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New Heaven, New Earth, New Jerusalem – By Ed Wood

Matthew {6:10} Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, as [it is] in heaven. *The speaker here is Jesus, responding to his disciples’ request on teaching them how to pray. 

Isaiah {64:4} For since the beginning of the world [men] have not heard, nor perceived by the ear, neither hath the eye seen, O God, beside thee, [what] he hath prepared for him that waiteth for him. 

1 Corinthians {2:9} But as it is written, Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him.

Revelation {21:10} And he* carried me away in the spirit to a great and high mountain, and shewed me that great city, the holy Jerusalem, descending out of heaven from God, Having the glory of God: and her light [was] like unto a stone most precious, even like a jasper stone, clear as crystal. *An angel. The narrator is John the apostle, also author of the Gospel of John. 

I began this article right after taking my usual predawn walk. It’s February in New England. The day is warmer than normal, but was still in the mid-thirties, the air crisp and refreshing. I was surrounded by the sounds of birds greeting the arrival of the new day, each with his or her own song. A waning crescent moon hung to the south in a blue sky punctuated by high cirrus and lower alto-cumulus clouds, all of which promised a gorgeous sunrise. It did not disappoint when the still-hidden sun touched the clouds with an orange glow which changed to yellow and then white as it cleared the horizon.

My thought was, “How can it get better than this?”

The answer is, as we’ll see, it’s going to get a lot better! (But the road to that time will be rough, to be sure, as we’ve seen in my Olivet Series.)

The fact of the matter is that this small space and time of personal tranquility is becoming increasingly rare in a world that is, quite frankly, falling apart on every level you can imagine. You have only to watch the TV, listen to the radio, or read the newspaper to have that unceasing message driven home that the human race is one messed-up species.

Added to the mixture are the increase of stresses on Earth itself. Earthquakes, extremes of weather, and the global temperature rising as the planet’s atmospheric greenhouse gases increase. Yes, I realize many think the latter is a bogus claim, but for me the science is unmistakable. Carbon dioxide levels are now at 400 parts per million which are historically high.  Since this gas is transparent to visible light and opaque to infra-red (heat), the visible sunlight gets through to hit the ground and the re-radiated heat gets trapped in. Now a modest greenhouse effect is good. In fact, without it, Earth would be a frozen ice world like Hoth of Star Wars fame. But too much of a good thing is not necessarily better. Now we can reasonably debate over how much of this is due to human activity and how much is due to natural causes, but from all the evidence, global warming is a real deal.

That being said, we must be on particular guard for those who would use this issue as an excuse to consolidate political or economic power for themselves in the promotion of global authority verses national sovereignty. My biggest problem with the green movement is that there is virtually no mention nor serious effort on its part to push development of the one technology that would drastically curtail carbon emissions from fossil fuels which is nuclear fusion. This is seven times more efficient than our current fission technology and the fuel source is hydrogen, one of the two components of plain water. Hydrogen fusion is also safer, cannot cause a melt- down, and does not produce the tons of spent nuclear fuel which has to be stored away for millennia in a containment system which does not current even exist. What are they waiting for?

The Bible does tell us though a one-world government is ultimately coming under the Antichrist, there is no reason for us to not to resist the any impetus toward global government by any faction as best as we can for as long as we can. However, let’s concentrate on the purpose of this article which is to look ahead to a future so stunningly magnificent that we can only imagine it in a very partial manner. I’m sure John himself found himself quite limited in his description of the Ne Jerusalem and the new universe which will one day exist having only words available to describe it. Nevertheless, his account is still compelling and wondrous.

John’s first impression of the New Jerusalem was one of a “bride adorned for her husband, (Revelation 21:2) and follows it in Revelation 21:10 as filled with light, the source of which is God himself, shining throughout its crystalline structure. Throughout the Bible there are many references to God and Jesus and light. Interestingly, even in our present universe, light always travels 186,000 miles per second in a vacuum, no matter where you happen to be or how fast you’re moving. If we expand the definition of light to include all forms of it above and below that which is perceptible to the human eye, it is omnipresent, even existing as a faint background radiation from the very fabric of space itself. In Einstein’s famous equation of E = mc2, the conversion of matter to energy and vice-versa is based on the speed of light. Life needs heat so the molecular activity necessary for life can exist, plants need it for photosynthesis, and animals need the plants. It’s that simple.

