The mighty Columbia River carves its way through the Cascade Mountains of the northwestern United States to leave a massive swath of running water dividing Washington and Oregon. Standing on its gorge-ridden banks, one cannot help but feel humbled. Every day the Columbia irrigates seven million acres of land and delivers a steady surge of electricity to the entire region, as well as to parts of Los Angeles, nearly a thousand miles away.
Today, the river's quiet power is especially striking as a tiny dot of a barge called the Paul Bunyan peeks over the hazy horizon. It is hard to believe that the barge, Hanked by tugboats and dwarfed by its surroundings, totes a thousand-ton payload. Over its 30-million-year history, the river has never known the likes of this barge's cargo. On board, like a huge sepulcher, is the spent reactor vessel from the world's first commercial nuclear-power plant.
A milestone for the nuclear industry
Almost silently, the Paul Bunyan navigates the last leg of what must rank as one of the world's longest funereal journeys. Setting off from the outskirts of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the nuclear remains have traveled down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, into the Gulf of Mexico, through the Panama Canal, up the Pacific coast, and now inland on the Columbia en route to an earthen burial in a trench on the Hanford Military Reservation (pop. 30,000) in southeastern Washington.
Beyond even the impressive 8,100 miles logged, though, the barge voyage represents a significant milestone for the nuclear industry. Shippingport, the nuclear reactor whose spent core now lies atop the barge, was the cornerstone of President Dwight D. Eisenhower's "Atoms for Peace" program. Built in 1957, Shippingport usliered in the age of commercial nuclear-power, generation. Now, fittingly perhaps, the Shippingport reactor vessel's final voyage also halls a new chapter for nuclear power. Its demise is being used by the U.S. Department of Energy as a model project to show the world that nuclear reactors can be shut down and torn apart safely.
Until recently, this was not a pressing issue, given the more urgent (and as yet unsolved) problem of how to dispose of a nuclear reactor's fuel rods, which can power a reactor for only about three years. The spent fuel rods-the most highly radioactive entities known on the planet-are still the major problem on the industry's hands, and it is worth pausing for a moment to contemplate their nature.
The fuel for a nuclear reactor is made up of small pellets of uranium poured into thin metal rods 12 feet long. Each full-size reactor holds roughly 40,000-50,000 of these pencil-thin rods, wrapped in groups called fuel assemblies. Every year, approximately a third of a reactor's extremely radioactive rods need to be disposed of. The rods are said to he "spent" but, actually, during their time in the reactor they have become far more radioactive than when they were inserted.
In the United States, the spent fuel from commercial nuclear-power generation-now totaling some 22,500 tons-is nearly all stored temporarily in water-filled cooling ponds adjacent to the nation's reactors. Many of these ponds are already filled to capacity, but more waste than ever is currently being generated; its volume is expected to double within the decade. And the proposed high-level waste repository deep inside Yucca Mountain in Nevada is still far from ready to receive it.
Everyone knew, of course, that in the long run the reactors themselves, with their roughly 30-year operating life spans, would eventually face the retirement quandary: at least 50 nuclear power plants in the Western world will reach retirement age within the next decade. About a dozen U.S. reactors are ready now for decommissioning, a process that formally terminates a nuclear power plant's operating license and is supposed to clean up residual radioactivity, leaving the site safe for other uses.
Indeed, the problem of disposing of all wastes from nuclear reactors, military as well as commercial, has lately become a matter of nationwide planning and controversy. Currently, federal law calls on states to create regional or individual dumps for "low-level" waste (which can run the gamut from relatively harmless to absolutely lethal) by 1993. The selection process has sparked growing "nimby-ism" ("not in my backyard") as Americans discover, according to one recent report, "that nuclear waste is coming soon to a dump near them. "High-level waste from military sites, except for spent fuel, is destined for burial near Carlsbad, New Mexico, although there is much controversy over the site (see sidebar, page 66). And the spent fuel from both military and civilian reactors awaits a tomb tunneled into Yucca Mountain, a site scientists are also questioning (it …