Nuclear planning to the year 1,002,008

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.

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You are stating: “Ten thousand years is roughly twice mankind’s recorded history.”

Does this means that Lascau and similar, which are some 40,000 years old are not to be considered recorded in human history?

Does this means that in 10,000 years radioactive emissions will be practically innocent if someone “rediscover” the Yucca tunnel?

No one is able to know what will go on NEXT WEEK. Shall we pretend to know how guarded the site will be in 10,000 years from now?

Now the main question: Did you have made an energetic balance about how much energy has been needed to produce such waste and how many energy this waste has created?
(all included from the building of the nuke to the setting of the Yucca mountain).

If so, just post it please.

Posted by Gilbert Schwob | Report as abusive

The new “Euro” reactor comes on line soon. It has been designed to burn waste plutonium along with depleted uranium. We as a nation would be wise to learn from the Europeans as to how this promising new technology develops. As with most matters of public policy, careful consideration rather than hasty action should prevail. The one topic that does however seem absent in most public discussion is conservation. It is evident that falling crude prices and other commodities are in indication of conservation. Unfortunately this is due in no small part to the pain of the current economic crisis.

Posted by Anubis | Report as abusive

Gilbert: It’s history as recorded (documented) by man. Writing and historical records first appear around 3,300 years before BC.

Posted by BD | Report as abusive

It should be noted that opposition to Yucca Mountain is not restricted to Nevada, and that Nevadans are not unanimously opposed to it. States along the proposed routes the packaged waste must travel in order to get to Yucca Mountain protest the potential safety hazards to their populations. Approximately 70% of the waste would travel through highly populated areas of Salt Lake City. In NV, particularly Clark County, there are portions of the population who believe that Yucca Mountain will be a boon to the county and even state economy.

While it is true that the president alone cannot shut down the project, he can use leadership in the Senate and House to craft resolutions similar to SJ Res 34 and HJ Res 87, which President Bush signed in 2002 designating Yucca Mountain as THE US nuclear waste repository. The new resolutions could take Yucca Mountain out of consideration. There is also the legislative path of changing the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982, that first set out the idea of a national repository, and deadlines for its completion. See al.htm It may be possible by executive order to comply with the decision of the United Nations CERD Committee which directed the US in 2006, to cease and desist its activities on Western Shoshone land. The project could be deemed illegal under both US and international law as a treaty violation. The Department of Energy is also under the jurisdiction of the Executive Branch.

There is also not consensus on a geologic repository being better than hardened above ground storage. Even Skip Bowman, the outgoing director of the Nuclear Energy Institute, a major lobbying and advocacy force for the nuclear industry, says that above ground storage is fine with the nuclear producing power companies, as long as they are made whole for the money they have put into the Waste Fund for Yucca Mountain. No other country in the world has built a geologic repository. The Heritage Foundation looks at spent nuclear fuel as a “valuable resource” which should be retained on site by the generating companies, until it can be reused. Many anti-nuclear power NGOs have release joint statements urging Hardened Above Ground Storage, until the waste can isolated more effective and safely than indefinite entombment, or rendered harmless by some future method.

Posted by Eileen McCabe | Report as abusive

Anti nuke economic sabotage in the USA is as American now as apple pie. We regretably will always have the pathoskeptic with us to our everlasting sorrow and future impoverishment as a people and failure and dismemberment as a nation. Others in the world see nuclear power is their savior, and are not, like our pathoskeptics, paid in one way or another by fossil fuel interests. Nuclear power IS the way of the future. Those who have it will prosper, and those who do not will virtually starve and freeze in the dark. Just like Armenia found out many years ago when starry eyed empty headed fools wanted them to close their aging Tchernobl style nuke facility ‘to save the world’ when everyone knew that if the facility closed over a hundred thousand alone would die in the resulting unheated apartments, and untold more thousands from other causes. Energy is fungible around the entire economy, if nuclear power heats apartments and businesses, then fossil fuels are released to do other work, like plant crops. The world is going nuclear, again, whether the so called decadent west likes it, or not.

Posted by Chester Drawer | Report as abusive

“States along the proposed routes the packaged waste must travel in order to get to Yucca Mountain protest the potential safety hazards to their populations.”

