The Great Debate

Nuclear planning to the year 1,002,008

By Bernd Debusmann
November 19, 2008

Bernd Debusmann - Great Debate– Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own. –

YUCCA MOUNTAIN, Nevada (Reuters) – Will this barren mountain rising up to 4,950 feet from the Mojave desert look roughly the same in the year 1,002,008? That’s a million years into the future.

The question may sound bizarre but its answer is key to the future of a decades-old, controversial project to store America’s nuclear waste in the belly of Yucca Mountain, on the edge of a nuclear test site and 95 miles from Las Vegas. The narrow road from there winds through a desolate landscape of sparse vegetation — creosote scrub, cactus and gnarled Joshua trees.

“This is probably the world’s most intensely studied mountain,” says Michael Voegele, one of the senior engineers on the project, standing beside the “Yucca Mucker”, a 720-ton cylinder-shaped machine that has drilled a five-mile tunnel into the mountain. “And yet, there will be even more study.”

Indeed. In September, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) revised its original safety standards for what would be the world’s first deep underground nuclear mausoleum. Those standards were meant to protect the health of people living near Yucca Mountain for 10,000 years from the time the mountain is filled with 70,000 tons of radioactive nuclear waste.

Ten thousand years is roughly twice mankind’s recorded history. But a court in Washington ruled in 2004 that protection should reach farther into the future. The new standards “will protect public health and the environment for 1 million years,” according to the EPA. “The Yucca Mountain facility will open only if it meets EPA’s standards…”

The standards specify that for the first 10,000 years, future residents should not be exposed to more than 15 millirem of radioactivity per year. From year 10,001 to one million, the dose limit is now set at 100 millirem a year.

To put those limits into context: Princeton University estimates that the average American is exposed to 350 millirems per year, from sources that range from X-rays to food. Bananas, for example. (They contain potassium and a radioactive potassium isotope. Eating one or two a day adds up to the radioactivity of a chest x-ray a year).

So is a U.S. government agency engaging in scientific fantasy that sets impossible hurdles to building up nuclear power?

“Our fundamental problem is our strict adherence to this number which is given to us by the EPA,” Allison Macfarlane, one of America’s leading experts on the Yucca Mountain project told a panel on nuclear waste in Washington a few days after the U.S. election. (America’s energy mix and the country’s dependence on foreign oil were major campaign topics.)


“This…number created these huge machinations of making incredibly complex computer models, simulations of what will happen at Yucca Mountain over time. And you know what? Those models are meaningless. We’ve set up this process where we want to say a million years from now we know that Yucca Mountain won’t give anyone a dose of more than 100 millirems a year. And we can’t know that. So we need to rethink that whole process of how we re-evaluate that site.”

Like many other experts, Macfarlane does not consider Yucca Mountain an ideal site for a nuclear cemetery. It is in a seismically active zone, complete with extinct volcanoes. Critics say an earthquake could damage the canisters in which nuclear waste will be kept and release highly toxic radioactive emissions.

Up on the mountain, that prospect is not rated probable. Says Voegele, pointing to large boulders that look as if they are balancing on the ridge: “There’s been no quake strong enough in the past 500,000 years to topple them over. Difficult to see how a quake could shake the mountain.”

At the dawn of the nuclear age, scientists discussed a range of options for the storage of the nuclear waste that began piling up from the military — much of the U.S. naval fleet is powered by nuclear reactors — and civilian power plants. They included burying the material in the ocean floor, placing it in polar ice sheets, and even blasting it into space.

No country has completely solved the problem but there is consensus that “deep geological disposal” is a better option than the present system of storing the waste in above-the-ground containers. In the U.S., radioactive waste is kept at 121 sites in 39 states, all awaiting eventual storage inside the mountain here.

Whether that will ever happen is not clear. Apart from technical considerations, Yucca Mountain faces fierce political opposition, not least from president-elect Barack Obama who has described the project as a multi-billion-dollar mistake and said no U.S. state should be “unfairly burdened with waste from other states.”

That came during the election campaign in a letter to a newspaper in Nevada, a fiercely contested state whose people are almost uniformly opposed to Yucca Mountain.

Obama’s encouragement of an attitude also known as Nimbyism (from Not in My Backyard) helped him beat his pro-Yucca, pro-nuclear energy Republican rival John McCain.

But the project, based on legislation dating back to 1982, can’t be stopped by presidential fiat. The U.S. Department of Energy submitted an application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in September to license Yucca Mountain. That process is expected to last three to four years and includes passing judgment on the one-million-year safety standard.

