Thursday, October 27, 2011

YUCCA MOUNTAIN: IS IT REALLY THE ANSWER? by Dr. Rose Lee Hayes Fox

The arguments for and against Yucca Mountain as a national repository for the nation's nuclear waste may be beating a dead horse.

Arguments have been put forth that since Yucca Mountain was designated by the U.S. Congress (1985/87) as the sole site to store and secure America's nuclear waste, from both nuclear weapons production (legacy waste) and nuclear energy production (spent nuclear fuel, or SNF), only the congress has the authority to revoke the designation. This school feels that the President overstepped his authority when he abruptly and arbitrarily canceled funding of this 30-some-year-old project with a price tag that is already in the billions of dollars.

We South Carolineans care very much about the outcome of the political maneuverings behind Yucca Mountain's cancellation because, until there is an actual functioning national repository for the nation's nuclear waste the Savannah River Site (SRS) will continue to serve as Yucca Mountain's stand-in. Stored at SRS are millions of gallons and thousands of tons of both liquid and dry nuclear waste materials. More receipts are scheduled from both foreign and domestic sources, depending on federal funding and the "our team versus your team" mentality of the current congress. The present inventory of spent, or used, nuclear fuel includes 15,000 assemblies in the facility known as L Basin. Another 8,400 assemblies will be received by 2019. The cost for this program is in the area of $30-40 million. There are also thousands of canisters containing vitrified nuclear waste buried under the floor of two Defense Waste Processing Facility storage buildings with no identified disposition pathway. Despite the volume of this material, SRS has made significant progress in cleaning up the site. Its safety procedures surrounding and securing these materials are repetitive and redundant. Without the occurrence of some unforseeable and catastrophic event, the public and biosphere are at low risk of exposure.

The problem is, SRS was not intended to be a long-term or permanent, storage site for such materials. There are laws and government agreements on the books assuring South Carolina that there would be pathways out of the state if the site took the materials in temporarily. Because of these committments, and the focus on Yucca Mountain as the heir apparent, SRS was never studied or tested for its appropriateness as the nation's nuclear waste repository. Its facilities and storage components are designed and built to withstand an earthquake much stronger than the so-called Charleston earthquake of the 1880s. However, the actual strength of that earthquake is not known since the technology to measure earthquake strength did not exist at that time. The strength of that quake is an estimate, based on damage done to architecture of the time and other factors. Since the Fukushima Dai ichi earthquake, it would appear foolish to declare the absolute maximum strength of any future quakes, including any that the Central Savannah River Area could experience.

Even if Yucca Mountain were put back on the political alter and opened shortly thereafter, much of the waste at SRS would remain there indefinitely. Yucca Mountain was not designed to receive all of DOE's legacy nuclear waste. It was designed to mainly receive and store SNF from the country's nuclear power plants. Only 8-9 percent of its space was to be dedicated to legacy waste from the DOE complex of national labs where nuclear waste has been generated. Which brings up the claim that nuclear energy is safe, clean, and cheap. That claim will not bear up under close scrutiny if cradle to grave costs of nuclear weapons and nuclear energy production total costs are tallied. These costs include the billions of dollars spent to study and test Yucca Mountain, the additional costs of maintaining Yucca Mountain if it became operable, the storage costs of more than 60,000 tons of SNF at the commercial plant sites for some fifty or so years while waiting for the government to develop a national repository, the billions of dollars awarded to nuclear power companies in legal cases against the federal government for defaulting on its commitment to begin removing the SNF to a national repository by 1989 from commercial nuclear power sites., and the billins of dollars spent in cleaning up the DOE sites where nuclear waste was left to languor and sometimes leak during the buildup of Cold War nuclear weapons stockpiles. The $4.8 billion MOX faciltiy, which is intended to turn surplus weapons-grade plutonium into MOX fuel for potential use in commercial power plants, has a scheduled operation date of 2016. Nuclear production activity would make the short list of any compilation of Americs's most expensive ventures.