Its odd that they don’t complain when brand new fuel rods are transported across state lines almost everyday. How do Americans think new nuclear fuel arrives at existing plants, by magic?

There are tons of spent fuel rods stacking up at all of the existing nuclear plants, which are almost always near large population centers. You would think that they would want all that waste shipped out before something goes wrong. Virtually non of the spent fuel rods are in safe locations, an act of nature or man could easily expose millions to radioactive containents.

A better option would be recycle the spent fuel rods which still contain abundant amounts of energy. But because America is a “Toss it in a landfill” society, we will continue to waste a valuable resource.

For now Yucca mountain would be better than anything else on the drawing board. The plan should be to ship the spent rods to Nevada, until a longer term solution is found. All the waste should be stored in salvagable or recoverable manner. This would enable waste to be relocated or recycled in the future.

Posted by TechGuy | Report as abusive

Well, at least no one can accuse the EPA of short-termism, that horrible disease of American political life…

Posted by Alex | Report as abusive

First off, I think Yucca Mountain is one of those good ideas that are unfortunately not feasible because of the possibility, no matter how small, of a higher risk to a small part of the population. They have the final say and most of them naturally don’t like the idea of having to bear the nation’s risks.

The problem is, regardless of whether or not the nuclear waste can be utilized or neutralized in the future, it safer from both man-made and natural disasters underground in both the long and short term. Still, safer isn’t completely safe in all scenarios, which is pretty much the restriction the EPA is placing. Considering the geographic activity that can occur in a million years, even the cost of the simulation required to estimate it would be massive. Besides, with the unknown repercussions of global warming over such a large time scale, I think the EPA are being unrealistic.

As to what Anubis said, I don’t know anything about the Euro Reactor (I shall look it up right after this), but burning waste isn’t a solution, it simply puts nuclear energy on the same page as fossil fuels as things we’re trying to transition from.

Nuclear energy might indeed be the future of the world as Chester Drawer put it, but I’m on the side that believes that until a resolution is found for the waste it produces, there will always be resistance towards it.

Posted by Manoj (Vanwaril) | Report as abusive

We are running out of energy now, and our civilization is in grave danger.

The fact that we are even arguing about this is kind of inane!

I’m quite sure that this site can be secured so that some future being perhaps less advanced than us now won’t just stumble into it.

Posted by Phil Bickel | Report as abusive

The notion that nuclear waste is unique in terms of long-term hazard is a myth. Many other waste streams contain toxins that last forever (as opposed to steadily decaying away) and they are generated in vastly greater volumes, have a much more dispersible physical form, and are buried with little care. Given nuclear waste’s tiny volume, non-dispersible form, and all the extraordinary (and unprecedented) measures taken to prevent/limit any dispersal into the environment, it is clear that it’s long-term hazard is tiny compared to those other waste streams. And yes, this is something we do know, right now. It’s not that other waste streams don’t last that long. It’s just that, for all other waste streams, we’ve simply decided to not care.

Even ridiculously conservative analyses (which account for all the uncertainties McFarlane refers to) show that nobody will ever recieve doses outside the range of natural background over the entire million year period (and thus, there will be no health impacts). Long before that (a few tens of thousands of years), the waste will become less radioactive/hazardous than the original uranium ore that was dug up (making one wonder why anyone would consider a longer time frame).

The real point, however, is that the repository will not have to contain the waste anywhere near that long. It won’t have to contain it until it decays away. It has to contain it until we develop the technology to process and eliminate it (technology that is less than 100 years away). Any suggestion that 1000 years from now we will not be able to eliminate this waste is ludicrous, and the repository can easily contain the waste for that long.

People continually refer to amount of technological advance betweem now and 10,000 years ago, thinking that this is an argument against Yucca. I don’t understand this. If we were cavemen 10,000 years ago, imagine the technology that we will have 10,000 years from now. How can one believe that we will not be able to deal with the waste 10,000 years from now, if we haven’t already? How can the risk of someone breaking into the site at that time be considered a real problem. Can you imagine cavemen burying anything 10,000 years ago that would be a real problem for us today?