If all goes well, the facility will open in 2020 at the earliest, more than 20 years behind schedule — a blink of an eye on the geological time scale.

You can contact the author at Debusmann@Reuters.com.

(Do you have an idea for the Great Debate? Please send your submissions to debate@thomsonreuters.com.)

62 comments so far | RSS Comments RSS

I found it very interessting, that france is mentioned so often. I wounder why it is so well know in the US. Have you heard about the fact, that you can’t take home some sand from the beach? You will get stopped at the airport, because you try to smuggle radioactive materials. Your children might have had a good time playing at the beach.
The situation is Sellafield, UK, seems to be very similar. I’m not quite sure if this is a responsible way of reprocessing nuclear waste.
In my point of view there is no need for nuclear power. We run only about 460 plants on the planet. They produce as little as 16 percent of the Energy we need. We have for to many trouble with this tiny amount of energy.
Of course, there is this fossil fuel issue, which needs to be solved as well. But why should we choose the most dangerous technologie to replace the fossils?

Posted by jak | Report as abusive

One million years is an inconceivable length of time when compared with recorded history, but from what I remember of my university studies, it is in line with the astronomical periods required for man-made radioactive elements to decompose.

My recollection is that a rule of thumb in the nuclear industry is that radioactive waste needs to be stored for 10 half-lives, which is the time taken for the material to decompose to about 1,000th of its original mass. An important by-product of most reactors is plutonium-239, which is very toxic indeed. It has a half-life of 24,000 years, which implies it needs to be contained for 240,000 years.

This also begs the question as to whether our descendents will even know how to read any warning signs to be placed on Yucca Mountain within even a fraction of that time, or whether they will seem much more mysterious than ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs do today.

The problem with nuclear waste is that, unlike chemical or biological toxins, no chemical process can get rid of it.

The problem of how to contain materials like Pu-239 is without precedent when compared with the history of our planet as it did not exist until 1942, when it was made at University of Chicago research lab.

At first it was little more than a scientific curiosity, but its potential for use in nuclear warheads was soon realised, as in the one famously dropped on Nagasaki. This also explains the concern over so-called nuclear proliferation.

Posted by Interested Observer | Report as abusive


I updated the description of Quantum Unified Theory of Lattice Quantum Dynamics at http://www.genusi.com/main.aspx in describing for the general public how Absolute Mass works in the New Standard Model and is in Agreement with the Relativity Model. The update is on the summary page under understanding the concept of absolute mass.

I think its showtime but have yet to hear back from CERN, NSF and LANL.

A thank you note is in order, though I would much prefer a check.




I thought these times were about nuclear proliferation & not pro-eficientcy. I suppose you have “Bush” with all the answers & an imaginary man called god too.


Recycle the waste would be a better answer.

I am pretty sure our scientist will have the answer or can find the answer.

The European new technology, as mentioned in the best comment, is already one of the answer. There should be others which can be studied rather than like the present one in Yucca mountain or being dumped into our deep seas or oceans troughs which may be brought up in a new undersea volcano raises the trough up to pollute our seas and oceans. Then what? An environmental disaster!

Inactivation of the waste and then recycle for safer uses should be an answer which must be looked into.


Many of the comments have posed legitimate questions but an unsettling number have displayed a colossal ignorance about nuclear energy, radiation, and basic science. Since nuclear power would appear to be the only zero emission source of energy that is scalable, the public discourse certainly benefits from a better understanding of the facts. The following are four books that should help:

Power to Save the World
Gwyneth Cravens and Richard Rhodes

Nuclear Energy in the 21st Century
Ian Hore-Lacy

Nuclear Energy Now
Alan M. Herbst and George W. Hopley

Terrestrial Energy
William Tucker

Full disclosure: I am definitely pro-nuclear energy. But one of the books is written by an environmental activist, another by a very neutral journalist, and the other two by scientists so I believe they present a balanced view. Their treatment of the subject is fair and they address all the fears and concerns about nuclear energy even if they ultimately conclude that nuclear is the best choice.

Posted by David C. Berryman | Report as abusive

Such long term planning for the disposal of nuclear waste presupposes that human society will be in any condition to deal with it safely or otherwise for a very long time.

And article I read years ago The Waterbury Republican, mentioned that not only the spent fuel but also thousands of gallons of water and even tons of fabric and equipment become contaminated beyond safe levels during the life of the plant.

If the plant itself must be decommissioned and demolished – there is all the material of the structure of the containment vessels and the miles of piping that must also be disposed of. The article suggested that the cost of decommissioning an obsolete nuclear plant could well exceed – I think we can assume it will be guaranteed that it will exceed the income produced by that energy production many times over.

