Yucca Mountain Ruled Out for Storing Nuke Waste. Now What?

By Rachel Cernansky | March 6, 2009 3:51 pm

Yucca Mountain tunnelIn a blow to the nuclear power industry, the budget released by President Obama last week eliminates most funding for Yucca Mountain, the Nevada site that for decades has been proposed for the permanent burial of radioactive nuclear waste.

The decision will likely be an expensive one, considering how much money the federal government might end up owing the utility industry, and how much—up to $10.4 billion—has already been spent and will have been wasted on the search for a nuclear waste repository since 1983.  The courts have already awarded the companies about $1 billion, because the government signed contracts obligating it to begin taking the waste in 1998, but seems unlikely to do so for years. The nuclear industry says it may demand the return of the $22 billion that it has paid to the Energy Department to establish a repository, but that the government has not yet spent [The New York Times].

The 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act called for the establishment of a permanent, high-level nuclear waste repository. Eight proposed sites were narrowed to three, then to one. Over the strong objections of Nevada’s congressional delegation – and controversy over flawed studies – Congress voted in 1987 to approve Yucca Mountain as the sole candidate for a permanent nuclear waste repository. In 2002, President Bush designated Yucca Mountain as the site, and in June 2008, the Department of Energy submitted its license application [Christian Science Monitor].

There has been fierce opposition to the Yucca Mountain site throughout the decades. In Congress, the battle has been led by Senate majority leader Harry Reid of Nevada, who celebrates the new decision: “President Obama recognizes that the proposed dump threatens the health and safety of Nevadans and millions of Americans. His commitment to stop this terrible project could not be clearer” [Washington Post]. For now, Energy Secretary Steven Chu says that the nearly 60,000 tons of waste in the form of used reactor fuel can remain at nuclear power plants while a new, comprehensive plan is developed. It was the most definitive signal yet that the government’s attempt to address the commercial nuclear waste problem is veering in a new direction [Star Tribune].

The decision fulfills a campaign promise made by Obama, but offers no hint of what his administration plans to do instead with the country’s existing nuclear waste, or with the approximately 2,000 tons generated each year by nuclear power plants. The Yucca site was designed specifically to handle spent fuel rods from the nation’s 103 nuclear generators…. Keeping the waste at temporary sites is an option in the short term, but experts in the field say it will not serve as a long-term answer for the problem of radioactive waste, which will need to be kept safely stored for at least 1,000 years. Others have advocated reprocessing much of the spent fuel, as is being done in France, but this too is fraught with problems, according to some experts [Washington Post].

Related Content:
80beats: Should Yucca Mountain Hold More Than 77,000 Tons of Nuclear Waste, or None?
80beats: EPA Sets Radiation Limit for Nevadans Living 1 Million Years From Now
80beats: So Much Radioactive Waste, So Little Time
DISCOVER: Welcome to Yucca Mountain tells the full story on how the storage facility was deemed an acceptable risk

Image: Nuclear Regulatory Commission

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment
  • John D

    I think the public should follow the example of the Environmental lobbies, sue the DOE for failure to fulfill their contract to the public to safely store nuclear waste. There is a matter of public endangerment, in that all this waste is now scattered all over the country in “swimming pools” at reactor sites etc. The public is definitely at a much greater danger than if this waste were shipped to Yucca Mtn and stored there. Other counties can solve their waste problems. That the US can’t is criminal, and the Government should be held accountable.

  • Thomas Anderson

    Has any reputable science group investigated letting plate tectonics at the Marianas Trench recycle these wastes safely back into the earths mantle?

  • Nick A

    What this fails to mention is recent processes to recover the fuel from spent rods have been more then successful. Recovering as much as 90-95% of the fuel in some cases. Why put it in the ground if it will power our country for the next 300 years?? Currently we only use a very small percentage of the fuel before the rod is completely contaminated. Something like 5% or 8%… The other 92% of that rod is contaminated, and hence cant be used in a reactor. Recovery is most definitely the way to go. So many people broke so many laws in the last 10 years that our country would cripple it self trying to prosecute them. Our country needs better then that.

  • http://www.dedzone.net/blog/ DED

    Politics triumphs over science, again.