Locally, S.C. legislators and members of the nuclear community have said that Yucca Mountain is still the best option for the storage of nuclear waste currently held at SRS and are disappointed with President Barack Obama's decision to put a stop to the project. Aiken County, along with the states of South Carolina and Washington and other parties, has filed a lawsuit attempting to reverse the decision.

Clint Wolfe, executive director of Citizens for Nuclear Technology Awareness, opposes storing SNF in Yucca Mountain permanently with no options for retrieving it when needed. "I personally oppose putting used nuclear fuel, as we now know it, into any geologic repository because it is a resource containing 95 percent of its original fuel value, and we should extract that energy before disposing of the waste resulting from those recycling efforts. Those waste, along with defense high level waste currently encased in glass logs at SRS, could then be placed in a deep geologic formation like Yucca Mountain".

Be that as it may, the wisdom of developing any deep geologic repository for a national site in which to store the country's nuclear waste is being questioned by scientists. Some warn that such repositories would become "plutonium mines" and present opportunities for both domestic and foreign terrorists. Growing concern about nuclear waste management is leading to unanticipated international decisions involving nuclear energy. Following the recent disaster at the Fukshima Dai ichi plant in Japan, Germany has announced a national energy plan that no longer includes nuclear energy production. That country plans to be nuclear free by 2022.

Other Eueopean countries are focusing on transmutation technologiies which involve fast reactors that leave spent fuel lowered in both radioactivity and volume. Such energy systems would also reduce the half-life of the spent fuel and require significantly less storage challenges. Reprocessing SNF is another option. The U.S. Regulatory Comission (NRC) has issued a Draft Regulatory Basis for a Potential Rulemaking on Spent Nuclear Fuel Reprocessing Facilities (June 2011). The draft has been presented in a series of public meetings held for the purpose of resolving the regulatory gaps for licensing private commercial industries that may apply in the future to build and manage spent nuclear fuel

While some European countries look to the future, building on research and development of technologies that can eliminate nuclear waste management problems, the U.S. seems wrongly entrenched in burying it for future generations to contend with. The field of current presidential candidates demonstrates this fact. Most advocate a storage site such as Yucca Mountain but selected on the basis of stakeholder input. Mitt Romney suggests that the free market should be allowed to determine a geologically safe nuclear storage site where "the people say the deal is a good one...and where we put this stuff". Ron Paul believes that it is a states' rights position. Rick Perry suggest that the states be allowed to make the decision, "...and some state out there will see the economic issue and they will have it in their state". Newt Gingrich feels that the "small nits of nuclear waste all over this country are vastly more dangerous to the U.S. than a very deep place where it could be stored for 30,000 years in geologic safety. Other candidates, such as Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, and Rick Santorum did not comment when asked for statements by the Aiken Standard. The one candidate that appears to see the potential of eliminating, or significantly reducing SNF volumes through technology R&D is Jon Huntsman, former Utah governor and ambassador to China. Huntsman does not advocate storing nuclear waste in a single facility and, if elected, says that "he would direct the NRC to develop a transitional plan to more modern techniques of reprocessing nuclear waste".

Not only will the concept of a Yucca Mountain-like deep geologic repository for nuclear waste not solve SRS's problem, it does not seem to resolve the nuclear industry's hopes for the future, if for no other reason than the economics of such a system. With over 60,000 tons of nuclear waste currently stored at commercial plants, with that total growing by over 2,000 tons each year, and with plans to build new plants in the future, more Yucca Mountains would eventually be required. The eventual costs of developing and maintaining such sites would become self defeating. The most logical solution to the problem of nuclear waste management for the U.S. appears to be partnering with European entities that are achieving success in researching and developing technologies which ultimately reduce the volume and radioactive levels of the waste to the point that it no longer represents a threat to national security, public safety and health, and biosphere pollution.

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