Scuttlebutt • Yucca Mountain Revisited

     The Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Dump is being revived, but it is complicated.

     The Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Dump is being revived, but it is complicated.

     After creating nuclear waste for 40 years with no regulation or plan, Congress passed the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982.  It was the official recognition of the fact that nuclear energy activities created toxic radioactive substances that had to be thoroughly isolated for a very long time from contact with living things.  The Act established that radioactive waste should be deposited deep in geological “repositories”.  After years of studies ( and plenty of politics) they eventually decided on Yucca Mountain in Nevada.  In the 2010 Harry Reid got Obama to halt the Yucca Mountain project due to local opposition.  Of course, it never hurts a President to do a big favor for the Senate leader of their party.

     Meanwhile, more than 80,000 metric tons of spent fuel from commercial nuclear power plants has accumulated in 121 communities across 39 states and the country’s stockpile of nuclear waste continues to grow by 2,000 to 3,000 tons each year. 

     Now along comes Rep. John Skimkus (R-Ill.) with the Nuclear Waste Policy Amendments Act.  It passed by an overwhelming bipartisan margin of 340-72.  It would set a path forward for the Department of Energy (DOE) to resume the process of planning for and building the southern Nevada site and transferring 140,000 acres of land to the DOE to do it. The repository would be a 40-mile maze of channels off a 5-mile tunnel that loops through the mountain. The safety of the repository has to be guaranteed for the 1-million-year safety time frame that the Environmental Protection Agency has established.  Sure, no problem.

     It would also allow DOE to build or license a temporary site to store waste while the Yucca project is being planned and built.  Private companies have proposed state-of-the-art, underground facilities in remote areas of west Texas and southeastern New Mexico to store nuclear waste for up to 40 years.  The nuclear industry has said temporary storage must be addressed since the licensing process for Yucca Mountain would take years under a best-case scenario.  No kidding.

     Trump's budget proposes $120 million to revive the Yucca project.  The Department of Energy estimated in 2008 that the project as a whole would require up to $96 billion to complete; it’s already cost taxpayers $15 billion.

     There are numerous other provisions in the Act to try to placate as much potential opposition as possible, such as no drilling or mining may be permitted in the area.  State and local communities get “mitigation” funds (pay-offs), but the money cannot be used to oppose the project.  The Act also bars ocean and Great Lakes disposal.

     Needless to say, opposition is mounting.  Who wants a highly radioactive waste dump next to you for the next million years?  Earthquakes and volcanic eruptions are a concern to many (we are talking one million years) as is even climate change, which it is claimed could erode the mountain and expose the repository.  The hazards associated with the transport of the waste material to Yucca Mountain are also a major concern.

      Another sore point is a provision which provides that if the Secretary of Energy determines that an environmental analysis of infrastructure development is required with respect to an infrastructure activity, the Secretary need not consider alternative actions or a no-action alternative.  Typically this is one of the main purposes of an environmental analysis.  

     Meanwhile the Government Accountability Office  expects the amount of radioactive waste to double to 140,000 tons by 2055 when all of the currently operating nuclear reactors are retired.  Yucca  will be licensed for 110,000 tons.

     You should imagine that a no nukes guy like me would be upset by this plan.  The objections to it are real and anything that could be considered progress for the nuclear industry is a concern to me.  Well, much as I am repulsed by the thought of facilitating nuclear energy production, I believe we have to do something.   Rep. Paul Tonko (N.Y.), the top Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Environment acknowledges, “Regardless of your position on nuclear energy, we have to acknowledge the reality that tens of thousands of tons of waste already exist.” 

     We have already made the bad decision to create all this toxicity and now we have to deal with it.  Leaving it lie around dozens of temporary locations is not a real choice.

     Our national refusal to acknowledge our mistake is a prime example of cognitive dissonance (holding two or more conflicting ideas or beliefs).  Our collective mind knows  that we want carbon free electricity, but we also know that the radioactive waste is a huge problem.  Psychologists tells us that the primary way of dealing with cognitive dissonance is to ignore one of the conflicting ideas.  Guess which one we have ignored.

     Some might argue that so far we have done pretty well keeping a lid on nuclear waste.  Ask the 121 communities that are holding this waste how they feel about it.  Take the West Lake Landfill in Missouri.  It has 9,000 tons of illegally dumped radioactive waste from the Manhattan Project.  It is a Superfund site.  It is also located less than 1000 ft. from another landfill that has a “smoldering fire” underground that has been burning for five years with no practical way to put it out.  The fear is that it will reach the West Lake landfill and release radioactivity.  There is currently a $236 million plan to isolate the two landfills with a barrier.  That may be chump change compared to the billions spent elsewhere on nuclear abatement, but someone is going to have to pay for it.  Probably not you this time.

     West Lake is just one of many stories that could be told by local activists of the threat posed by the temporary storage of nuclear waste in their communities.  Nuclear plant operators are candid about their belief that on-site storage cannot be relied upon.

     At my home we are currently installing a 9 KW solar system in our field.  The cost of the Yucca Mountain project (roughly $100 billion 10 years ago) would pay for over 6 ½ million 9 KW systems even at our retail rate.  The total generating capacity of America's nuclear power plants is 100,350 MW.  That $100 billion if spent on solar panels would replace 60% of all nuclear power generation in the U.S. -carbon free and “too cheap to meter” (just kidding).

     Of course, that $100 billion cannot be spent on solar panels (or wind generators) because it needs to get spent protecting us from our own unconsidered actions.







North Beach Poet Ronald Sauer Featured At Third Thursday June 21

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