Bell Curve The Law Talking Guy Raised by Republicans U.S. West
Well, he's kind of had it in for me ever since I accidentally ran over his dog. Actually, replace "accidentally" with "repeatedly," and replace "dog" with "son."

Monday, November 07, 2005

A Problem That Should Be Buried

There are over 50,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel in the U.S., and right now this material is housed in temporary storage facilities in over 120 locations (see map) in 40 states.

The most common temporary storage method is immersion in pools of water, for cooling and radiation damping, but within five years, most of these pools will finally be full. The other common method is to seal the waste in thick metal containers stowed in concrete bunkers. These storage facilities are only meant to be temporary however--they will not last for a hundred years, let alone ten thousand. And if attacked by terrorists, any of these sites could cause environmental devastation. Even if we were to shut down every nuclear reactor right now, we would still need a far better solution than what we have.

Scientists have considered putting the waste on the seabed, depositing it under the ice caps, shooting it into space, and other options. The consensus is that the best option is to bury it underground, away from the water table. For that reason, a dozen of the largest nuclear nations (USSR, Britain, France, China, Japan, Germany...) are planning to build large, underground repositories. Ours is going to be at Yucca Mountain.

Environmental groups should be fighting hard for this program, but instead they fight against it as though it were a proposal to create waste rather than deal with the problem of existing waste. Yucca Mountain is behind schedule again--the opening date has slipped from 2010 to 2012--and now once again Congress has moved to reduce the funding by a third (down to $450 million for FY06). In another short-sighted move, Congress also deleted a $10 million House proposal that would have built a few more temporary above-ground waste sites.

While skeptics should remain vigilant to ensure the program stays on track, Yucca Mountain program must go forward. To do otherwise is to invite disaster.


Anonymous said...

The resistance to Yucca Mountain is not irrational. Environmental groups worry that it is being made, basically, a sacrifice zone - that we all know, wink wink, that we can't really keep the waste out of the groundwater table, and that in a couple hundred years the whole area be radioactive and polluted, and stay that way for literally millions of years. Environmentalists are right to be angry about this sort of gift to the future. It is a permanent harm done to an area based on today's technology. Perhaps in 100 years we will be glad that all the waste was in little barrels, because it turns out to be easy to make it into cheap energy, or send it to the sun, through some process we cannot even imagine.

Also, how will waste get to Yucca Mountain? On roads and trains through the intermountain west, that's how. Some of it will spill or leak, inevitably. A terrorist may blow up a train and scatter the radioactive toxins all over a portion of the Rockies. This does not happen if waste is stored on-site.

The other opposition is not just NIMBYism. Yucca Mountain is near Las Vegas. That city has more than doubled in size since it was first proposed, and it relies heavily on groundwater. Why, Nevadans ask, should they bear the cost for the nation's nuclear energy projects? If it's not a big deal, why not put all the waste in Crawford, Texas?

Opposition to Yucca Mountain is not irrational or anti-science. I fear that future generations will regard the Yucca Mountain project as we regard the Three Gorges Dam and strip mining. 

// posted by LTG

Anonymous said...

Actually, Yucca Mountain was proposed in 1978, when LV's population was about 1/5 of its current amount  

// posted by LTG

Dr. Strangelove said...

1. The "sacrifice zone" theory is false. The radioactive material will be heavily shielded by metal and concrete and there will be over a thousand feet of rock between the storage site and the water table. Unlike cancer, civil unrest, and biochemical agents, we know precisely how to contain nuclear waste safely because radioactivity is a well-understood physical process. Keeping it in little barrels on the surface is just about the worst thing we can do with it.

2. The transportation issue is a non-issue. We have already made over 3,000 shipments of nuclear waste over the past few decades, with no spills or leaks of any kind. With the billions of dollars allocated for extra-heavy containers and secure convoys under the Yucca Mountain plan, the waste will be better protected from terrorists during its brief time of transportation than it is now. The waste is not safe now. Finally, the waste will be converted to solid glasses and ceramics before shipment, so "leakage" will not occur.

3. Many sites might be acceptable as deep geologic repositories, but there are a few requirements (which rule out Crawford, Texas). Yucca Mountain is made of very low-porous rock, a compressed volcanic ash called "welded tuff". The mountain is thick enough that the waste can be 1000 feet below the surface and also 1000 feet above the water table. And Yucca Mountain gets less than 8 inches of rain per year anyhow. Finally, while Yucca Mountain is located about 100 miles Northwest of Las Vegas, most of the U.S. population currently lives within 75 miles of one of the many temporary nuclear waste storage sites. You do the math.