  • Charles Karnes

    “Has any reputable science group investigated letting plate tectonics at the Marianas Trench recycle these wastes safely back into the earths mantle?”

    Yes, the Subseabed Nuclear Waste Disposal Program (1975-1985) concluded that the Marianas Trench is too prone to belch and burp, with earthquakes and volcanoes, to rely on it to get the waste to the Earth’s mantle safely and consistently.

  • Bill R

    So the administration is pro alternative energy and weening off of foreign oil yet the first major move is to block nuclear energy. Nuclear energy is the only source with relatively near term prospects of replacing coal, oil and gas fired power plants, and to provide enough electricity to power electric cars short of covering a mid sized state with solar cells. Actions speak louder than words. John D is absolutely correct. The issue is not whether Yucca can safely store fuel, which the best and most sophisticated models say it can. It is whether it is vastly superior to any known alternative, which it is.

    One of the issues ignored in the arguments against Yucca is that technology marches on. The models (and the arguments against them) assume there are no new developments going forward. Instead, the assumption is that technology and our knowledge of what would be stored in Yucca goes backward to the point that we no longer know it is there, and have no better means to protect against leaks thousands of years from now than we have today. The models show it is extremely safe but of course no model can completely predict the future. If anything is more certain than the models on Yucca, it is that without a way to deal with nuclear waste, arguments and lawsuits will continue to be used to block the building of new power plants. The waste from those still operating will continue to be stored in swimming pools that must be maintained and guarded. And coal and foreign oil will continue to provide the majority of energy in the US for the foreseeable future.

  • http://www.lorald.ca Richard Dinning

    Why not store the stuff you have left after processing out the reusable fuel in abandoned mines in the Canadian Shield in places like Sudbury & Cobalt Ontario?

  • Gary Dale

    The Achilles heal of nuclear is radiation. It can cost more to decommission a site than to build it in the first place. It’s not just spent fuel that poses the danger but the entire facility which needs to be disposed of effectively to prevent contamination of air, soil and groundwater.

    Moreover, nuclear fuel is a limited resource. People still hold out hope that current waste might be tomorrow’s fuel. This means that solutions that put the fuel permanently out of reach are hard to justify.

    We don’t know what the state of technology on this planet will be even two decades into the future. Nuclear waste requires that we have a plan for storage that can accommodate the possibility that we no longer have the technology or the capability to keep the waste sequestered millennia into the future.

    This is not just an American problem either. It is global in scope and the utility of nuclear byproducts in various types of weaponry makes it one that has to be solved globally.

    In short, the problem is extremely difficult. Keeping in mind that we will probably not be able to come up with a fully satisfactory solution anytime soon, the question arises as to whether we should all commit to a moratorium on nuclear power.

    This will primarily impact nations that lack effective non-nuclear options. However the rapid development of alternatives makes it increasingly attractive.

  • Valan Cover

    So our government spends enough money to cure cancer on this and then just walks away? Political NIMBYism runnign at full tilt. What a waste!

  • Sean N.

    I live in the state of Nevada, about 100 miles from the Yucca Mountain site. I for one am please with this decision. I don’t want all the radioactive waste transported though my cities and town, and I definatley don’t want it stored in my backyard. Keep it where it is and let the states that have the reactors find a way to store the waste they generate.

  • Bill R

    So the bottom line is carbon is destroying the planet so we can’t use coal or oil for energy. Natural gas is not too bad but requires drilling – a definite no no, and is not easily transported without pipelines which no one wants through their backyard. Solar cells today can provide around 30 watts per square meter (winter at 40 degrees latitude) and 200 watts under ideal conditions, assuming 10% efficiency. A typical home requires about 70-100 kw hours a day. So if you cover the roof with solar cells, you can’t even provide enough energy for that home. Businesses use a lot more than any roof top will ever provide. Bottom line is solar is great but its not replacing carbon any time soon, even at 50% efficiency which would take a major breakthrough. Hydro requires dams and there are not a lot of rivers left to dam. Wind is problematic since the best sites are far from point of use, and it is unreliable requiring large storage facilities and new transmission lines, also objected to by environmentalists. We need all of the above and more. However, nuclear is still the only one that can make a dent in the next few decades. So, if Yucca is not “safe enough”, how is a site in CT, NY, CA, FL, or anywhere elsewhere going to be “safe”. Nuclear as an industry has caused fewer deaths than any other realistic energy solution we have. More people die every year from coal mining not to mention from carbon based pollution than have from the entire history of nuclear energy (approximately zero in the US, 34 confirmed deaths from Chernobyl – a totally mismanaged reactor with a poor design – new designs are designed fail-safe). Want to reduce CO2, start accepting the fact that nuclear is the only way to have a serious impact, at least in my lifetime.
    Everywhere is someone’s backyard. Even the Kennedy’s objected to wind turbines in the waters off “their” coast. Its time to get realistic about solutions, or stop complaining about carbon based energy.

