The nuclear power industry is trying to sell itself as the solution to climate change. Nuclear energy doesn’t emit carbon dioxide and produces a lot of electricity, and is therefore a fairly clean and efficient energy source.
But nuclear power plants are extremely expensive to build, and the ones currently operating are old. The waste from a nuclear reaction is highly toxic and in need of special, safe storage. Not to mention, many people shudder when they hear the term “nuclear,” associating it with dangerous weapons, death and destruction.
For Allison Macfarlane, a Mason associate professor in environmental science and policy, these concerns only touch the surface of what is a multilayered issue.
“One of the most important issues facing the United States and the world is climate change,” says Macfarlane, who has been studying nuclear energy policy for more than a decade.
“Intimately wrapped up with that is the issue of energy — which energy choices are best for a climate-constrained world. And then when you throw politics in there, it gets even more complicated.”
A geologist by training, Macfarlane used to study how mountains formed.
“It was fun, but it didn’t have much of a point. I wanted to do something with more societal value.”
Now she’s a leading expert on nuclear-waste disposal and recently sat on a National Research Council committee evaluating the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) nuclear-power research and development programs.
Macfarlane was also one of 15 experts recently chosen by U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu to sit on a Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future. The commission will provide recommendations for developing a safe, long-term solution to managing the nation’s used nuclear fuel and nuclear waste.
In the 1980s, the DOE began studying Yucca Mountain in Nevada as a permanent geological repository for nuclear waste. Years behind schedule, Yucca is not set to open before 2020. In the interim, about 60,000 metric tons of spent fuel is clogging storage facilities at power plants, and the Obama administration has announced it would cut Yucca’s funding and seek alternatives.
Macfarlane is a leading expert on Yucca. In her book “Uncertainty Underground: Yucca Mountain and the Nation’s High-Level Nuclear Waste” (MIT Press, 2006), coedited with Rodney Ewing of the University of Michigan, she argues that Yucca is a poor site for such a repository.
A proponent of geologic disposal for nuclear waste, Macfarlane believes if we can find a good place to bury it, everyone will be safer.
"There are geologic constraints on Yucca Mountain; it is not an endless sink for nuclear waste,” Macfarlane has said at public hearings.
Macfarlane says four criteria are needed for safely depositing nuclear waste materials in the ground. The area has to be tectonically stable with no chance of earthquakes or volcanoes. It should have low-groundwater flow so waste cannot seep into other water resources. The site needs what Macfarlane calls a “reducing environment” with no free oxygen that can react with water and the spent nuclear fuel. Finally, the site should be easy to mine.
Yet, the key to finding a safe place in the United States has been a hot potato politically and scientifically. States don’t want it on their land in part because of the safety issue of transporting nuclear waste through cities. No one wants “Mobile Chernobyl” in their hometown, but Macfarlane believes that transporting other, more common materials is often more dangerous than transporting nuclear waste.
Another political issue is how to expand nuclear power safely and securely to countries interested in acquiring it, such as places in the Middle East. With nuclear power comes the potential and opportunity to develop nuclear weapons, and Macfarlane is adamant about nuclear nonproliferation.
“We want to stop the spread of nuclear weapons throughout the world,” says Macfarlane. She also is chair of the Science and Security Board of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, which runs the cheery Doomsday Clock monitoring the threat of “midnight,” or the end of the world should nuclear weapons, global warming, biotechnology or any other human development get out of hand.
Finding a solution to the threat — and potential — of nuclear power is just one of the many issues that make up an even larger problem of global warming. Although Macfarlane sees much innovation ahead in terms of alternative energy, she is concerned about the future.
“The best way to meet goals is to diversify energy supply. Nuclear energy must be considered, and renewable energy resources must be developed. We are still very far from finding a clean, efficient energy source. And with the damage we are doing to our planet, it may already be too late.”
This article originally appeared in a slightly different form in Mason Research 2010.