The Future of Energy

Slow Train to Yucca Mountain

Will America's nuclear waste repository ever open, and, more important: should it?

| Mon Apr. 28, 2008 3:00 AM EDT
High-level nuclear waste, the detritus of a half-century of civilian nuclear power in the United States, was supposed to have someplace to go by now. It was supposed to have a designated hole in the ground to contain it, according to the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982, with infrastructure to transport and store it, staff to secure and protect it. In 2008, we were not supposed to still be debating where to put the fuel rods from nuclear reactors once they could no longer fission efficiently.

But we are.

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In 1987, after narrowing the sites for a geological repository for nuclear waste down to three, Congress settled on a dusty stretch of Nye County, Nevada, known as Yucca Mountain. With full faith that the repository would open in 1998 as mandated by law, the Department of Energy (DOE) forged ahead, drilling a five-mile tunnel out of the mountain and building a rail line through it. It brought in scientists from the country's top nuclear laboratories to study the rock; it began conducting tours of the site for media, legislators, and scientists; it even printed up T-shirts and coffee mugs for visitors to purchase at lunchtime.

But as the years went by, Yucca Mountain began to seem less like a grand public-works project than a colossal mistake. The latest opening date for the repository—which has cost $11 billion to date—was set for 2017, but as recently as February, the DOE's Ward Sproat, who oversees the agency's civilian nuclear waste program, admitted "a two- or three-year slip from that," in part due to a $108 million cut in the project's requested half-billion-dollar budget. As of April 2008, the Department of Energy had yet to apply for a license with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) for the repository, which needs to be approved before construction can begin on the actual cubbyholes where the waste will be stored.

What went wrong? Part of the problem is certainly garden-variety NIMBYism: The State of Nevada has sued several times to stop the project, saying the state has absorbed enough radiation from the nation's atomic experiments. (Yucca Mountain bumps up against the Nevada Test Site.) But another part may just be that Yucca Mountain was a really bad choice: Rock at the site, known as "tuff" and laid down by ancient volcanic explosions, proved more porous than previously claimed by the DOE, raising the possibility that water could leach into the site, erode the metal-and-concrete casks that store the waste, and transport toxic waste into the groundwater. (Nevada's largest dairy is downgradient from the mountain.) Add to that an active fault, which produced a 5.6 earthquake in 1992 and a 4.4 in 2002, and climatic uncertainty—the Nevada desert may not always be a desert—and Yucca Mountain starts to seem like a less-than-sensible place to stash your decaying plutonium for 24,100 years, which is how long it takes for plutonium to shed half its toxicity. Depleted uranium, which accounts for the bulk of the waste, stays deadly for 4.5 billion years.

The DOE insists Yucca Mountain was never supposed to be a geologic repository, and that waste-containment casks, made of high-grade titanium, steel, and concrete, will do the job instead. But the casks may not last more than a few thousand years, and even if they do, the risk of exposure to the deadly isotopes inside will peak at 300,000 years. Which gets to the heart of the problem: How do we safely stow toxic materials for a period longer than the entire history of Homo sapiens?

The truth is that no piece of ground seems to deserve this stuff. But without a solution to the waste problem, the nuclear renaissance is effectively dead: Few energy companies will invest further in a technology plagued by a deadly and intractable problem. And with two out of three current presidential candidates dedicated to halting the project, this could be Yucca Mountain's last chance to move forward.

Which is why, some believe, Sproat suddenly announced in early March that the license application was just about ready and would go to the NRC by June 30. "Sproat knows he's leaving at the end of the year because it's the end of this administration," says Steve Frishman, technical policy coordinator for the Nevada's Agency for Nuclear Projects. "When he came on his job, his marching orders included getting a license application filed, and that's what he's going to do." From the filing date, the NRC has three years to approve the license application, starting with a 90-day evaluation period to determine whether it's complete. If so, the commission will accept public petitions through October 2008 for the right to intervene in the process. Prehearing panels will commence a few months later, and hearings will continue through at least 2011. But the hearings are by invitation only, and the commission generally hears only from official interveners, such as local government leaders who hope to piggyback their own starved public-works projects on the Yucca construction. The rest of the public may find itself bleating at an impenetrable bureaucracy. Says Judy Treichel, executive director of the Nevada Nuclear Waste Task Force: "Public involvement basically means you have the right to watch."

If and when the repository opens, it will already be full. Existing commercial reactor waste, plus radioactive detritus left over from government programs, will occupy every last cubby. If long-term storage is the goal, the nuclear renaissance will require another Yucca Mountain very soon. Watch out: Your back yard may be next.

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