Now this is not to say God is a beam of sunlight or the hiss of that ancient background radiation, but for some reason he chose to apply the term light to a description of himself for us to ponder, appreciate, and wonder upon. Like the light he created, he is omnipresent and very necessary for all life anywhere it might be in all its many forms. We have here a tantalizing mystery the fullness of which may have to wait for the new life to come. How very appropriate that John describes the New Jerusalem is a brilliant city of divine light!

Next we learn of some more of its physical characteristics:

Revelation {21:23} And had a wall great and high, [and] had twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels, and names written thereon, which are [the names] of the twelve tribes of the children of Israel: On the east three gates; on the north three gates; on the south three gates; and on the west three gates.  And the wall of the city had twelve foundations, and in them the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb. And he that talked with me had a golden reed to measure the city, and the gates thereof, and the wall thereof. And the city lieth foursquare, and the length is as large as the breadth: and he measured the city with the reed, twelve thousand furlongs. The length and the breadth and the height of it are equal. And he measured the wall thereof, an hundred [and] forty [and] four cubits, [according to] the measure of a man, that is, of the angel. And the building of the wall of it was [of] jasper: and the city [was] pure gold, like unto clear glass. And the foundations of the wall of the city [were] garnished with all manner of precious stones. The first foundation [was] jasper; the second, sapphire; the third, a  chalcedony; the fourth, an emerald;  The fifth, sardonyx; the sixth, sardius; the seventh, chrysolite; the eighth, beryl; the ninth, a topaz; the tenth, a chrysoprasus; the eleventh, a jacinth; the twelfth, an amethyst. And the twelve gates [were] twelve pearls; every several gate was of one pearl: and the street of the city [was] pure gold, as it were transparent glass. And I saw no temple therein: for the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are the temple of it. And the city had no need of the sun, neither of the moon, to shine in it: for the glory of God did lighten it, and the Lamb [is] the light thereof.

From the description we see God’s City is “foursquare,” or cubical, each side measuring “twelve thousand furlongs.” A furlong is 660 feet so 12,000 of them equals 7,920,000 feet or 1500 miles exactly. Now stop and think about that a moment – the New Jerusalem is a cube 1500 miles per side! To put this into perspective, it would cover about half the United States. Each side is about 70% the size of the moon, or about the size of Pluto! So, we are talking about a city of planetary dimensions!

We see it has twelve foundations of precious and semi-precious stones inscribed with the names of the twelve apostles, twelve gates made of single pearl with twelve angels bearing the names of the tribes of Israel, three per side of the city, which are inserted into a 216 foot high jasper wall. The latter, when you think about it, is actually tiny compared to the overall size of the city, but the fact that it exists must have some significance. The streets within are made of transparent gold.

In our modern age, cities artificially lit with bright lighting is commonplace, but in John’s day light was limited to dim flickering lamps, torches, or the like.  Imagine how the apostle must have wondered at the steady brilliance of God’s heavenly city! Even to us I am sure it would be a stunning sight since the source of this light is not electrical in nature but, as we’ve already seen,  a radiance emanating from God himself!

Before we see what comes next, let’s consider the implications of a city of this immense size being able to land on Earth. From what we know about the physical laws of our present-day universe, it’s not possible.

The Roche Limit

I’m sure just about everyone has seen pictures of Saturn. If you’re fortunate enough to have or know someone with a telescope, odds are you gotten direct a look at it yourself. The first time I saw it in the days of my youth, I couldn’t believe it was real. There it was, a small yellow disk encircled with marvelous rings just floating up in the sky. Saturn is not alone with a ring system, but the ones it has are the most impressive of the lot, easily seen in even a small telescope. In subsequent years we’ve gotten a much closer look, most recently by the wildly successful Cassini mission and its wonderful images sent back to our small world across anywhere from three-quarters to over a billion miles away, depending on its orbital location relative to Earth. The next likely question one would ask is, why do they exist at all?

