Sustainable Energy

Whose Nuclear Waste?

Yucca Mountain in Nevada looked like the perfect place to stash the byproducts of nuclear power. Fifteen years and billions of dollars later, it’s not even close to being operational. Is starting from scratch the only option?

If you’ve never lived in Nevada, it’s easy to imagine Yucca Mountain as very close to the middle of nowhere. To get there from Las Vegas, you have to drive northwest into the desert for two and a half hours. At the intersection of Routes 95 and 373, you take a right into the Nevada Test Site, where the government conducted nuclear bomb tests, and pass through a security gate. You then drive another 30 kilometers past Little Skull Mountain and through Jackass Flats, until you come to a small sign that says “Top of Yucca Mountain,” at which point you turn left onto a gravel road and head upward.

At the top, you’ll find two concrete benches, a rusty sign proclaiming the altitude in meters and feet (1,507.5 and 4,946, respectively), a decrepit National Weather Service trailer, a porta-potty, and a view of nothing but scrub brush, arid buttes and the occasional volcanic cone. At nine in the morning on a typical sun-blessed August day, it’s already hot enough to cause sunstroke, if not imminent heat exhaustion-although it is a dry heat, to put it mildly. The mountain gets less than 20 centimeters of rain a year, and only about a centimeter sticks around long enough to soak into the soil and percolate down through the mountain.

It’s this combination of aridness and desolation-Nye County, NV, the home of Yucca Mountain, has a population density of less than one person per square kilometer-and the fact that the locals have already put up with decades of nuclear-weapons testing that convinced the U.S. Department of Energy in the mid-1980s that Yucca Mountain might be an ideal location for storing in perpetuity the nation’s accumulation of spent nuclear fuel. Since then, DOE scientists and contractors have dug an eight-kilometer-long, 7.6-meter-in-diameter tunnel down into the mountain, spent over $3 billion studying the local geology to make sure waste won’t leak from the mountain, and worked their way, with the vigorous help of the U.S. Congress, into a political, financial and public-relations quagmire so seemingly hopeless that no amount of technological wizardry or political gamesmanship is likely to resolve it. “It’s not clear what kind of political action will be necessary to get Congress to say, All right, we’re right to go ahead with Yucca Mountain,’” says John Ahearne, a former director of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. “But one thing you can certainly say is Yucca Mountain is not going to be going forward rapidly.”

This story is part of our January/February 2002 Issue
See the rest of the issue

For the past quarter-century, the failure to dispose of the nation’s accumulating nuclear waste has been the single most damaging public-acceptance problem for the nuclear industry and perhaps the primary reason that no new nuclear power plants are likely to be built for the foreseeable future, notwithstanding any additional power shortages of the kind that struck California last summer. At the moment, 103 nuclear plants are operating in the United States, generating about 20 percent of the nation’s electricity and accumulating spent fuel at a rate of 2,000 metric tons each year. They have amassed over 40,000 metric tons so far-enough to cover a football field to a depth of nearly five meters-and it’s all booked for burial in Yucca Mountain, should the project ever emerge from its morass.

Overwhelming Obstacles

Originally planned to open as a permanent nuclear-waste repository in 1998, Yucca Mountain is now scheduled for a 2010 opening, although few experts outside of the DOE think that date is remotely plausible. The problem, as a 2001 National Research Council report put it, is not technical but societal, which could be the mantra of nuclear-waste disposal. The project, said the council, has been haunted by a “clear lack of public confidence and support,” and for good reason: “Difficulties in achieving public support have been seriously underestimated in the past, and opportunities to increase public involvement and to gain public trust have been missed.” In other words, the disposal of high-level nuclear waste is a problem that, while technical in nature, cannot be understood out of the context of its own political history and the societal attitudes that have evolved as a response.

Scientific Slugfest

As for the idea that science somehow would determine the ideal resting place for nuclear waste, the 1987 amendments may have derailed that dream as well. By choosing Yucca Mountain as the only option for a nuclear-waste facility, Congress put the DOE in an untenable position. In effect, it sent the department out to prove that Yucca Mountain would work as a repository, rather than to do a dispassionate analysis of whether it could work or was the best possible site. The scientific assessment of the Yucca Mountain repository promptly devolved into a slugfest of competing experts. The Nevada experts, frequently with media help, publicized any findings that suggested that Yucca Mountain would leak nuclear waste through every pore, fault and fracture line, while the DOE experts inevitably responded that the problems were trivial and could be handled with simple engineering. While the DOE experts might indeed be right (and most unbiased technical experts believe they are, says Harvard’s Bunn), their objectivity will always be in doubt.