  • Jill

    When will people understand that there Is No safe nuclear option. If we build permanent storage for the waste it will encourage the mentality of building more sites instead of forcing us to develop new Safe alternative energy sources. There are many options that are always ignored because the oil companies don’t want to spend money on solutions until they have gotten as much money as possible from their oil production. One option is build more energy efficient vehicles and use renewable plant fuel (no not corn) vegetation that is already in use in other countries. Another is learn to conserve Plus bite the bullet and spend the money to develop the technology to get us away from the coal and oil. I won’t believe that we could put men on the moon with a 64k computer but we don’t have the ability to solve our energy problems. Give me a brake. It’s time to dump the greed and start a new era of responsible business and government for a change. I for one am sick of the greed and stupidity.

  • Bill R

    Huh? Why is it the responsibility of the oil industry to spend money on anything other than oil? Its like asking why GM doesn’t spend money to improve railroads. It makes no sense what-so-ever.
    As for no safe nuclear option – Nuclear has a better safety record than any alternative available. Please show some facts from a reputable source that says otherwise. Zero deaths from nuclear power generation in the US (103 plants operating) over its entire history. What other industry can make that claim? Read the article by one of the founders of Greenpeace for some facts. He is not a “greedy” oil executive. He is an environmentalist and a realist.
    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/04/14/AR2006041401209.html

    As for greed – the alternative to greed (I assume you mean capitalism) is socialism or communism neither of which have worked very well. Incentive is what drives growth and growth is what drives economic prosperity which is what is needed to fund the development of alternative energy sources, among other things. And the alternative to stupidity is learning and understanding the facts. And the cold hard facts today show there are no alternatives to carbon based energy that have any realistic potential to supplant it aside from nuclear. That’s not an excuse to simply ignore the development of alternative energy solutions. There should be strong incentives (not the government telling us what they believe should be the winner as they did with ethenol) to explore all of the alternatives and to develop those that show promise. But they are all too far off to have a meaningful impact in the coming few decades barring a completely unforeseen breakthrough.

  • http://www.a2q.com JayWarner

    In the 1980’s, in Western Pennsylvania, we _did_ reprocess spent nuclear fuel. My landlord, when his unemployment ran out, took a job in that plant. During training, he observed workers violating the safety instructions he was learning. He was “burned out” – received excessive radiation – three times in the six months he held the job. One night he came to me, “an engineer who knew everything,” to ask if the radiation count found on his street shoes was dangerous. Somehow, he was bringing hazardous material home to expose his family.

    I queried a health safety engineer who really did know the subject, and found that the reported count was not far above background. But the strain on that man’s face as he told me what he might be doing to his family I shall never forget. He shortly quit that job, his only one in almost two years.

    Before anyone advocates for reprocessing nuclear spent rods, they must first demonstrate successful execution of better operational procedures than that plant in the 1980’s, and they must assure all the users of the electricity produced that the reprocessing employees are not implicitly asked to sacrifice themselves, or their families.

    Then they need to explain how all of us will be protected from the “intermediate” and “long term” radioactive residual waste. Strontium 90, for example, chemically replaces calcium in the body, if it gets there, and is more radioactive than “mere” uranium.

  • http://www.a2q.com JayWarner

    Bill R Said: “Why is it the responsibility of the oil industry to spend money on anything other than oil?”