There is something called the Roche limit which states that a moon or other sizeable celestial body can’t remain intact should it drift to close to a planet (or anything else with a large gravity field like a star or black hole). The limit is around 1.22 times the primary’s diameter and for Saturn with a diameter or 75,000 miles it works out to be about 92,000 from its center or 54,000 miles from its surface. Get any closer than that and you would not want to be living in an outpost on that object because it would start coming apart under your feet. Well, that’s a bit of an exaggeration because in most cases it’d take quite a while for the disintegration. ( Probably wouldn’t be a good idea to invest in real estate there at any rate!) Scientists believe this is already happening to Mars’ inner moon Phobos which displays strange grooves across its surface and is very near the Roche limit of 5000 miles from the planet. Given sufficient time it will one day break up into rings, or ring arcs.

The reason for this is actually not hard to comprehend if we observe how things behave in orbit. For example, the International Space Station, which is only about 250 miles up, goes around the Earth in 90 minutes. Weather satellites which are in geosynchronous orbits that keep them over the same spot relative to the Earth’s surface are 22,300 miles up, completing one revolution in 23 hours and 56 minutes, same as one rotation. The moon takes roughly a month and is about 238,000 miles away. The rule is, the higher the orbit, the slower an object will go.

For small things like artificial satellites, spacecraft, small asteroids, and meteors, the Roche effect is too small to be a problem. For something really big, it’s a whole new story. Bring the moon within 6000 miles of the Earth’s surface and the parts of it which are on the side farther away will try to go into orbit at a slower rate than those parts on the nearer Earth. Ultimately would successfully go their separate ways because the tidal stresses would be stronger than the molecular forces which holds the moon together. The result would be a huge and respectably sized-ring around Earth.

If you think this is bad news for the moon, it is also bad news for the Earth because the increasing effects of the moon’s gravity as it approaches would play havoc. We’re not just talking about super-high sea tides, but land tides as well. Our planet would be subject to earthquakes beyond anything we have ever known since humans have walked upon it. It would not surprise me if the frictional forces generated liquefied Earth’s surface into molten lava. Depending on the moon’s trajectory, impact is a possibility and the results of that are easily imagined.

Since we already know the New Jerusalem is a huge object, it is probably safe to assume that even if present-day Earth’s gravity didn’t pull it apart and if it has a gravity field of some type of its own, the consequences to our planet would be similarly catastrophic. This problem doesn’t even consider the problem of trying to land a 1500 mile tall object on a planet only 8000 miles in diameter. The top of the city would reach 1500 miles up, far past our atmosphere, except for its lower levels, and beyond the orbits of the space station and low-Earth orbiting satellites.

In my opinion, John’s vision of the New Jerusalem coming to Earth require a whole new set of rules. This appears to be exactly what God has promised to do.

And he* that sat upon the throne said, Behold, I make all things new. (*God) (Revelation 21:5a)

After the seven year Tribulation time, Earth is brought back to a near-Eden condition (Isaiah 35:1-10). The desert will bloom, people will experience miraculous healing (something that was prefigured prominently during Jesus’ first coming). In this passage we see an interesting account of there being some kind of “highway” called the “way of holiness” where only the “redeemed” and “ransomed of the Lord” will have access to Zion with “everlasting joy upon their heads.” Is this yet another prefigurement of what we see in below?

Revelation {21:24-27} And the nations of them which are saved shall walk in the light of it: and the kings of the earth do bring their glory and honour into it. And the gates of it shall not be shut at all by day: for there shall be no night there. And they shall bring the glory and honour of the nations into it. And there shall in no wise enter into it any thing that defileth, neither  whatsoever] worketh abomination, or [maketh] a lie: but they which are written in the Lamb’s book of life.

Or is the ancient prophet actually giving us a look ahead to the new existence in the new realm? We know that there will be redeemed saints on Earth during the Millennium from Revelation 21 and they will reign as “kings and priests” with the Lord during that time (Revelation 1:4-6). No doubt they will also enter into the age of the new heaven and new Earth, thus making their joy truly everlasting.