The back-and-forth between state and DOE investigators has only intensified that doubt. The original concept behind deep underground repositories like Yucca Mountain, as Loux points out, was that the sites’ geology and climate would enable them to contain the nuclear waste placed within them. The more geologists have learned about Yucca Mountain, however, the less viable that model has become. Loux cheerfully lists the litany of Yucca Mountain’s potential failings, all of which the DOE acknowledges. The immediate region, for instance, has over 30 fault lines running through it-“an extraordinary number” for an area of some 250 square kilometers-one of which registered a magnitude 5.6 earthquake in 1992, causing significant damage to the DOE buildings at Yucca Mountain. There are also three or four relatively young volcanic structures within a few miles of Yucca. “If you’re trying to find a good, stable geologic foundation for a repository,” says Loux, “it’s not available at Yucca Mountain.” What’s more, he adds, the DOE originally assumed that the arid environment and the fused volcanic rock of the mountain would keep water from percolating down into the repository, but geologists quickly discovered that the mountain is riddled with tiny fractures, and what water does get in moves relatively quickly, in geologic time, on down.

And so it goes. Energy Department experts say the earthquakes are irrelevant because the damage caused by the tremors is felt only at the surface of the earth, not hundreds of meters down where the repository would be-just as you don’t feel an ocean wave passing over you when you’re submerged underwater. As for the volcanoes, the chance of one emerging to do damage to a Yucca Mountain repository in the next 10,000 years is vanishingly small.

“Conceptually,” says Bunn, “one has to draw back and think, wait a minute: if 10,000 years from now people are still drinking water from wells near Yuccaand there’s no testing of that water for radioactive contaminants and there hasn’t been a cure for cancer in the interim, that suggests something truly awful has happened to civilization in the meantime. Then we have to ask, is the best thing we can do for those people spending lots of money on the repository rather than, say, preventing global warming?”

As the understanding of the Yucca Mountain geology has evolved, the DOE has turned to technology to provide the certainty necessary for long-term storage. In particular, the agency’s engineers have vastly improved the canisters expected to contain the nuclear waste within the mountain. While the original plan was to let the geology of the mountain do the bulk of the containment work, says Jeff Williams, a nuclear-waste expert in the DOE’s office of civilian radioactive-waste management, the new plan is to let the engineering do it. “The canister, holding 21 spent fuel assemblies, will be two inches thick of stainless steel,” he says, “covered by half an inch of a very corrosion-resistant nickel-metal alloy, called Alloy 22. On top of that, for an extra layer of redundancy, we have what’s called a drip shield made out of titanium.”

So even if water gets into the repository, Williams explains, it would have to eat through the drip shield, then through the alloy layer, then through the stainless steel, and then it would have to dissolve the uranium itself, which is not particularly soluble. Finally, this radioactive water would still have to percolate down to the ground water-which at present is another 200 to 400 meters below the level of the repository-and then be carried another 30 kilometers to the wells of the nearest human settlements. While all this could conceivably happen, the DOE simulations suggest it would take considerably longer than the requisite 10,000 years and even in the worst-case scenarios-volcanic eruption, for instance-would be unlikely to release sufficient radiation to violate the standards set for the repository by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

That’s technology, however, and the salient issue here is societal. The intractable, if not perverse, nature of the conflict between the DOE and the state of Nevada is demonstrated by the simple fact that the Nevada experts do not dispute the federal agency’s assessment of the robustness of the new waste packages. Rather, they simply point out that if the DOE felt compelled to make waste packages so stout, it must have done so because it also believes that Yucca Mountain itself is an unsatisfactory repository. And now that the DOE has created canisters that can safely contain waste for tens of thousands of years, says Loux, the agency has rendered the geology and climate of Yucca Mountain irrelevant. It could bury the waste under the bleachers at Fenway Park, and it would be equally safe. For the DOE, it’s a no-win situation.

