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The Fusion Solution

If we know by experience that excessive time in the sun can cause skin cancer, what sort of damage can we expect from exposure to nuclear waste?

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This project could be the way to eat into our dependence upon foreign sources of energy and to diminish our reliance on domestic sources, fossil and nuclear, which produce pollution or create deadly toxic waste.

In a fusion reaction, hydrogen atoms are fused together to form helium, a lighter element, and energy is released in the process. Unlike fission, our current nuclear technology, there is no toxic waste generated from a fusion reaction. Fusion is the process that our sun and other stars use to shine so brightly, but we have yet to master the reaction, so projects like ITER are very important to developing this unlimited, clean energy source.

It is possible to maintain our energy supply without a buildup of body bags. Additionally, revisions in the ITER project and improvements in fusion science have improved the chances for success. If we join the project, our contribution would be a mere $1 billion over 10 years — far less than the cost of war.

Unfortunately, our current administration is not known for its open-mindedness and interest in developing alternative sources of energy. Secret White House meetings with energy corporations and the interests of the oil millionaires in the Bush administration seem to override national security and our desperate need for energy independence.

While ITER would develop fusion, an unlimited and nonpolluting power source, Dick Cheney wants us to renew our fission efforts, thus adding to our already huge stockpile of deadly radioactive waste. Cheney says nuclear energy is safe, but this only takes into consideration the lack of air pollution from nuclear reactors. With this recommendation, our vice president seems to overlook the far more serious problem of nuclear waste.

According to the Nuclear Information and Resource Service (www.nirs.org) our 1994 stockpile of toxic nuclear waste was 29,700 metric tons. Each 1,000-megawatt reactor produces an additional "500 pounds of plutonium a year, and about 30 metric tons of high-level waste." Oddly, the uranium that is used for fuel rods becomes about a million times more radioactive after it is "spent" and so is a major component of this high-level waste. Although this irradiated fuel comprises only 1 percent of all radioactive waste, it emits 95 percent of the radioactivity of all the waste combined.

Advocates of nuclear fission tell us that radioactivity is a natural occurrence, and that we encounter sources of radioactivity every day. What they do not tell us is that the toxic waste produced by nuclear reactors is many, many times more radioactive than sources we encounter daily. A Geiger counter measures natural radiation between two and 20 radioactive emissions or "counts" per minute, while the radiation from nuclear waste registers in the trillions of counts per minute. If we know by experience that excessive time in the sun can cause skin cancer, what sort of damage can we expect from exposure to nuclear waste? Some scientists are even becoming concerned about permanent mutations in the gene pool of our species.

Not only does nuclear waste from fission reactors produce an immediate danger, it threatens thousands of generations to come because it takes tens of thousands, and sometimes millions of years to decay to a safe level of radioactivity. The current plan from our nuclear geniuses is to store all our nuclear waste in a single location — Yucca Mountain, Ariz. There are several problems with this. The most obvious problem, one which evokes disturbing questions about competence, is that the Yucca Mountain site is located in a "high risk" earthquake zone and sits atop the water supply for Las Vegas, the host to millions of tourists every year.

These concerns assume that all our nuclear waste will make it to Yucca Mountain without being targeted by terrorists as it is shipped, by truck and train, across the country. Nobody has devised a foolproof plan to avoid this nightmare possibility.

Deadly toxic nuclear waste will probably first be transported from the eight reactors that have already reached "pool capacity" in their underwater storage and have begun to use the poorly tested "MPCs," concrete and metal "multiple-purpose containers," that will only last a few decades.

Since the majority of nuclear reactors are on bodies of water, eventual leakage poses a serious problem. As with the problems of transport and terrorism, there are no foolproof plans to deal with the waste once these containers leak. Eventual leakage from reactor sites in Surrey and Lake Anna alone would affect millions of people and ruin millions of acres of valuable farmland here in the Old Dominion.

When the facts are all on the table, it is clear that nuclear fission is not the "safe" alternative that our vice president says it is, but this does not mean that nuclear power should be out of the question. ITER, and the possibility for realizing the dream of clean, unlimited fusion energy, should be the focus of our nuclear energy investment. For a host of environmental, political and economic reasons it is well past time for the dangerous dinosaurs of fossil fuel and nuclear fission to give way to more evolved, less damaging forms of alternative energy, forms like fusion. S



Lee Carleton is a freelance writer who lives in Richmond.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.


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