One may rightly ask why will it be necessary for the complete transformation of Millennial Earth into Eternal Earth because the former certainly sounds grand enough. The answer is – sin. The beautiful and bountiful Earth of the 1000 year rule of Christ will still bear the taint of sin introduced by Adam and Eve’s initial rebellion which opened the door for the devil to walk in. The evidence of this is found in Zechariah 14:16-19 and most notably in Revelation 20:7-15. In order for creation to be totally rid of this curse, a repair job isn’t enough and a complete rebuild must occur. Sin and its author must be eliminated because primary effect of sin is death (Romans 6:23). I think that death actually extends far beyond that of the individual right across the entire universe.

Think about it – nothing we know of last forever in our present cosmos. Plants die. Animals die. We die. Even stars and galaxies eventually die. Hot things cool off, cold things warm up. Our present realm is losing the amount of its usable energy and there is nothing that can reverse the process. The scientists give this a fancy name calling it increasing entropy or growing disorder in the universe. Barring divine intervention, it will eventually turn into a cold, dark nothingness. No stars, no planets, no life. Even matter itself may cease to exist entirely.

Yet we know from the Bible that all that the originator of evil and all that has fallen under his sway will be dealt with forever and the final enemy to be defeated will be death itself when sin is purged once and for all from existence.

1 Corinthians {15:26} The last enemy [that] shall be destroyed [is] death.

Only then can eternity come and only then will John’s marvelous account of what Jesus revealed to him with God coming to live with us forever in his glorious city come to pass, a place of indescribable beauty where the very river of life itself flows from the Lord himself. Best part of all? It’s where Jesus even now is building the mansions that believers will inhabit for all eternity and where we will see God face to face (Job 19:25-27;1 Corinthians 13:9-12).

Final Thoughts

In the new life in the new creation to come, the Bible tells us that the New Jerusalem will one day arrive on Earth, albeit a totally different Earth than the one that exists today. We know people will come to it from outside, which indicates that there must be a place from which they will come. That may sound fairly obvious, but it’s significant because it leads us to wonder what kind of “place” it might be. For that, we can only speculate.

Personally I envision something unlimited magnitudes above in magnitude and size of what we once had in Eden before our original parents opened the door to Satan and sin. Eden must have been absolutely stunning in its own right – no violent storms, no noxious plants or animals, and no death. It seems certain enough that all the best of Eden will be retained on New Earth and greatly improved upon. Whereas Eden had only two people to accommodate, New Earth will be host to billions of believers at least.

All of their time will be spent in God’s Presence and light, whether in the New Jerualem or out in the countryside. I imagine there will be a great deal of time spent just celebrating and rejoicing with God in New Jerusalem. When not there, perhaps the now-immortal saints will explore their new world, walk through its forests, climb its mountains, swim in its waters, and enjoy an everlasting fellowship with every other saint.

Perhaps we’ll get to meet the greats of the Bible like Moses, Abraham, David, Ruth, Esther, and the apostles as well as those whose faith was known only to God and themselves while they lived their mortal lives. But I’m sure the dream we all share is to see our loved ones and fellow believers, young, immortal, and radiant and to know that we will never be separated from them again.

After our sojourn on this world which has never been kind to those who have put their trust in God, often making us strangers in a strange and often unfriendly land, we will at last be welcome and know without doubt that were are home at last!


  1. Ann says:

    Terry, you said there was no place to store the depleted radioactive fuel, from power plants. That’s not so. There has been a facility built in the mountains in Nevada just for the storage of this material. I can’t remember the name of it off-hand, but it is there, but is not being used. No idea why the government isn’t using it, after spending all that time and money to create it. Guess there was a few billion dollars laying around and the powers-that-be could not resist spending it!
    May God bless you!
    Ann Odom

    • Terry James says:

      Hi Ann.

      Since it was my article to which you are referring regarding nuclear waste, I’m sending along some information that backs up my claim. You are right that there was a proposed storage place for all this spent fuel to go, but as you can see, it is not going to be used after all. Depending in the elements and isotopes left over from our fission reactors, this stuff stays deadly for many millennia. With our current technology, we just don’t have any way to contain this material that long. After all, as the Scientific American article points out, the pyramids are only a few thousand years old but I doubt even they’d last long enough!

