Last April Three Mile Island stunned Europeans into wondering about the consequences of a similar accident happening on their own shores. But now the shock has passed, and as the debate over nuclear power settles down and deepens, attention has turned again to the question -- what to do with the radioactive waste? This has been uppermost in the minds of Europeans long before Harrisburg became a household word.
"Radioactive waste from nuclear reactors will be Europe's No. 1 nuclear-energy worry at least through the 1980s," according to Louis- Paul Suetens, president of the European Environmental Bureau which lobbies on behalf of 41 national environmental organizations at the Brussels headquarters of the European Community.
Says another European nuclear-energy expert: "The sad fact is no valid solution for the management and storage of spent [nuclear] fuel has yet been found, nor is one in the offing."
That the problem remains unsolved while nuclear-power plants continue to be built disturbs Europeans for reasons special to their situation, and to an extent, unparalleled in other parts of the world.
Europe is a crowded continent. Dumping anything inevitably involves littering someone else's backyard -- or one's own.
Recently, the Dutch Government, which oversees Europe's most densely populated nation, bowed to public pressure and abandoned its plans to use the northern province of Drenthe as the country's burial ground for atomic waste. But then it turned around and gave the green light to exploratory borings in salt domes at the bottom of the North Sea off the Dutch coast, where it is thought the waste could be buried. Some Dutch environmentalists who opposed the new plan quipped, "Next stop, the moon."
Europe is also more dependent on foreign oil for energy generation than is any other part of the world, a situation that has led to the world's grandest program of nuclear-power expansion. By 1990, according to Energy Commissioner Guido Brunner, the nine European Community member countries will have a nuclear-power generating capacity of about 127,000 megawatts, more than quadruple the installed capacity in 1979. Some European countries, including Belgium, France, Swtizerland, and Sweden, plan to produce between 40 and 50 percent of their electricity by nuclear means by 1990. The project figure for the US is 30 percent.
What such a significant enlargement of Europe's nuclear-energy capabilities will mean, environmentalists are quick to point out, is not only a proportionately greater risk of accident but a rising quantity of atomic waste -- with nowher to dump it safely.
In 1979, installed nuclear-energy capacity in the nine-nation community -- 29 ,000 megawatts, or about one-quarter of the nuclear-electric capacity worldwide -- was enough to produced 725 tons of radioactive waste in the form of spent fuel rods alone. (About one-third of a 1,000- megawatt reactor's core rods, amounting to about 30 tons, must be replaced every year.)
Yet to date, no permanent atomic-waste storage facility has been developed in Europe, and the earliest that one can expect such a facility -- if all goes smoothly -- is the year 2010.
Waste so far has been stored in facilites at the nuclear-power plants themselves. But that practice has never been considered anything more than temporary, and has, in fact, already run up against its own limitations.
Authorities in West Germany recently expressed fears that three of the country's 15 nuclear-power stations would have to be shut down by 1981 for want of adequate storage facilities at the plants. A similar situation is known to exist elsewhere in Europe.
Even the expansion of such on-site storage facilities would only postpone any real solution to the problem of what to do with the highly active radioactive waste for the thousands of years it takes for its harmful radioactivity to cool down.
Attempts therefore are being made in England, Sweden, Belgium, and West Germany to move ahead with what some experts consider the most hopeful answer to the waste-disposal dilemma. This is packing the wastes in drums and burying them for the necessary millennia in salt deposits thousands of feet beneath the earth's surface.
The most advanced experiments in burial possibilities have been underway for the past year near Gorleben, in eastern West Germany, where subterranean salt deposits are thought to be among the most stable in Europe. But no conclusive results of the experiments are expected before 1990, and only twenty years after that would the necessary excavations have been completed. Meanwhile, the problem of what to do with the accumulating wastes would remain. In 1979 some 450 tons of spent fuel rods piled up and were stored in temporary facilities in West Germany alone.
For three years, waste not stored in temporary facilities at West Germany's reactor sites -- as well as waste from Sweden, France, Belgium and Japan -- has been sent to La Hague, France. There, a subsidiary of the French Atomic Energy Commissariat runs Europe's only nuclear-waste reprocessing plant.
Since 1976, the plant has reprocessed only 110 tons of spend European nuclear fuel, against an annual intended capacity of 400 tons. Deliveries of atomic waste to La Hague have amounted to about 5,200 tons. The balance has been stored in pool.
The reason for the French plant's failure to live up to expectations is that it is uneconomical. Plans to build a multibilliondollar reprocessing plant in Gorleben, West Germany, have been shelved, too. But Britain, Belgium, and Spain reportedly still see processing as a potentially valuable way to reuse -- if not to dispose of completely -- their spent nuclear fuel, and therefore have kept alive their plans to install reprocessing plants before 1990.
That Europe in the future can be expected to pin its hope increasingly on reprocessing as a partial solution to the atomic-waste problem appears more and more likely despite France's failure so far to turn the La Hague plant into a viable operation.
The reason is that the reprocessing process yields significant quantities of plutonium, which, besides being a nuclear explosive, is the fuel for what many think will be the nuclear- power technology of the future -- the fast-breeder reactor. In less than three years France will put into operation the world's first commercial fastbreeder, the so-called "Super-Phenix," a 1,200-megawatt plant now under construction at a cost of $1.4 billion near Lyons. With it, France will have a 10-year lead over the US in the commercial application of fast- breeder technology. And it has already begun to export this to neighboring European countries.
But scientists and environmentalists alike emphasize that reprocessing will never solve all of Europe's nuclear-waste problems. Besides plutonium, the technique also yields quantities of radioactive liquid waste that will have to be disposed of somehow, probably in solidified form.