    If oil producing & delivery companies only deliver oil, they shouldn’t disturb themselves about anything else. If they are energy delivery companies, they may survive another twenty-five years. Depends on how far ahead their executives can foresee. That American firms have not built any new refining plants in some two decades, relying instead on internal productivity improvements, should be a subtle hint to you.

  • http://www.a2q.com JayWarner

    Bill R Says: [at March 9th, 2009 at 5:05 pm]
    “So the bottom line is … we can’t use coal or oil for energy. Natural gas … requires drilling … pipelines which no one wants through their backyard. Solar cells today can provide [enough power so that] … if you cover the roof with solar cells, you can’t even provide enough energy for that home. …[S]olar is … not replacing carbon any time soon…. … not a lot of rivers left to dam. Wind is problematic since the best sites are far from point of use, and it is unreliable requiring large storage facilities and new transmission lines, also objected to by environmentalists. We need all of the above and more. …

    “Everywhere is someone’s backyard. … Its time to get realistic about solutions, or stop complaining about carbon based energy.”

    Yes, every source of energy has drawbacks. In Wisconsin some environmentalists are very worried about our lack of knowledge of bird flight patterns across Lake Michigan, since ten miles offshore (and out of sight) from Wisconsin is much better, more steady, wind than any local land source. But all of us, ‘tree-hugger wannabes’ or otherwise, need to rank the positives and negatives of the alternatives. We’re guessing most of the time. So make some reasonable guesses, then build small systems to discover the real economics and environmental impacts of each.

    You detract from wind power by a need for storage. Only until the wind people in CA learn to handle base load demand, which they are close to achieving now. You discount solar’s low output, without thought of recent developments that _may_ cut the cost and rigidity of panels, allowing us to virtually paper our houses with it. Suppose we cut electricity demand from the grid by only half — would that help?

    You neglect to mention hydrogen fuel, which may prove more efficient as an energy storage and transport medium than long distance power lines to bring energy from the Southwest US to population centers. You didn’t mention my favorite — cow manure digesting systems that turn the methane from the manure into electricity as the solids are turned into high grade mulch. Multi-million dollar commercial systems for this are operating today. Dairy farmers need this outlet for turning a ‘waste’ into a feed stock.

    But on all these options we are mostly guessing today. What we are _not_ guessing about is the effects of a significant reactor meltdown (as in Chernobyl, with a large swath of city and countryside abandoned and a huge number of people wiped through long term cancer, etc.). We are not guessing about the long term effects of various radiation exposures. Not to mention ingestion of “low level” radioactive species. You don’t have to see a child die from the effects of strontium 90 poisoning to know that you want none of it.

  • Ron

    So much for Oboma’s promise to go with the science..

  • Mark

    Why dont we send our waste into the sun?