The bottom line is that, while nobody likes nuclear waste, we need to deal with it responsibly. If there's a better spot than Yucca Mountain, then I'm all for it. And if we ever do find some way to turn it into energy, we can always retrieve it (the waste will be stored in containers.) But letting radioactive waste sit where it is could turn 130+ well-populated sites into real sacrifice zones when the pools anc cannisters start leaking into the nearby groundwater. And that is the "gift" so-called environmental advocates are choosing to leave to future generations now.

Anonymous said...

This is really an international issue, where unfortunately emotion reigns over logic. In Australia we are going through the same arguments: unlike you guys, we're planning on placing our waste in the outback. Kind of handy having large "wastelands" with no population, practically no rainfall and absolutely no geological activity. So the Federal Government wants to build a national repository, and possibly an international one where we would accept waste from other countries (for a fee). With only one reactor in the country (medical/research), and being potentially the largest exporter of uranium in the world (a third of world deposits), I personally think we should accept waste from other countries.

So here is the issue: the best site is in South Australia, but the State Government has said no, even though that government gets royalties from two of the three uranium mines in the country. So the Federal Government is forcing the Northern Territory to take the dump on a defence base somewhere. As they are only a territory they do not have the same rights as states. Poor policy forced by the state government on the basis of fear and/or environmental concern.

I'd sulk, but I try to cheer myself up knowing that at least I can spell "aluminium". 

// posted by Koala Boy

Anonymous said...

Hi There Koala Boy! Long time no read.

Nevada is our answer to your outback. It's an enormous largely uninhabited region. Yucca Mountain is (I think) a couple of hundred miles from Las Vegas - the nearest population center.

I think Dr. Strangelove's argument: "If there is a better place than Yucca Mountain" is great.

But I'd also point out that the fact that his is such a problem underscores the prefereability of solar over nuclear. In addition to breaking the power generation monopolies, solar power involves fewer political fights over NIMBY issues. 

// posted by Raised By Republicans

Dr. Strangelove said...

Despite my personal fondness (as a physicist) for nuclear power, I must admit RxR is right: nuclear waste disposal is a huge problem that other alternative energy sources, such as solar power, do not have to contend with.

Joining this to an earlier post about Molly Ivins, why don't we take the thousands of excess nuclear warheads we have and reprocess them for nuclear power? I think e we can manage that somehow (though my knowledge of this physics is fuzzy... I could be wrong.) Since we'll eventually have to deal with disposing of the warheads anyhow, one could argue that we really wouldn't be creating any "new" waste.

The only problem with solar power is cost and space. Unlike other forms of energy, which might have adverse effects on one's "backyard", solar power can take up your entire backyard. Still, if the choice were between a second Yucca Mountain in Nevada, and filling most of Nevada with solar panels, I think the solar panel idea doesn't look half so bad.

Koala Boy and LTG are right that politics has played a big role in picking which exact site is selected for nuclear waste disposal. But I suspect RxR would prefer that choice be made by the legislature than by some unaccountable, non-partisan commission :-)

(Yes, I'm still smarting after the defeat redistricting plans in Ohio and California.)

Anonymous said...

Yucca Mountain is just 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas near Death Valley.

When I hear that "transportation issue is a non-issue" I feel like I am listening to an oil company executive describing ANWR. Spillage can and will happen.

OTOH, If Koala Boy would not mind us shipping the waste to Australia, I'm okay with that. =) 

// posted by LTG

Dr. Strangelove said...

Yucca Mountain is 90 miles away from Las Vegas instead of "about 100." Thanks for the vital correction, LTG.

As for the transportation issue, you need to consider relative risks. For comparsion, let's look at the record of the evil oil companies LTG mentions.

Oil companies transport 43 million barrels of crude oil per day via tanker. If we had to move this much oil by truck, it would take 40,000 trucks per day. While there are significant spillages, you have to look at the percentage: over the past twenty-five years, less than one hundredth of one percent of the oil shipped has ever been spilled--and that number has been falling fairly steadily. The figure it is now about one thousandth of one percent.

Compared to this, transporting less than 70,000 tons of material to Yucca Mountain over the 2010-2035 timeframe is peanuts. And with each shipment much, much better protected than any oil shipment, and with no shipments sent by sea, and with no liquid shipments, it really is possible to have no leaks. (Or at least it is possible to have so little leakage that it is not significant.)

The bottom line again is this: the cannisters of radioactive material will leak if left where they are. They have a very, very small chance of leakage while en route to permanent storage. If you don't think the transportation plan is good enough, then let's double the budget for it--but for heavens' sake, let's not allow an irrational fear of moving it keep us from doing the right thing.

Anonymous said...

My hope for solar would be that houses and factories roofs could be built with solar cells on them. It wouldn't provide 100% of the power we need but it would provide a big chunk! Enough to weaken the strangle hold the big energy companies have on energy supply and sources.  

// posted by Raised By Republicans

Anonymous said...

RBR said it was more than 200 miles away. Correction was needed. 

// posted by LTG

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