This is part of IEEE Spectrum's special report: Nuclear Power Gets a Second Look
Of the many problems that brought the nuclear power industry to its knees in the 1980s and 1990s, two in particular seemed insurmountable: deep public antipathy and the lack of a way to dispose of high-level waste. At the time it was hard to say which was more onerous. Finally, the answer has become clear: it was the waste problem, by a long shot.
Fifty-nine years after the dawning of the nuclear age, not one country has managed to find anything more than a temporary resting place for its tons of nuclear detritus. In the United States, a sympathetic administration and increasingly favorable opinion polls have given the moribund nuclear industry new optimism, at least. But it's a long way from good feelings to reactor orders, and an even longer way to commercial viability.
Improvements over the past couple of decades in the design and operation of power reactors and scattered shortages of electricity this past summer have made the waste problem the biggest obstacle to any resurgence of nuclear power. Such a reemergence is needed, supporters say, to reduce acid rain and to keep more than a billion tons of greenhouse gases from fossil fuel plants out of the atmosphere over the next 10 or 20 years. It would also help reduce the dependence of the U.S., European, and Japanese economies on oil, thereby lessening their exposure to the seemingly endless cycles of instability, violence, and terrorism in parts of the Middle East.
But there is no agreement anywhere as yet on a permanent solution for dealing with the waste, which will remain radioactive enough to harm human beings for thousands of years. Still, consensus over a temporary fix has finally emerged in the United States, Europe, and Japan. With dry-cask storage, as the technique is known, workers seal spent nuclear fuel or high-level waste in metal or metal-and-concrete containers that are guarded and monitored, typically in a fenced-in compound or warehouse near the reactor where the fuel was used. The casks are roughly 5 meters tall, 2.5 meters in diameter, and weigh more than 100 metric tons when loaded.
After decades of uncertainty, utilities finally have a direction, at least, and a sorely needed one. At 30 of the 103 operating power reactors in the United States, the pools where spent fuel is cooled and stored will run out of room by 2004, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute, the Washington, D.C.-based trade organization.
Utilities all over the world are grappling with the same problem. Besides recent dry-cask installations in Canada, Czechoslovakia, Lithuania, Switzerland, Belgium, Japan, and South Africa, others are under construction in Spain, Italy, Armenia, and Hungary, according to Wolfgang Sowa, managing director of Gesellschaft für Nuklear-Behälter mbh (GNB), a cask maker in Essen, Germany. Among the many planned installations is one for the Chernobyl nuclear plant in Ukraine.