Comment, from New Scientist, 09 April 2008
In the nuclear industry, memories can be distressingly short. In 1976, the UK Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution declared that it would be "morally wrong" to make a major commitment to nuclear power without demonstrating a way of safely isolating radioactive waste.
Yet the UK is about to embark on a programme to build at least 10 reactors while still lacking a disposal site for the waste that has accumulated over the past 50 years. What's more, spent fuel from these reactors will be far more radioactive than existing waste and may even require a second repository.
At the same time, it seems the US is planning a new generation of nuclear reactors without having fully taken on board lessons from the past about safety. In 1979, a fault with a valve triggered the worst nuclear accident in US history at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania.
Yet now US power companies are planning to submit applications to build up to 30 reactors, despite safety fears over the fuel they will burn. The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission is having to rewrite its rules to guard against the threat that the new "high burn-up" fuel will leave the cladding around the fuel rods dangerously brittle.
We should have learned that compromising public safety for economic gain is a dangerous game. Ploughing ahead with a vast reactor-construction programme without finding a solution to the waste problem and without knowing how to deal with the additional risks of high-efficiency fuel seems irresponsible. History is full of similar compromises that were later regretted, if we only care to remember.
This editorial is based on a news story, which is available here.