  • Bill R

    I am not saying we shouldn’t pursue all of JayWarner’s (and others) suggestions. However, none of them are “here and now” solutions. All of them require a major breakthrough to become a viable replacement on the order of even 5% or 10% of carbon based GENERATION. I am an engineer and understand the difference between a scientist saying “this is feasible” and actually building it out. My favorite is Hydrogen. Ideal conditions say that the best you can EVER do is break even on Hydrogen. It takes energy to break down water into H2 and O. When you burn H2 it recombines with O and makes water releasing the same amount of energy you put into it to break it down. However, there are huge losses too. Hydrogen must be transported in liquid form – lots or refrigeration. It is not useful at all for generation since you need electricity to break down the water and all you get back is the energy you put in minus losses. You can use waste heat from generators to break down the water, but you can also use that heat to generate electricity more directly – a known technology we should be pursuing by the way. As for running cars or homes, that takes infrastructure (delivery systems, gas stations), new cars, etc. With a major push, it will be decades before there are suitable #s of “H2″ gas stations. How long do cars remain on the road? How long will it be once there is some infrastructure before a sizable number of H2 cars will be on the road? Now also look at the safety hazards – H2 is very leaky – it likes to find even the smallest leak – far more so than e.g. your air conditioner system. And it burns very hot and invisibly. Stontium90? How about fires in cars, H2 stations, storage facilities, etc? How well do people maintain their cars? H2 systems need very very good maintenance to keep from developing leaks.
    Each solution has its pros and cons. However, the idea of a Chernobyl melt down with the new reactor designs is virtually impossible. Chernobyl was designed in a way that it would run away if there was a core failure. New reactors are designed to shut down. This is not a matter of what the people and control systems do. The design itself is self quenching. Read up on it – its quite interesting how it works.
    Solar? So how long before we have flexible solar cells with reasonable efficiencies (the current record is around 6% – in the lab, not large scale production) on a large scale, AND enough homes have them to make a dent? We’ve had the ability to heat water using roof top solar heaters for decades and it has made no inroads at all on a % basis of energy used. And how many people will “paper their homes” with solar cells – by definition they have to be nearly black to work, have some sort of support structure (they require wiring, etc.). They don’t work very well when under snow, need cleaning to maintain efficiency (dust, dirt reduce efficiencies dramatically), etc. Its a great solution, but to overcome the engineering and social issues will take time. Time we don’t have if you believe in global warming.
    Bottom line, the one solution to make a sizable dent in the use of Carbon based fuels that exists today, with no requirement for a scientific or engineering breakthrough, no need for major changes in people’s lifestyles, or major change in infrastructure that will take decades to achieve is nuclear. Going forward, if some or many of the alternatives pan out, it will mean we can stop building and even begin to retire COAL plants. But until then, we need clean energy, and nuclear is the only bridge technology we have. BTW, there might be a breakthrough in clean coal too. But we would then have to store CO2 which has its own potential hazards such as a catastrophic release of stored CO2 from an earth quake.

  • http://TwoSistersArtandSoul Lisette Root

    The only thing I can imagine to contain the radioactive waster, in a stable manner, is a container lined with lead, created out of polymers. As I understand it, some polymers won’t break down for a very long time. If the waste could be safely contained in such a fashion, as dark colored polymer cubes perhaps, I would not hesitate to store it, even above ground. The dark colored polymer/lead cubes could also help gather solar energy.

  • Jon Preston

    As a former special weapons technician I can only recount my greatest fear and biggest relief when most of the tactical nuclear weapons were moved to central locations or dismantled. Since nearly all warheads would fit into a full sized pickup, the statistical probability of theft increased with dispersal. It was all about centralizing monitoring and security. The military has a well developed infrastucture for dealing with nuclear material. Perhaps we could expand those facilities and provide at least a better temporary solution than the status quo.
    I have been to the Nevada Test Site and looked over the storage/containment options at Yucca Mountain. I must say the DOE made a pretty good case for storage there, and a huge pile of money went into that.
    Why is it the French towns fight bitter battles to be the recipent of a new reactor located nearby? Could it be they are more rational and pragmatic than Americans? Or are they collectively a nation of the insane?

  • andras Scahoofer

    One thing That I have not seen anyone address -yet; is the fact that- why do we taxpayers are saddled with the disposal of this nuclear waste; when the utilities, make the profits? –maybe nuclear generation is not as efficient as solar, –If we count the disposal, -which is no small problem, 1,000 years? hell the Holy Roman Empire did not last That long…Andas

  • Jill

    You can have the best designed facility on the planet and there would still never be a Safe nuclear option because of the terrible potential consequences of something gone wrong. History is full of accidents that shouldn’t have happened but none of them carried consequences that lasted many hundreds or thousands of years the way nuclear contamination would do, not to mention disposing of obsolete plants and the potential for terrorism and that old standby good old human error. Anyone ever hear of Three Mile Island and of course Chernobyl ? Someone wrote that they assumed I meant capitalism when I used the word greed. Not so, to me Greed is putting the greater good of all aside because it interferes with what you want to do right now, regardless of the consequences down the road. Dictators are greedy and they’re not capitalists are they? Did anyone ever mention what happens when you assume?Are we supposed to assume that building a Permanent storage facility is a temporary solution and we won’t build More nuclear plants because of it? I don’t think so. For some reason we seem to want to shy away from dealing with the tough problems. If you read any of the science & technology information out there then you can see how fast we are advancing in solving these complex issues. Proliferating nuclear power plants is Not the answer. Focusing on safe alternatives is the better use of our collective tax dollars. We Can find an acceptable solution.

