Before the Fukushima disaster, nuclear power was being rebranded as a green form of energy. But in the wake of the devastating nuclear accident that is still unfolding in Japan, many Americans are now reevaluating the potential costs and benefits of nuclear power.
On today's Fresh Air, New York Times energy reporter Matthew Wald joins Terry Gross for a wide-ranging conversation about the history — and future — of nuclear energy in the United States. Though storage and safety mechanisms are in place, he says, many unknown variables exist that are nearly impossible for regulators to forecast.
"Essentially, when you reach the Fukushima Dai-ichi stage, the question is, 'Are you prepared for things you haven't predicted?' And the answer is, 'How can you tell?'" he says. "We're certainly prepared for some things we haven't predicted, but [we're not sure] what it is we're preparing for."
There are 104 nuclear power plants in the United States and they generate about 20 percent of America's energy. But figuring out what to do with the nuclear fuel they generate is a big issue — and one that hasn't been resolved for decades. When nuclear plants were designed, says Wald, regulators anticipated that spent fuel rods would sit in cooling water pools for five years and then be chemically processed and turned into plutonium.
"But that technology turned out to be financially unfeasible and Presidents Ford and Carter decided that it was not a good example for the U.S. to set, because if you're going to recover the plutonium, you can use it for bombs," he says. "So we didn't do that."
Instead, the Department of Energy had made plans to store the waste underground at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. That didn't happen either, explains Wald, because President Obama put a stop to the program, saying Yucca Mountain was not a good site to store the nuclear waste.
Instead, spent fuel rods in the U.S. are currently stored in underground pools of water or in dry-cask storage, where older fuel is put into steel cans filled with inert gas and then stored in silos.
"[Dry casks] are probably good for somewhere on order of 100 years," he says. "In that sense, it's not an urgent problem. But we don't, at this time, have a clear path forward on what to do after storage in casks."
Wald says that nuclear regulators in the United States are closely watching the situation in Japan to see what the long-term prognosis is in and around the reactors.
"If we're lucky, we're heading for a situation like Three Mile Island, in which you have a very long cleanup period in which you can remove the damaged fuel from the spent fuel pools and then, essentially, you got a reactor that can be decommissioned in the normal way," he says. "If we're not lucky, you end up in a Chernobyl-type situation where you can't get the damaged material out and you build some type of sarcophagus and then you sit there and you watch it for the next few centuries." Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.