So Much Radioactive Waste, So Little Time

By Eliza Strickland | June 4, 2008 6:34 pm

Yucca MountainIt’s been a big news week for nuclear waste, with most of the attention going to the Department of Energy’s announcement that it has at long last submitted an application to open a nuclear waste repository in Nevada’s Yucca Mountain.

After two decades of planning, the application nudges the project a little closer to reality, but there’s a long way to go yet. Nevada officials remain violently opposed to the “nuclear dump,” and lawsuits are inevitable. The Department of Energy says that the repository won’t be ready to open until 2020, at the earliest.

Meanwhile, in a laboratory in Tennessee, the Energy Department is trying to clean up an aging nuclear waste cache left over from the Cold War, only to have its own inspector general declared the waste a “national resource” because of its potential use in cancer treatments.

Best to start with the mountain, and the mountain of paperwork. Yesterday, the government delivered the 8,600-page application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, trying to prove its contention that the storage facility could safely hold the 70,000 metric tons of waste into the indefinite future.

To get the license, the government has to show — with computer models — that the repository won’t leak dangerous amounts of radioactive material into the groundwater over the ages. No decision has been made as to how far into the future this rule must hold true, but the Environmental Protection Agency is considering a proposal that would require compliance 1 million years from now. Some scientists say it could be hard to prove anything that far out reliably [NPR].

In a speech, Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman touted nuclear energy‘s ability to meet the country’s growing energy demand without pumping out the greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming, and said that a permanent waste storage facility is critical to the nuclear industry’s hopes to expand.

But Nevada officials say the government’s application is incomplete, and doesn’t make a full account of the dump’s potential health and environmental consequences; they say they’ll ask to have it thrown out immediately.

The notion that the dump would be safe is implausible, said Victor Galinsky, a former NRC commissioner and now a Nevada consultant. The plan hinges on the use of titanium and palladium drip shields to protect waste canisters buried underground from water flowing through Yucca Mountain’s porous rock. The Energy Department plans to install about 11,000 drip shields, each weighing five tons, using robots 100 to 300 years in the future when the repository would be sealed. “It is pie in the sky,” Galinsky said. “These people have lost track of reality” [Los Angeles Times].

While no one seems to want the waste that’s intended for Yucca Mountain (utilities that are storing it temporarily have sued the federal government to get it taken away), the little radioactive deposit in Tennessee’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory has a slightly more desirable sheen.

The material, uranium 233, can be used as fuel in nuclear weapons, and in 2005 Congress ordered the Energy Department to dispose of the dangerous stockpile. But the inspector general’s new report throws a wrench in that plan. Uranium 233 breaks down into two isotopes that could have great potential as cancer treatments, the report notes.

What distinguishes both of these [isotopes] for cancer treatments is that as they decay into new materials, they emit alpha particles. These particles can be superior to the standard form of radiation used to treat cancer, gamma rays, because the rays travel long distances through tissue and damage many cells, while the alpha particles have very short trajectories, and carry relatively huge amounts of energy.

“A single atom delivered to a cancer cell can kill that cell,” said Dr. David A. Scheinberg, chairman of the experimental therapeutics center at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York. “Nothing else approaches that” [The New York Times].

Image: U.S. Department of Energy

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Health & Medicine
  • G.R.L. Cowan, H2 energy fan ’til ~1996

    I think the former NRC commissioner you mention is named Gilinsky, not Ga- as above.

    It shows how much power the oil and gas lobby once had that he could ever have been in that position. The drip shields that supposedly will someday be put over spent fuel rods would be useless in the early decades, when the stuff self-heats enough to keep itself dry. Bit of a deceitful omission on his part.

    Of course, they would not really be needed, ever.

  • Eileen McCabe

    There is no way to know whether the shields would be needed, since we cannot predict how the geology or climate of this area might change over 10,000, let alone the million years of the radiation standard proposal under consideration. The area is geologically active, including a fault line running under the proposed site for the cask staging area. There are proven allegations of fraud in the hydrological reports, and the NRC is still trying to determine what method to use for the hydrological studies they will consider. The application has just been submitted, yet the criteria for judging it are not complete, and media coverage suggests the repository has already been built, when there is only 1 test tunnel. The project has been an absurd and dangerous example of design-as-you-go, and fit the facts to meet the objectives.

    Yes, it’s Gilinsky, and he served from 1975-1984. Former Commissioner Peter Bradford who server from 1977-1982 says the following:

    “The nuclear power that we have invariably gotten from the Washington sausage machine demands licenses without an impartial licensing process, public acquiescence without public involvement, spent fuel without a waste repository, multi-billion dollar projects without analysis of alternatives, nearly separated plutonium (per the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership) without adequate safeguards — in short, a renaissance without masterpieces.”

    This doesn’t give me much faith in the regulation or development of any nuclear projects.

  • Alvin Heskett

    I’d like to offer a comment about the statement by Eileen McCabe; she said there are “proven allegations of fraud in the hydrological reports”.

    That statement is factually correct in that there are allegations of fraud. That is a fact.

    There was however, no fraud involved with the license submitted to the NRC. A congressional investigation and a 22 million dollar reworking of data contributed by two GIS hydrologists document that assertion.

    The hydrologists in question wrote each other emails complaining of the onerous record keeping requirements involved in detailing when certain programs were installed on their computers.

    They stated they would keep two sets of records, one to show inspectors and their real data logs. Since the Yucca Mountain Project has been meticulous about their science and engineering efforts, in their in house reviews of email records, these particular emails were discovered, the project exposed the e-mail’s existence and reworked the entire body of work these two scientists were involved in.

    That is why people like Ms. McCabe can state truthfully that there are “proven allegations of fraud”. The facts show these were stupid emails between complaining coworkers; their data was never included in the license application submitted. When their data was compared with the reworked data it was almost exactly the same.

    Another point: If the waste remains where it is, which is what the anti-Yucca forces propose, we have about 5 inches of concrete between the waste and exposure to the elements. This might be OK for the next 300 years. The half life of these materials is considerably longer than that. With the addition of the repository, we add about 1000 feet of volcanic tuff as an additional barrier over time. If we use engineered materials to create canisters to place the waste inside the mountain, we gain more time. If we place “drip shields” above the canisters, inside the mountain, we gain even more time still.

    I point this out because opponents to this project like to ladle out bromides and straw men scenarios, but have neither the science, nor the expertise to dispute what has been meticulously documented in the license application submitted to the NRC. This is a serious problem that has been seriously documented by a team of world class scientists and engineers working to the highest levels of accountability. They should be lauded for their efforts to solve this pressing problem rather than vilified by a lazy press which repeats accusations as facts.

    Alvin Heskett

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  • Susanne Vandenbosch

    The isotope of concern is U-235 not U-233.

  • Eliza Strickland

    While uranium 233 isn’t commonly used in nuclear reactors or in nuclear weapons, the U.S. government did experiment with it in the ’50s. The stash at Oak Ridge is left over from those days.

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