In reponse to Ms. McCabe, there is a complete concensus in the scientific community that deep geologic disposal is the best final/permanent solution for nuclear waste. Above ground storage is not a solution at all. It is a temporary measure. Reprocessing will not remove the need for a repository, as the fission products must still be disposed of (although advanced reprocessing can potentially reduce the required containment period to under 1000 years). Storing the waste until advanced reprocessing is developed is indeed a viable option, but it is only an interim step in the process. Above-ground storage is perfectly safe, and the industry is “fine” with it, but that does not mean that it is “better” than deep disposal, or is even an alternative to it for the long term.

As for the anti-nukes, the only reason they want above-ground storage is that it keeps the waste “issue” alive for them, and allows them to continue to use the “unsolved waste problem” argument against nuclear. Finally, it is true that there are many political ways that Yucca can be stopped. It is also true that it would be astonishingly bad policy, very much against the interests of this nation, due to the impact it would have on a clean, domestic, non-CO2 emitting, long-term energy source.

Posted by Jim Hopf | Report as abusive

In the years after WW II the area around Yucca Mountain was a nuclear test site. For the first few years, the blasts were above ground; that is, completely uncontained. For some years after that, they were underground; that is, contained only by the soil around it — but in no way isolated from that soil.

The spent fuel to be stored there will have several extremely robust barriers between it and its surroundings, and the integrity of these barriers can be monitored. It doesn’t take a nuclear scientist to understand that any radiation exposures in the environment from this spent fuel will be completely insignificant compared to what’s already there. But perhaps it takes a psychiatrist to understand what all the fuss is about.

Posted by Pete | Report as abusive

There is a solution
The United States over the last 20 years devoted a considerable amount of research into a concept called the Integral Fast Reactor (IFR). The purpose of this program was to completely close the nuclear fuel cycle and generate a waste stream that decays away in under 500 years vice hundreds of thousands of years. The IFR went through many different iterations and is now part of the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership. General Electric has even gone as far as to design an IFR type reactor that is ready for prototype now.

I’m a nuclear engineer and I think eons is too long to live with a problem. Some people might argue that an eon or two never hurt anybody, but I just don’t like pink elephants. We are not powerless over nuclear waste. We can use it to make power. In fact using the IFR fuel cycle, we have enough energy available in our “nuclear waste” to power all of the United States’ energy needs for the next two centuries. if you look at all of the depleted uranium that we have in storage we have enough fuel already mined to last the next two millennia. Why do we insist on throwing away perfectly good fuel, leaving a problem for somebody else when we have an alternative that works? Why do we insist on there not being an economical solution to global warming when it is sitting there right in front of us? Why do sit held hostage to OPEC price controls giving them money to feed our oil addiction?

Most effective solutions are the simplest.

Prometheus gave us fire. J. Robert Oppenheimer gave us the atomic bomb. Hyman G. Rickover gave us nuclear power. In the course of human history look at what fire has done for us. For our future, look at what nuclear power will do. Unlike the cavemen we do not have 10,000 years to figure out how to use nuclear power responsibly. We have the next decade.

Posted by Cal Abel | Report as abusive

The nuclear waste problem is a self-inflicted wound. In a thermal neutron reactor less than 2% of the actinides are actually fissioned. The “waste” still has an energy value of *one terawatt-day*/metallic ton, but it’s only accessible with fast neutron or breeder reactors.

In addition, the current generation of pressurized water reactors have a thermodynamic efficiency of about 40%, but higher temperature reactor technologies should be able to go to over 60% efficiency, half again as much energy for the same amount of waste.

The anti-nukes are locked in a time warp, but the nuclear engineers have been busy. A new generation of safe, high-temperature, high-burnup reactors is available to replace coal and other sources of global warming.