Starting from Scratch

By year’s end, the secretary of energy will have to decide whether to recommend to the president that the nation actually build a nuclear-waste repository at Yucca Mountain. While few experts can envision a scenario in which the DOE chooses not to press forward and begins looking at new sites instead, neither can they envision the repository being built on schedule, if at all. If nothing else, once the Democrats obtained a majority in the Senate last spring, when Vermont senator James Jeffords defected from the Republican Party, Senator Thomas Daschle, a South Dakota Democrat and the new majority leader, vowed that the Yucca Mountain Project was effectively dead. Meanwhile, Nevada has considerably more political clout than it did in the 1980s: the Senate majority whip, Harry Reid, is from Nevada and dead set against Yucca Mountain.

Nevada also has a backup plan ready should the Yucca Mountain project show signs of moving forward. It’s what Loux calls the “transportation issue” and the environmental movement has dubbed “rolling Chernobyls.” A Yucca Mountain repository would eventually be home to 70,000 metric tons of nuclear waste that would make its way to the mountain in some 56,000 truckloads. This works out to about six trucks a day for the next 30 years. So far, the safety record of nuclear shipments around the country has been “enviable,” says the Harvard/University of Tokyo study, and no single shipment has ever released any known radioactive material. But once again, that’s a technical point. Nevada, on the other hand, is prepared to play on the fears of every community that might someday see a truckload of nuclear waste rumbling down the local interstate in the interest of gaining support against Yucca Mountain from the 43 states along the shipping routes.

“The DOE wants to keep the argument over Yucca Mountain bottled up in Nevada and Washington, DC,” says Loux. “But once people on these routes learn about what’s in these shipments and when they’ll take place, they’ll become pretty agitated. The governor has already got a couple of million dollars from the Nevada legislature to carry out a national campaign. And casinos in Las Vegas have pledged another eight or ten million dollars to help advertise the transportation issue. They believe, correctly so, that it could end up being one of the issues that stops the project.”

If there is an easy way out of the impasse, say experts, it isn’t obvious. However, in the past year both the National Research Council and the Harvard/University of Tokyo collaboration advanced an idea that seems to be gathering support among experts in the nuclear-waste debate. The gist of it is to slow down, rethink and do it right. The current repository plans were motivated in the early 1980s by the specter of reactor shutdowns and blackouts as spent-fuel storage pools around the country filled to the brim. Since then, the industry has learned to store spent nuclear fuel on-site in dry-storage casks. These concrete or steel casks are easy to use, easy to license and, according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, will keep the spent fuel safe for a century. Indeed, says the DOE’s Williams, everyone agrees that dry-cask storage, known technically as monitored surface storage, is an adequate temporary solution to the problem of spent fuel, at least from the safety and security points of view. “From a what’s-the-right-thing-to-do perspective, it’s another question,” he says. “Should we leave this waste forever for our children’s children’s children to take care of, and have them continue to maintain these casks at 100 places around the country?”

Both the National Research Council report and the Harvard/Tokyo study suggest that dry storage be used for the near term while the government goes about siting a repository correctly. What constitutes “correctly” can be effectively defined as the opposite of what has been done so far. Among the report’s key recommendations, for instance, are to “assure that choice is available,” and that there be “greater openness, transparency and full public involvement in decision making, including real opportunities for the public to influence policy choice.”

The National Research Council and others see this kind of open approach as the only way to get the public to trust both the government and nuclear-waste experts and to voluntarily accept repositories somewhere in the vicinity of its backyards. “You have to involve critical elements of the public in the decision-making process,” says risk perception specialist Slovic, who has been dealing with the nuclear-waste issue for over a decade. “They have to be brought into the arena, given some status, listened to and respected. This approach is not a quick fix. It takes time and a sincere effort. It’s not necessarily efficient, but on the other hand, our managing of nuclear waste up to this point has not been efficient. We’ve spent several decades floundering and spending billions of dollars and not getting anywhere. Without a new approach, people are just going to continue to fight it.”

Tech Obsessive?
Become an Insider to get the story behind the story — and before anyone else.
Subscribe today

Uh oh–you've read all five of your free articles for this month.

Insider Premium

$179.95/yr US PRICE

More from Sustainable Energy

Can we sustainably provide food, water, and energy to a growing population during a climate crisis?

Want more award-winning journalism? Subscribe to Insider Basic.

  • Insider Basic {! insider.prices.basic !}*

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Six issues of our award winning magazine and daily delivery of The Download, our newsletter of what’s important in technology and innovation.

    See details+

    What's Included

    Bimonthly home delivery and unlimited 24/7 access to MIT Technology Review’s website.

    The Download. Our daily newsletter of what's important in technology and innovation.

You've read of free articles this month.