EDITORIAL: Sitting on a fault line

A major earthquake hit Japan’s Kashiwazaki Kariwa nuclear power plant this week. That should give pause to those who advocate looking to nuclear power as concerns about global warming escalate.

On July 16, an earthquake measuring 6.8 on the Richter scale struck near the facility, the world’s largest in terms of output capacity. What came next included a fire, leakage of water containing radioactive material into the sea, and a spill of low-level radioactive waste. The plant is now closed indefinitely.

The facility on Japan’s western coast was built to withstand a quake of magnitude 6.5. An official of the Tokyo Electric Power Co., which manages the plant, said designers did not anticipate a larger quake. “After looking at aftershock location data,” he added, “we have come to realize a fault lies right below the plant.”

Beyond the ongoing issues of safely operating individual nuclear power plants looms the elephant in the room — what to do with the huge amounts of nuclear waste generated even by today’s facilities, let alone tomorrow’s.

Three decades ago the U.S. government started studying Nevada’s Yucca Mountain as a possible national nuclear waste dump. In 2002 President Bush signed a bill to make Yucca Mountain the country’s central repository for nuclear waste.

But both the Western Shoshone Nation, on whose land the mountain sits, and the people and government of Nevada, including its Republican governor and attorney general, have fought the proposal tooth and nail.

The Western Shoshone say waste already generated by nuclear power and nuclear weapons facilities would more than fill Yucca Mountain’s planned capacity, even without the future output of existing and prospective plants. They also point out that the waste is lethal for 10,000 years and dangerous for 250,000 years, and that the proposed dump is near several local fault lines and a volcano.

Real clean energy alternatives are out there, including solar, wind and geothermal power. Isn’t it time to turn away from nuclear power, as well as nuclear weapons, and seek a truly green future?