by survival. This has been the recipe for modern man and his technology.

Dan Thomas
Cambridge, MA

In his superb article, Wald failed to point out that the plutonium in the spent fuel rods from nuclear power plants is not suitable for making atomic bombs: approximately 30 percent of the plutonium-239 is converted into plutonium-240, which is a prolific emitter of neutrons, and would cause any atomic bomb made with it to fizzle instead of explode. Separating the two plutonium isotopes is not feasible because of the small difference in their atomic weights. It was a lack of knowledge about plutonium-240 and fear that the plutonium in spent fuel rods could be used for weapons that led President Carter to stop all reprocessing of spent fuel in this country, and to order a search for a place like Yucca Mountain where it would be buried permanently. This has resulted in an enormous waste of money and has put the United States at a disadvantage to countries that practice nuclear recycling and that are continuing to build nuclear power plants.

Alfred C. Schmidt
Hillsborough, CA

Stem cell politics

In writing that technology is morally neutral (“Christopher Reeve and the Politics of Stem Cells,” December 2004), editor in chief Jason Pontin is apparently arguing that any moral problem comes from how technology is applied, not the technology itself. But a technology is simply a set of methods for accomplishing a goal. Both the methods and the goal can have a moral component. Technology developers are no more exempt from responsibility for the moral components of their work than are the people who will eventually use the technology.

Adrian Nye
Austin, TX

Contrary to the statement in Pontin’s edi­torial, Democratic vice presidential candidate John Edwards did not suggest that embryonic stem cell research “might have permitted the quadriplegic Reeve to walk.” Senator Edwards actually said, “If we can do the work that we can do in this country—the work we will do when John Kerry is president—people like Christopher Reeve are going to walk.” Edwards was clearly referring to future research and expectations for people like Reeve.

Steven Sussman
Littleton, MA

Jason Pontin responds: Even a technology that is invented for an immoral purpose may later find benign application. Regarding the statement by John Edwards: while careful to say that stem cell research would help people “like” Christopher Reeve, the senator was transparently exploiting sympathy for the actor for political purposes.

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