  • Allen Ev.

    The temporary storage will be filled by the time another permanent site is found and nuclear energy will be forced to cease operations. This will force the US to replace this generation with coal, as has been the case since the moratorium following TMI. Now since burning coal is known to emit radiation (due to the presence of trace uranium and for which there is no regulation) the net effect will be a tremendous INCREASE in radiactive exposure to the civilian population. The death and destruction will be spread around the world in the form of net decrease in life expectancy for everyone. Nice huh? Is it too late to change my vote?

  • Allen Ev.

    reply to andras Scahoofer:

    The disposal of nuclear waste is funded by a surcharge on nuclear energy generation not taxes. We all owe it to ourselves and future generations to be better educated wrt nuclear energy. Please review:

    http://www.phyast.pitt.edu/~blc/book/BOOK.html

    for real information on Nuclear Energy written by an expert for the lay public.

  • Allen Ev.

    reply to Jill R who wrote “When will people understand that there Is No safe nuclear option.”

    Safe is a relative term. Nothing in life is safe. You can hit by a hydrogen fuel-cell powered bus walking across the street. Please read the link because the author has take great pains to discuss the RELATIVE safety of nuclear energy. The punch-line is that nuclear energy costs the population only 1.5 days of life expectancy and that is according to studies by the most credible, harshest critics of nuclear energy, the Union Of Concerned Scientists.

  • Martin C

    Allen, I was wondering when you will get a brain and realize that nuclear energy plants are much less polluting of the atmosphere and surrounding areas than coal and oil burning electricity plants.

  • Allen Ev.

    reply to Martin C:

    Martin, I was wondering when you will reread what I wrote and realize that I am pronuclear not con.

  • Bri S.

    Although Yucca mountian is a very open area, if any of the Nuclear Waste gets out, a lot of people are in trouble.

    I know those who live in Washington, Virginia, or ever Florida may not care since, “It doesn’t affect me,” but there are at least 500,000 people just living inside of Las Vegas, Henderson, North Las Vegas, and Summerlin.

    If that Nuclear Waster gets out, how would we get out of the city? Where would we go? Could everyone afford to leave?

    We must think about an emergency situation, instead of how we aren’t around it.

  • Jodi K

    I don’t know why we are searching high and low to find a viable place on earth, shoot the waste at the sun and be done with it!

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Marlana

    yucca mountain is rediculos.
    im surpirised that noone bombed it yet.(:

  • Brian Too

    A couple of posters ask why we cannot shoot the waste into the sun. Well, we can.

    I’m no expert, but here’s why I understand that doing so is not a good idea:

    1). The waste is heavy and we have a lot of it. We’re talking industrial quantities of the stuff–you need trains and ships to carry such vast quantities (the article says 60,000 tons plus an additional 2,000 tons each year). If you insist on going ahead anyway, you’ll spend yourself into bankruptcy and make only a small dent in the backlog.

    2). Rocket fail rather frequently and when they do so, the result is usually messy. What happens when you lift, oh, 10-100 tons of high level radioactive waste a mile or so in the air and then your booster blows up? You’ve just made yourself a giant dirty bomb by accident.

  • TG

    At present it costs about $10,000 to orbit a single pound of material. If we have 60,000 tons of waste to dispose of (120,000,000 pounds), the cost would be 1.2 trillion dollars, which is better than 10% of our gross domestic product. Not economically feasible, aside from the additional danger from rocket failures that Brian pointed out…

  • James Faubus

    Nuclear critics should check out what Obama can possibly mean by the next generation of safer, cleaner, cheaper, more efficient nuclear reactors before they make up their minds all things nuclear are bad.

    Nuclear critics will have to come up with some new arguments. The old arguments no longer apply when you can burn the waste as fuel.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EHdRJqi__Z8&feature=related

    When will we start thinking outside the box? There are other types of reactor designs possible, besides the meltdown prone, fuel wasting, antique model T clunkers we build today. Nuclear waste is only wasted because these antiques burn barely 1% of the fuel, leaving the remaining 99% as waste.

    We do not need Yucca mountain. We can use the waste as fuel.

    Say no to uranium, yes to thorium. Thorium is the solution.

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