Thirty years after Nevada’s Yucca Mountain was designated as America’s only dumping ground for nuclear waste, not a single isotope has been sent there.
The state’s political clout in Washington made sure of that, effectively hitting pause on a process of scientific studies and planning that began in 1987.
But times changed dramatically this year. Suddenly, Yucca Mountain is being discussed again.
Thank goodness, say officials in South Carolina and 28 other states with nuclear reactors.
The notion of protecting Yucca Mountain enjoyed powerful Washington allies for years, notably Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the Senate’s Democratic leader from 2005 until January, and President Barack Obama.
But Obama is no longer the president, Reid is no longer a senator and Democrats don’t run Congress or the White House.
The future of Yucca Mountain now rests on an unanswerable question: What is President Donald Trump’s vision?
The president hasn’t proposed anything specific at this point, but the White House says it agrees with Secretary of Energy-designate Rick Perry, who has implied he will consider reopening the process to use Yucca Mountain as a solution to a decades-old problem.
“Hopefully, this is the beginning of seeing real movement, real management of an issue that I think no longer can sit and be used as a political football, one that must be addressed,” he said. “And I think we can find a solution, both in the interim and the long term, of our nuclear waste.”
Opponents of reopening the discussion point to Trump’s interest in a Las Vegas hotel near the rail line that would haul the highly radioactive spent fuel from America’s nuclear power plants to the cavern under the mountain. They hope that will sway him from the site.
“This is a big year for us,” said Robert J. Halstead, executive director of Nevada’s Agency for Nuclear Projects, which oversees potential nuclear efforts in the state from the governor’s office.
Obama’s plan had been to look for new nuclear-waste disposal options. Opponents of his efforts say the United States was essentially back to the beginning in its attempt to develop a permanent solution to a problem that physicists say could last for a million years.
Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., was one of those critics, and he saw the opening presented when Obama left office. He has introduced legislation to restart the Yucca Mountain licensing process.
Countries should have a disposal strategy in place to avoid burdening future generations.
Paul Standring, of the International Atomic Energy Agency
U.S. taxpayers have already paid $3.7 billion to develop the site. South Carolina electricity customers have paid another $1.3 billion in fees intended to pay for operating a disposal site, and customers in other states with nuclear power production have paid billions more.
“The Department of Energy should at least complete the licensing process for Yucca Mountain to avoid South Carolina becoming a dumping ground for nuclear waste before pursuing an alternative that will cost billions of dollars and will take decades to complete,” Wilson said in an email response to a question.
Without a disposal site, more and more irradiated waste will pile up around reactors across the nation. There are an estimated 4,500 tons of spent nuclear fuel in temporary storage in South Carolina from commercial reactors.
Beyond that, there are more than 10,000 tons of military and research nuclear waste at the Savannah River Site, near the Georgia border. Much of that waste is encased in glass tubes, 10 feet high, 2 feet across and weighing about 5,000 pounds each. Today there are 4,100 of them. By the time the site has finished creating the tubes, there will be an estimated 8,000.
The Savannah River Site also is home to another 33,000 tons of spent fuel from its own research reactors, which are no longer operating. A decade ago, the site had been planning to begin shipments to Yucca Mountain sometime soon. Today, the site is scheduled to finally be clear of its nuclear waste by 2065, though that’s based on the notion that a new disposal site will take about 50 years to locate, plan, license and build.
For perspective on the dangers of this waste, consider that spent fuel fresh from a reactor, if handled without the proper shielding, delivers a lethal dose of radiation in a couple of seconds. The stuff that’s 10 years old can take more than a minute to kill.
In another 100 years, the “spent fuel” being cooled down today will need a full 12 minutes to prove fatal.
Yet the materials, as they are being stored today, are quite safe.
Michael Driscoll, who helped develop the “deep boreholes” high-level nuclear-disposal option while a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said nuclear storage “is not a true crisis. Right now, you only need a parking lot and some cement containers and you can safely store nuclear waste today and for some time to come.”
The problem comes after that “some time,” though that is thought to be more than 100 years. Still, with the lack of a clock that is close to winding down, “the problem is entirely political,” he said. “The technology we understand.”
Experts generally agree that disposal sites must be geologic formations that haven’t changed much in a million years, indicating they won’t change much in the next million years. They can’t interact with aquifers. They should not be subject to flooding or earthquakes. Such sites can be found. The U.S. Department of Energy reports on Yucca Mountain say it is one such place.
The politics are another matter. Nobody wants nuclear waste in their backyard.
The licensing process for other sites will take 10 years or more, and construction can take another 10 years or more.
In the 1970s, the salt deposits under Lyons, Kansas, were seen as a likely disposal site. But at the time, Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kan., was becoming a political force, and the Kansas option was abandoned.
It was replaced by the Yucca Mountain option at a time when Nevada’s House of Representatives and Senate members didn’t have significant clout. In 2006, Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., issued a report titled “Yucca Mountain: The Most Studied Real Estate on the Planet.”
The federal government has to take responsibility. The federal government needs to commit to geologic storage.
Robert J. Halstead, executive director of Nevada’s Agency for Nuclear Projects
Halstead, in Nevada, said Yucca Mountain as a nuclear disposal site never was, and never would be, a good idea.
“Even the plan for transporting the waste to the site is impossible,” he said.
Halstead understands South Carolina’s concern, saying, “They have a lot of waste on site. They’ve put a lot of money into the fund for a disposal site.”
Halstead said the safest course was to continue storing the materials on site. He said it was safe in storage now and would be for another 100 years. Some experts say on site storage is safe for up to 300 years.
Strontium-90 and cesium-137 are the deadliest materials in nuclear waste. Halstead described their effects as “very deadly.” A year after they leave the reactor, seven seconds of exposure is a lethal dose. One hundred years later, 12 minutes of exposure is a lethal dose.
Of course, before committing to storing something on site for 300 years, it is worth remembering that is a long time for any society to commit to anything. Three hundred years ago, the United States didn’t exist as a nation and Blackbeard the pirate was still pirating.
Other radioactive isotopes have much longer half-lives, which is why the international standard for nuclear waste disposal is a million years.
This is why, explained Paul Standring, a nuclear engineer for the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency, responsibility comes with producing nuclear power.
“Countries should have a disposal strategy in place to avoid burdening future generations,” he said.