Nuclear energy sounds like a wonderfully sophisticated technological albatross that creates more problems than it can solve.

It is possible for the US to create much more energy efficient products of all kinds and to redesign our built environment now that would use the power we have I hope we do that. That seems like less of a tour de force than trying to contain some thing we may not be around to insure it is safely handled.

The computer is a marvel that illustrates how small amounts of energy can do amazing things. It is not a machine for doing work – in the classical senses of the machine but a little goes a very long way and the computer industry seems always to be making it do more. I am quite sure we can do the same to every artifact industry makes.

No one ever mentions ocean waves. WE should be building ocean-floating cities. They are being discussed in several sites on line and nowhere are there any actual construction. They are very easy to do. I don’t know why there isn’t more activity in that area except for the fact that few people think they could be a real possibility. Water born transport is the easiest way to more massive loads.
The modern world is used to making entire industries obsolete and fit only for the junkyard – literally – practically overnight. But none of the industries that have gone obsolete have created the long term problem that nuclear creates when it is due for replacement.

If fusion is ever perfected and made economical – that may also prove to be the death of the old fission plants. That will mean millions of tons of radioactive material will have to be buried as well.


With nearly 7 billion people exploding on the planet, the majority under 15, to hear of improved recycling of current nuclear waste or wind energy generation etc. I would hope would fall on very deaf ears.

It might make sense if there were an organized international process going on. Certainly it is clear that soon enough, nuclear power is necessary for billions, wind and so on might be good for millions. One (high sulfur) coal fired plant produced per day in China.

Simple nuclear science made mystical, this waste, decommissioning, half-life responsibility (we may be walking on our hands by the time this stuff is background, much less will we be able to read warning signs in one hundred years, mushroom cloud hieroglyphics).

No answer yet to 20k year half-lives suddenly down to a three hundred year question.

Energy is recognized as a US and world security issue.

Colossal ignorance of basic science? Zero emission? My local nuke plant emits, ‘vents’, safe radioactive steam, and has killed the seabed around it with its cooling water and high volume ‘filters’, and that is just the beginning.

An American fusion research company next door to my toxic Chemistry drug development company closed its doors, and I guess, handed Europe the fusion mandate. Has anyone heard this year of sustainable temperatures necessary for non cold fusion? The time frame is greater than 100 years, time frames for cures for many types of cancer, money better spent.

“Inactivation of the waste”, why can’t there be an answer in the commentary here. We would like to inactivate the waste! Population control might be more effective. ‘Zap It’! Yes, that is the solution.

It is not witchcraft. I believe if there were really an answer here, not French, plants would be sprouting up in the US. Every drop of oil is going to be burnt, and all coal. Humans are ants grabbing the drop of sugar on the tongue of the sleeping anteater. One hundred years from now, when humanity is civilized, point out that pool of oil or coal seam that was not used because it was carbon based.

Posted by david hurst | Report as abusive

Why don’t they bury the nuclear waste on the moon?

Posted by Emma Clark | Report as abusive

Blast the waste into space.
Why bury it here?
And why worry about what will happen in a million years anyway? We won’t be here. This planet will be long gone.
What moron really believes there will be life here in 1,002,008? Fool!!


Billions wasted? Nuclear power is the safest, cleanest and most efficient form of energy in world.

If we ran this country and it’s automobiles on Nuclear electricity, we’d be doing, ourselves, the environment and the world a favor. Imagine! Ending the greenhouse gas panic, cleaning the air of disgusting coal pollutants, and putting a stop to Trillion-dollar wars, and the senseless exploitation of other nations for their oil.

Self-Reliance! Peace! Freedom! Nuclear Power!

Posted by Nelson | Report as abusive

The million year criterion is unfortunately typical of the overly paranoid metality of persons attracted to government (and corporate) positions of authority. They are so afraid of making funvctionally rational decisions for fear of any criticism and remote chance of being wrong, that they set the bar so high it either cannot be achieved or their proclamations become over ruled by higher authorities, usually after extreme waste of time and money. That way they can point a finger if the decision is found to be in error and keep their dossier’s super clean and not ever have to make difficult decisions, thus masking their shallow character and inability to do so.
‘No Risk’ living is a pervasive reality of America’s ‘modern’ culture and a sad commentary of the state of our national character. Next thing we’re likely to see (some elements of this are reality) is hiring other mercenaries to fight our wars. Is ‘Rome’ nearing it’s end? Hmmmm…

Posted by George Nixon | Report as abusive

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