Nuclear energy is making a comeback. In Northeast Asia, nuclear power has long been a staple of national energy policy. But the rest of the world has suffered from a nuclear allergy mostly as the result of the fear of environmental disasters, such as the 1986 Chernobyl accident. Today, the twin specters of rising oil prices and global warming have prompted a rethinking of the nuclear-energy option.

All countries contemplating nuclear energy, like those that have already embraced it, must find a way to deal with the waste that nuclear power generates. This is a particularly vexing problem since such waste remains radioactive for tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of years. Communities are usually reluctant to accept nuclear-power plants, but that resistance is greatly magnified when it comes to storing a plant’s waste.

A new U.S.-Russia nuclear cooperation agreement in which Russia would store much of the world’s nuclear waste offers the first real solution to this problem. This is an initiative Japan can and should support. A central waste repository makes a great deal of sense — if it is safe and secure.

Today, 441 nuclear-power plants, spread across 30 countries, dot the planet. Nearly two-thirds (18) of the reactors under construction worldwide are in Asia; another 77 reactors are currently planned or proposed. The International Atomic Energy Agency estimates that world nuclear-energy capacity is expected to increase 22 to 43 percent over the next two decades.

Japan gets one-third of its power from nuclear plants and the government plans to double capacity by 2050. South Korea’s 20 plants account for about 40 percent of power generation. China plans to increase its nuclear capacity from 6.6 to 40 gigawatts by 2020 by building another 30 plants. India intends to go from just under 3 gigawatts to 20 gigawatts by 2020 by building 31 more plants. Several other countries in Asia, including Indonesia, Vietnam and Myanmar are contemplating the nuclear option too.

These plants have produced mountains of waste. It is estimated that 40,000 tons of waste are in Asia alone; high-level waste worldwide is increasing by 12,000 tons annually. At the end of 2003, there were about 1,370 tons of civil plutonium stocks in irradiated fuel, a figure that is increasing by about 70 to 75 tons annually. Only the United States, Russia and Finland have long-term storage facilities for their used fuel. The rest of the world has only temporary facilities, and they are filling up; some are already full. It is estimated that the fuel-storage industry could be worth as much as $20 billion.

Sensing opportunity, Russia in 2001 enacted a law permitting the import, temporary storage and reprocessing of foreign nuclear fuel. The profits have never materialized. Countries that supply nuclear fuel have maintained control over the used product, primarily to prevent its diversion to other — i.e., military — uses. The U.S., which was to supply virtually all the fuel Russia hoped to store, withheld approval of storage in Russia because of concerns about Moscow’s cooperation with Iran’s nuclear program.

Apparently, the U.S. has changed its mind. U.S. President George W. Bush has agreed to a civilian nuclear cooperation deal that would permit fuel to be stored in Russia. The reversal was driven by three factors: (1) growing stockpiles of waste; (2) the belief that the deal will increase U.S. leverage over Moscow, particularly in its dealings with Iran (anticipated revenues from the agreement should more than compensate for money lost if Tehran suspends nuclear cooperation with Russia, which has been building a facility in Iran); and (3) the need to protect Russia’s nuclear facilities and materials following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Safe storage of radioactive waste is more than just an environmental concern. Ensuring that wastes are returned and properly stored prevents governments from diverting those materials into rogue nuclear-weapons programs. Just as troubling, the spread of nuclear materials raises the specter of a terrorist group acquiring radioactive substances and using them in either a nuclear device (doubtful) or a radiological dispersal device, sometimes called a “dirty bomb” that, while not as lethal, would spread panic.

The agreement is not yet final. It must be approved by the U.S. Congress. It is hoped that the prospect of congressional scrutiny will give the U.S. more leverage over Moscow and nudge it toward a harder line in dealing with Iran. The Russian public is not happy with the arrangement; nearly 95 percent opposed the initial legislation when it was passed five years ago. That is understandable: The country has a history of nuclear accidents and contamination. A decrepit transportation infrastructure increases the chances of an accident. All nations should join the effort to secure these facilities and strengthen the entire infrastructure.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.