      The only way to get rid of it permanently, as I see it, is to send it into space into an orbit that would take it into the sun. This, however, is impractical because there is so much spent fuel to dispose of and we just don’t have a cheap way of launching it all into space anyhow. Even if we did, safeguards would have to be taken if the spacecraft failed and its radioactive payload was turned loose into our environment.

      An alternative would be to bury it a few hundred miles down where it would eventually be melted and mixed into the mantle.Once again, we don’t have the technology to do it.

      The truth of the matter is, even if we shut down all the fission reactors in the world today, we’d still have an enormous amount of spent fuel that we’d have to dispose of.

      If you are like me, though, you believe that God is about to intervene in history in a profound way very soon. I am reasonably certain that the problem will be solved during the Millennial Age. That’s really the only option i can see right now.

      Thanks for the great question, Ann. I hope this reply answers it for you.

      God bless!
      Ed Wood


      Storage of Spent Nuclear Fuel
      There are two acceptable storage methods for spent fuel after it is removed from the reactor core:
      • Spent Fuel Pools – Currently, most spent nuclear fuel is safely stored in specially designed pools at individual reactor sites around the country.
      • Dry Cask Storage – Licensees may also store spent nuclear fuel in dry cask storage systems at independent spent fuel storage facilities (ISFSIs) at the following sites:
      o At Reactor – Licensees may use dry storage systems when approaching their pool capacity limit.
      o Away-From-Reactor – Licensees may use dry storage systems at one of the following locations:
       Decommissioned Reactor Sites – After terminating reactor operations and removing structures used in reactor operations, the licensee stores spent fuel on-site pending off-site transport to either a site-specific ISFSI that is authorized to receive the spent fuel, or a permanent geologic repository licensed for disposal.
       Consolidated Interim Storage Facility (CISF) – Dry cask storage at an away-from-reactor site pending disposal at a permanent disposal facility
      For additional information, see our Spent Fuel Storage in Pools and Dry Casks, Key Points and Questions & Answers page.


