Move to Kill Yucca Mountain:
Obama Budget Puts Nuclear Waste on Hold
MICHAEL HAWTHORNE / Los Angeles Times 11mar2009
His move to kill the Yucca
Mountain project in Nevada renews nagging questions
about what should be done with the radioactive waste steadily accumulating in 35 states.
See related article below
Chicago — In a pool of water just a football field away from Lake Michigan, about 1,000 tons of highly radioactive fuel from the scuttled Zion Nuclear Power Station are waiting for someplace else to spend a few thousand years.
The wait just got longer. A lot longer.
President Obama's proposed budget all but kills the Yucca Mountain project, the controversial Nevada site where the U.S. nuclear industry's spent fuel rods were to spend eternity. There are no other plans in the works, so for now the waste will remain next to Zion and 103 other reactors scattered across the country.
Obama has said there are too many questions about whether storing waste at Yucca Mountain is safe. His decision fulfills a campaign promise, but it also renews nagging questions about what should be done with the radioactive waste steadily accumulating in 35 states.
During his confirmation hearings, Energy Secretary Steven Chu said the waste could safely remain at nuclear plants while another plan is worked out. Reversing course from previous administrations satisfies critics in Nevada, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, but triggers another round of political maneuvering and regional bickering in Congress.
"We are drifting toward a permanent policy of keeping extremely toxic waste next to the Great Lakes, and that cannot stand," said U.S. Rep. Mark Steven Kirk (R-Ill.), who echoed industry officials in calling for an independent panel of scientists and engineers to find a solution. Obama, too, is calling for more study.
More than 57,000 tons of spent fuel rods already are stored next to reactors, just a few yards from containment buildings where they once generated nuclear-heated steam to drive massive electrical turbines.
The lack of a permanent solution poses a serious challenge to the industry's plans to build more than 30 new reactors. Existing nuclear plants produce 2,000 tons of the long-lived waste each year, most of which is moved into pools of chilled water that allow the spent — but still highly lethal — uranium-235 to slowly and safely decay. Uranium-235 has a half-life of nearly 704 million years — meaning that half its atoms will decay in that time.
But containment pools never were intended to store all of the spent fuel that a reactor creates. The idea was that the cool water would stabilize the enriched uranium until it could be sent to a reprocessing plant or stored in a centralized location.
Instead, it keeps piling up. Although industry officials insist the waste is safely stored in fenced-off buildings lined with concrete and lead, there are concerns that a leak or a terrorist attack could create an environmental catastrophe. Many of the nation's nuclear plants are close to highly populated areas or next to bodies of water.
As power companies run out of space in their containment pools, they increasingly are storing the waste above ground in concrete and metal casks.
"We continue to ask the federal government to provide a clear solution for what the long-term storage of spent fuel will be," said Marshall Murphy, spokesman for Exelon Nuclear, the owner of all seven nuclear plants in Illinois.
Until now, the solution was Yucca Mountain, 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas, which Congress chose in the late 1980s as a permanent repository. Federal officials spent the last two decades — and billions of dollars — preparing to bury spent fuel in a series of fortified tunnels drilled into the mountain.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission still plans to hold hearings about Yucca Mountain, but without further funding the project will be a very expensive hole in the ground.
The repository's apparent demise is part science and part politics. Recent studies have shown that water flows through the mountain much faster than previously thought, which raises concerns that radioactive leaks could contaminate drinking water.
Industry critics say the government's inability to come up with a permanent burial ground for highly radioactive waste is another reason the U.S. should wean itself from nuclear power.
"President Obama made the absolutely correct decision," said Dave Kraft, director of the Nuclear Energy Information Service, an industry watchdog. "Unfortunately for the nation, it comes about 15 years and $10 billion too late."
Would earthquakes around Yucca Mountain make it unsafe to hold nuclear waste?
ADAM HADHAZY / Scientific American 10mar2009
The generation-long debate surrounding the dumping of the nation’s radioactive nuclear waste under Nevada’s Yucca Mountain may finally be drawing to a close. As ScientificAmerican.com reported yesterday, the plan to turn the mountain – some 100 miles (160 kilometers) from Las Vegas – into a nuclear repository appears to be dead in the water: President Obama’s proposed 2010 budget removes major funding needed to complete the project – and it faces opposition from powerful Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, who doesn't want the country's spent nuclear fuel dumped in his state. Critics of the plan charge, among other things, that the site might not be the securest of spots to store radioactive materials given the potential of earthquakes in the area. After all, they note, Nevada is the third-most seismically active state in the U.S.
But is there really cause for concern?
"There is an earthquake hazard around Yucca Mountain that’s greater than, say, the northeastern United States, but much less than that faced by Los Angeles or San Francisco," says John Anderson, director of the Nevada Seismological Lab (NSL) based at the University of Nevada, Reno. The lab has monitored the Yucca Mountain region since 1992 when it received a grant from the Department of Energy (DOE) to help ascertain the site’s suitability as a nuclear waste graveyard.
The hazard of earthquakes stems from faults that scientists have detected around Yucca Mountain, Anderson says. Faults are fractures in the Earth’s rocky crust that allow movement between two masses of stone. When this slippage happens abruptly, presto, you’ve got an earthquake. Typically the longer a fault, the more earthquake potential it carries. For example, the infamous San Andreas fault that can produce devastating earthquakes of magnitude eight or nine on the Richter scale runs about 800 miles (1300 kilometers) under much of California's western shoreline.
The tectonics in southern Nevada where Yucca Mountain is located pale in comparison. “Hazard analyses of the faults close to Yucca Mountain indicate they could not produce more than a seven [on the Richter scale],” says Anderson. A seven can still do significant damage and qualifies as a major earthquake, though such a quake falls far short of, say, the apocalyptic magnitude 9.1 to 9.3 that triggered the Asian tsunami in 2004.
Tiny quakes near Yucca Mountain often shake things up a bit, however: NSL records about 10 micro-earthquakes of less than magnitude two or so daily within a 30 mile (50 kilometer) range of the once-slated nuclear repository, according to the lab’s website. Though it may look more alarming than it really is, check out this map (PDF) peppered with circles representing earthquakes recorded between 1992 and 2006 around Yucca Mountain by the NSL.
The only sizable quake that shook the region in recent history registered a magnitude 5.7, substantially damaging DOE buildings in the vicinity but not the fledging facilities at Yucca back in 1992. People who have worked in the Yucca environs, including at the Nevada Test Site in the desert at the mountain’s edge (where the U.S. detonated over 900 nuclear weapons above and below ground from 1951 to 1992), have reported feeling non-manmade tremors as well.
The DOE says this frequent, if low-level, seismic activity does not pose a threat to potential safe nuclear storage some five miles (eight kilometers) under Yucca Mountain. The DOE says on its Yucca Mountain web page (which remains the same as it was pre-President Obama and his Energy Secretary Steven Chu, who both oppose it as a nuke repository) in a posting that's been there since 2003:
"Experience with earthquakes throughout the world has shown that underground structures can withstand the ground motion generated by earthquakes. And, in actual tests at the Nevada Test Site mine tunnels have withstood ground motion from underground nuclear explosions that are greater than any ground motion anticipated at or near Yucca Mountain. Repository facilities at the surface also can be designed to safely withstand earthquake effects."
In other words, the proposed Yucca Mountain repository could withstand whatever earthquakes Mother Nature might muster – except, perhaps, the shifting of the political ground.