Sunday, March 18, 2012

Yucca Mountain: NRC Safety Review

The National Regulatory Commission (NRC) has concluded a safety review of Yucca Mountain, proposed as the national nuclear waste repository. Although not yet released, the review concluded that the site meets all regulatory requirements for permanently storing the nation's radioactive materials. President Obama formerly ordered Secretary of Energy Steven Chu to withdraw the application to the NRC for licensing Yucca Mountain for this function after more than ten billion dollars and over 30 years have been spent studying and testing the site's appropriateness for this function. Although it can be argued that no engineered environments on earth are older than around 4,000 years (e.g. the Early Kingdom Egyptian pyramids), we can be confident, given the NRC's findings and the extent of testing conducted on the mountain, that it would secure the nation's nuclear waste for at least a few thousand years. Further, even though the President and Secretary of Energy have ordered the mountain to be dropped from consideration as a permanent repository for the nation's nuclear waste, all the studies and tests indicate that it is the perfect candidate as an interim storage site. In fact, the Blue Ribbon Commission (BRC), appointed by President Obama to identify alternatives to Yucca Mountain for America's future energy planning, actually recommended that one or more interim storage sites be identified while research and development improves on nuclear waste management technology. Hopefully, ongoing research will provide resolutions to this problem within a few decades. Research and design efforts in the areas of transmutation and fast reactors which leave lower levels of waste in terms of radioactivity, volume and half life are looking hopeful for the waste dilemma, which some have predicted since the 1970s will be the downfall of the nuclear energy industry unless resolved. In the meantime, since the Obama administration refuses to acknowledge Yucca Mountain's appropriateness for the designated national repository, there would seem to be no language or data indicating that the mountain is not the best candidate for a new designation: interim storage site.

Senator Lindsay Graham, and others, have also raised the issue of what is to become of the $35 billion which South Carolina and other states have been charged to build "the repository to nowhere". Senator Graham and others have introduced a bill requiring the president to either open Yucca Mountain or rebate the $35 billion to the ratepayers who contributed the fund. South Carolina's portion, built through charges for monthly electricity, would come to some $1.3 billion.

Either way, it looks as though there is finally some positive news for the daunting problem of the nation's nuclear waste. Whether or not Yucca Mountain is an appropriate site for permanent storage of the waste, it certainly must be considered as the leading candidate for an interim storage site. Research and development efforts currently on the drawing board should soon show the way to environmentally responsible, and logical, technologies for handling the waste. Once the waste can be safely secured, the nuclear energy industry will have overcome a serious obstacle to its role in the nation's energy future. Finally, South Carolina may receive rebate monies to the tune of $1.3 billion if the Obama administration sticks to its opposition to open Yucca Mountain.

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