      From Scientific American

      Spent Nuclear Fuel: A Trash Heap Deadly for 250,000 Years or a Renewable Energy Source?
      Nuclear waste is either a millennia’s worth of lethal garbage or the fuel of future nuclear reactors–or both
      • By David Biello on January 28, 2009
      Credit: Courtesy of IAEA
      [This is Part 3 of an In-Depth Report on The Future of Nuclear Power.]
      A 98-foot-wide, two-mile-long ditch with steep walls 33 feet deep that bristles with magnets and radar reflectors will stand for millennia as a warning to future humans not to trifle with what is hidden inside the Waste Isolation Pilot Project (WIPP) outside Carlsbad, N.M. Paired with 48 stone or concrete 105-ton markers, etched with warnings in seven languages ranging from English to Navajo as well as human faces contorted into expressions of horror, the massive installation is meant to stand for at least 10,000 years—twice as long as the Egyptian pyramids have survived.
      But the plutonium ensconced in the salt mine at the center of this installation will be lethal to humans for at least 25 times that long—even once the salt walls ooze inward to entomb the legacy of American atomic weapons. And WIPP will only hold a fraction, though a more deadly fraction, of the amount of nuclear waste the U.S. plans to store at Yucca Mountain in Nevada or some other site designated to replace it as a permanent repository for the residue of nuclear reactions.
      The Desert Space Foundation, an arts group in Las Vegas, Nev., sponsored a contest to come up with a similar warning system for that site. The winner: genetically-modified yucca cacti turned cobalt blue that would be planted across the entire Yucca Mountain site—to serve as a warning to future civilizations of the radioactive waste within the mountain fastness.
      But eerie blue cacti or massive monoliths in the desert may attract rather than repel future explorers—the warnings of the Egyptians did little to deter modern archaeologists. There already are those who see what would be hidden inside Yucca as a resource rather than a curse—after all, as much as 95 percent of the energy in fissile uranium remains in the waste. “The majority of the energy is still in the spent fuel,” says Rod McCullum, director of the Yucca Mountain project at the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), an industry group. “With Yucca Mountain, you can pull [the nuclear waste] out and reprocess it.”
      Lonely mountain
      In 1987 Congress passed legislation that required the Department of Energy (DoE) to take possession of and properly store the spent fuel from the nation’s 104 nuclear reactors by the then far-off date of February 1998. Now 11 years behind schedule, the DoE’s primary response—to bury it deep within Yucca Mountain—is no closer to being a permanent solution.
      The Energy Department last June finally applied to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), the federal government agency that oversees the nation’s nuclear power plants, for a license to build the repository at Yucca. But taxpayers still spend roughly $1 billion a year in fines paid by the federal government) to utilities to compensate them for the delay.
      All told, the nuclear reactors in the U.S. produce more than 2,000 metric tons of radioactive waste a year, according to the DoE—and most of it ends up sitting on-site because there is nowhere else to put it. “When we remove fuel from the core after its final usage, we store it in a pool on site. We have the capacity to store it there for many years,” says Bryan Dolan, vice president of nuclear development at Duke Energy Corp., which operates three nuclear power plants in South Carolina. The amount of space required to store it, after all, is “incredibly small.”
      In fact, the U.S. nuclear industry has produced roughly 64,000 metric tons (one metric ton equals 1.1 U.S. tons) of radioactive used fuel rods in total or, in the words of NEI, enough “to cover a football field about seven yards deep.” (Of course, actually concentrating rods this way would set off a nuclear chain reaction.)
      The 1987 measure designated Yucca Mountain—a range of volcanic rock 90 miles (160 kilometers) northwest of Las Vegas in a patch of desert near former nuclear weapon testing sites—as the nation’s permanent repository for all of its used fuel. Critics, including environmentalists and Nevada residents and politicians, charge the site is unsuitable for a variety of reasons, most notably because of its proximity to fault lines (earthquakes have already damaged some buildings at Yucca Mountain) and because water that flows through its rock may ultimately circulate radioactive waste into the soil or drinking water.
      But the federal government has already spent some $11 billion building a kind of reverse mine, a deep shaft bored into the side of the mountain sheathed in stainless steel in which to bury the waste. To complete the repository would require at least $90 billion in total, according to a Bush administration estimate in 2008, and would not come online before 2017 at the earliest.
      That far-off goal seems increasingly unlikely. The powerful Nevada Democrat, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, is a leading opponent of storing nuclear waste in his home state. Pres. Barack Obama appears to agree. In 2007 Obama, then a junior senator from Illinois, wrote in a letter to Reid and Sen. Barbara Boxer (D–Calif.) noting that “the selection of Yucca Mountain has failed, the time for debate on this site is over, and it is time to start exploring new alternatives for safe, long-term solutions based on sound science.”
