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What should be done? (file A12)


by Ludwik Kowalski, Sylvie Leray and David Whittal


It is not likely that aspirations for the comfort and economic wellbeing associated with intensive uses of energy will be abandoned. But how can such aspirations be satisfied without creating serious environmental problems? Today's reactors keep accumulating potentially dangerous long-term radioactive wastes and a great urgency exists to minimize negative impact of these byproducts on the environement. Scientists and engineers tell us that wastes can be transmuted. How long will take to turn their blueprints into reality? In the not too distant future, perhaps in two or three decades, today's power plants will be ready for replacement. Do coal-burning plants offer a valuable alternative? Are we willing to replace today's reactors with similar installations and accept potential dangers of geological depositories?

What is the best strategy to minimize negative consequences of nuclear energy? According to many experts, the strategy should be to experiment with the hybrid systems and test their safety. These systems are unique in their ability to destroy radioactive wastes and that alone justifies intensified support for their development. Furthermore, the intrinsic safety of the accelerator-reactor technology is very attractive in view of recent reactor accidents. It is certainly not too early to start designing machines which will generate electricity several decades from now. Long-term commitments must be made, worldwide, to address the energy related issues. All alternatives must be realistically investigated. It is not easy to decide which are the best ways of proceeding. Doing nothing is one of the risky options.

The U.S. Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982, established by the Congress, makes the Depatment of Energy responsible for designing, and eventually operating, a deep geological depository of spent fuel (28). This led to intensive scientific investigations and culminated in unprecedental undertaking at Yucca Mountain. The repository must be licenced by the Nuclear Regulatory Commision and meet the release limits that would result in less than 1000 deaths in 10000 years (29). The underlying assumption is thay the long term geological predictions are reliable. In France, by legal decision of 1991, the Parliament was charged to make definite decisions about nuclear wastes in 2006. Meanwhile, many projects connected to the dilemma are being sponsered by the government. The problems are not only technical or economic; the quality of life is at stake for future generations.

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