      And on January 5, Reid said in a statement that Obama “reiterated his promise to work with me to prevent the dump from ever being built.”
      Finding an alternative or figuring out how to make Yucca Mountain work—there is already so much nuclear waste in the U.S. that, according to NRC, if Yucca were already open, by 2010 it would be filled to its statutory limit of 70,000 metric tons—will take up “a significant part of my time and energy,” new Secretary of Energy Stephen Chu, a physicist, testified during his Senate confirmation hearing earlier this month. “We do need a plan on how to dispose of that waste safely, over a long period of time.”
      Back in 1983 the DoE selected eight possible candidates for permanent storage other than Yucca, including the Vacherie salt dome in Louisiana; the Richton and Cypress Creek salt domes in Mississippi; salt beds in Deaf Smith and Swisher counties, both in Texas; as well as Davis and Lavender canyons in Utah; and the volcanic basalt beneath Hanford, Wash. Other suggested alternatives have included burying the radioactive waste at sea or shooting it into space.
      But the federal government has spent more than two decades developing Yucca, leaving it the readiest candidate for a permanent repository. In its absence, the DoE continues to pay fines to the various nuclear power plants around the country for not providing storage for their waste—and the spent nuclear fuel piles up.
      Spent fuel
      At present, the nation’s nuclear facilities store spent fuel on-site in pools or dry casks. “Our agency is on record as being confident that fuel can be stored safely on-site at reactors in either pools or dry casks for at least 90 years,” says David McIntyre, an NRC spokesman.
      The glowing nuclear fuel rods rest beneath 40 feet (12 meters) of pale blue water (laced with boron to block stray neutrons, the uncharged atomic particles that initiate a nuclear reaction) and slowly decay for a decade or more. New reactors will be built with at least 18 years worth of spent fuel storage capacity, according to Ed Cummins, vice president of regulatory affairs and standardization at nuclear reactor–maker Westinghouse Electric Co. “The earliest plants are expected in 2015, so you’re at 2033” before any additional steps—such as shipping the spent fuel to a repository—would need to be taken.
      But nearly all of the nuclear power plants in the U.S. have already run out of storage space, because these pools were not designed to be long-term containers and enough room needs to be preserved in case of a crisis such as a meltdown. In the absence of a long-term solution (such as burying the waste deep inside Yucca Mountain), the nuclear industry has turned to so-called dry cask storage.
      This involves immersing the radioactive used rods in helium or some other inert gas and slotting them into a steel container that is further encased in a concrete cask—at a cost of roughly $1 million per cask. The encased rods still manage to emit roughly one millirem of radiation per hour and heat the outside of the 100-plus ton concrete casing to as much as 90 degrees Fahrenheit (32 degrees Celsius).
      “These are placed in rows on a concrete pad for stability. They’re essentially out in the air,” says NRC’s McIntyre. “Generally, they are putting them within the controlled area of the reactor site so they are protected under the physical security of the plant.”
      Some 9,000 metric tons of spent fuel rods are already stored encased in some 900 such casks—the bulk of them stored vertically in concrete casks but some placed horizontally into concrete bunkers. Their makers—companies like New Jersey-based Holtec International and AREVA’s Transnuclear, Inc.—and the NRC maintain that such dry cask storage will last for at least a century, if not longer. “They’ve had an excellent safety record over the past 22 years they’ve been in use,” McIntyre says. “All signs are that they are safe and secure.”
      But some environmentalists and other nuclear power critics contend that such dry casks present a tempting target for terrorists and a disaster for the environment if ever breached. In fact, the San Luis Obispo, Calif., chapter of Mothers for Peace has successfully sued the NRC and power utility Pacific Gas & Electric Co.—owners of the Diablo Canyon power plant—for failing to take into account the impact of a potential terrorist strike when assessing the environmental risks of a new, proposed on-site dry cask storage area.
      The solution may be one or many interim storage sites, centralized depots where such dry casks could be stored until a permanent repository is opened. Eleven communities in Idaho, Illinois, Kentucky, New Mexico, Ohio, South Carolina, Tennessee and Washington State have expressed an interest in being the host of such a facility, according to NEI. “It should be wherever it can be sited and it should be at a voluntary location,” NEI’s McCullum says. “Anything that is on the way to Yucca Mountain from most of the reactors,” which are in the eastern half of the U.S.
      In 1972 General Electric Co. closed a building in Morris, Ill., that would have presented another alternative solution to the problem of nuclear waste: reprocessing. The U.S. government originally employed this technology—dubbed PUREX (for plutonium and uranium recovery by extraction)—in both Barnwell, S.C., and West Valley, N.Y., to separate out the plutonium and other reusable fission products from nuclear waste. Today, France, Japan, Russia and the U.K. have reprocessing facilities that extract fresh fuel by enriching spent nuclear rods—albeit also producing radioactive waste by-products that have to be dumped.
      The problem is that this is also how governments separate out plutonium for use in nuclear weapons—potentially creating a tempting target for theft. “One of the biggest obstacles to increasing security is the proliferation of reprocessing plants, which produce separated plutonium that can be used in weapons,” says physicist Edwin Lyman, a senior staff scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), a nonprofit that advocates for a healthy environment and safer world. “We do not think any reprocessing scheme existing or proposed can mitigate the serious concern of proliferation and nuclear terrorism.” Some 250 metric tons of plutonium—enough for 30,000 nuclear weapons—has already been reprocessed by the aforementioned countries, according to the group.
      The Bush administration revived interest in such reprocessing via the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP) in 2006. This DoE program proposes restarting the recycling of nuclear fuel in the U.S. by building a new reprocessing plant, which prompted GE to reopen the Morris, Ill., site, among other companies stepping forward. At the same time, the Energy Department has enlisted 21 nations, from Australia to Kazakhstan, to safely develop such reprocessing technology, in many cases by shipping any future spent fuel to this proposed U.S. facility.
      The National Research Council, the research arm of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, notes, however, that such reprocessing is impractical and expensive. In 1996 it estimated that reprocessing of existing used nuclear fuel could cost more than $100 billion. Eleven years later, the Council further declared that research and development of such technology under the GNEP should be halted, because the money could be better spent on other areas of nuclear power research, such as next-generation reactors.
      The nuclear power industry has also not shown much enthusiasm for reprocessing because of the high price tag. “This GNEP program is aimed at trying to understand whether you could reprocess spent fuel economically,” says Westinghouse’s Cummins. “I would suggest that it is not really economical.”
      A 2007 report issued by Colorado think tank, The Keystone Center—an analysis of nuclear power by utility executives, environmentalists, policymakers and other experts—agrees, finding that “reprocessing of spent fuel will not be cost-effective in the foreseeable future.”
      “Commercial spent fuel has plutonium in it and you can think of that as an ore that could be mined for fissile material,” Lyman notes. But “the cost of extracting plutonium from that ore is still much, much higher than the price of uranium.”
      Nevertheless, advocates including researchers at Idaho, Argonne, Los Alamos and Oak Ridge national laboratories point to a reprocessing future of so-called fast-breeder reactors, which use plutonium to generate electricity—and in the process of fissioning generate yet more plutonium, a theoretically inexhaustible source of energy. “In theory, it could produce a self-sustaining energy supply,” Lyman acknowledges. “But in practice it’s never worked.”
      In fact, the Monju fast-breeder reactor in Tsuruga on Japan’s west coast was shut down in 1995 after slightly more than a year of operation because of political opposition and difficulties running it, including a fire caused by a leak of its liquid sodium coolant, despite a cost of more than $6 billion to build.* “Breeders are difficult reactors, they are complex reactors,” Westinghouse’s Cummins says. “There have been some built but not many more. They are just not economical at the moment.”
      And even if reprocessing or fast breeders could be made to work cheaply and efficiently—eliminating spent reactor rods as radioactive refuse—there would still be thousands of tons of nuclear waste in need of a permanent home.
      The other nuclear waste
      The U.S. produces as much as 160,000 cubic feet (4,530 cubic meters) of radioactive material from its nuclear power plants annually—a number that spikes higher dramatically when old nuclear plants are decommissioned, such as Maine Yankee in Wiscasset, Me., in 1997. Ranging from workers’ coveralls to water filters, some of this stream of nuclear waste no longer has a place for its disposal either—particularly the highly radioactive materials rated as classes B and C, such as reactor vessel heads. “That stuff has only one place it can go,” says Ralph Andersen, chief health physicist at NEI, “a deep geologic repository,” like Yucca Mountain.
      The national nuclear dump in Barnwell, S.C., was closed to shipments of such waste from nuclear power plants in 36 states in July 2008. A new dump in Texas, granted a license by the state this month, will only accept low-level leavings from that state and Vermont, alongside similarly restricted dumps in Utah and Washington State. This has also left users of nuclear products such as hospitals and universities scrambling to find a place to dispose of their radioactive residue.
      So now the waste from the majority of reactors on the east coast and Midwest typically sits alongside the spent nuclear fuel in dry casks on-site. In terms of safety, it’s the best that can be done at present.
      “Where would I want to store radioactive materials? Somewhere where there were armed security officers with concrete buildings,” Andersen says. “What we’ve got at a nuclear power plant is an armed fortress made out of concrete.”

      *Erratum: (1/29/09): This sentence was changed after publication. It originally stated that the Monju fast-breeder reactor used molten salt coolant. Thanks to bhoglund for pointing out the error.

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