There’s a neat idea about this at

Posted by hix1050 | Report as abusive

How is it possible to burn elements without transforming them into new (non radioactive) elements. Makes no sense. Sounds bogus. We are screwing up the world for all life so permanently it seems ludicrous to worry about even 1000 years from now. Green seems nice, but too late and really silly. Better to severely limit the human population, as in right now. Children are the real source of pollution for quite some time now. Say good bye to most species, and pretty soon. Say hi to microbes and squids and such. As a medicinal chemist and molecular biologist, I have seen that pretty much any solution by man will be a bigger problem. People for many years in the most poluted areas of Poland raised children gladly knowing they would live short lives and be deformed (I think I recall the lead concentration that of a toy soldier in a gram scale soil sample). So have your kids, and get used to the problems they will have and the futility of fitting into any sort of long term biosphere. Perhaps in a few hundred years we will have non heat poluting fusion or some such…all coal and oil is about to be burned, green fields will fill tanks instead of stomachs, and nuclear power will regenerate silly plug in car batteries, no way around it, and to speak of the waste is highly academic.

Posted by david hurst | Report as abusive

shouldnt we as a nation be devoting all our resources to nuclear fusion, which produces no waste at all? wouldnt that solve the energy issue?

Posted by george | Report as abusive

Perhaps if we’d get some contractors and government that decided not to build souped up Navy nuke ship motors, and look at what other nations are doing, even to the N in Canada and EU plants, we might do it right. But not sure the lobbyists are there to actually do the right thing, and always amused at whom really owns USA nuke plants and utility, more so when not far back all the “Patriots” got upset a “Mid Eastern’s running our ports”.. Oddly, none asks “whom owns our nuke plants”. hint initals are NOT “U-S-A”. So let’s discuss the plants, and then their trash.

Posted by chuck | Report as abusive

Alright, let’s be real here.

Fellow Commenters: global warming will have no impact on a mountain in the middle of a desert that is caused by geography. The mountain has stood to several ice ages and appears quite comfortable where it is. Global warming will also not stop life on Earth or anything more than mild discomfort and upset in the animal kingdom. Stop wasting time and get on to real matters.

EPA: One million years is an impossible demand. Asteroid strikes are a non-negligible possibility. Nuclear war is a near-certainty, and even a Death Star scale attack on Earth has a non-zero possiblity on that time scale.

Everyone: radioactive waste is nasty stuff, yes. However, it isn’t the worst stuff on the planet by a long shot (that would by hydrogen flouride). Transport would be less dangerous than the missiles that are trucked through towns on their way to airports.

George: Fusion looks good on paper, but it is either impossible or prohibitively expensive for the forseeable future. Research is good, but barring huge breakthroughs, don’t expect a payout this century.

Finally: recycling, both directly and through breeder reactors, is the technology of the future. The design is sound, but needs a bit more time to get into working order. However, there will always be the tail end that isn’t feasible to recycle. This will need to be stored permanently. That is what Yucca mountain is for. Let’s use it.

Posted by Ben | Report as abusive

Other options being discussed, planned or already implemented in other countries can help achieve the new requirement and then some. Consumption of radioactive actinides in burner reactors or nuclear accelerators (search Advanced Fuel Cycle Initiative), and irradiated fuel reprocessing (as is currently done in France, the UK, India, Japan, Russia and China) can remove highly active waste from the final products to be permanently stored in geological repositories. These activities have the potential to reduce the activity of waste below the natural activity of the ore that was originally mined form the ground, within only 300 years.

An added benefit is that through such nuclear recycling, the utility of existing uranium reserves can be significantly extended. Then there’s the use of U238 in breeder reactors and of course Thorium – but both are beyond this discussion on waste.

Technically, humanity has options. Political solutions are desperately required.

Posted by Ed | Report as abusive

The problem with nucler energy in the United States (and many other countries) is more political and psychological than technical. There is, as the columnist points out, Nimbyism; then there are lingering fears dating back to Three Mile Island in 1979 and Chernobyl in 1986; there is opposition from Greens who want to have their cake and eat it,too, i.e. reduce greenhouse gases but do that without increasing clean power generation such as nuclear. In the U.S., it has become an issue reflexively opposed by liberals and favored by conservatives, without much thought (on either side) focused on the facts. Then you have state politics – one of the commenters said some people in Nevade are in fact in favor of Yucca Mountain. That may be so, but Nevada politicians are, to a man or woman, against it because they think being in favor would mean losing elections.

One does not need to be a nuclear scientist to appreciate that there is immensely more risk in having nuclear waste stored in above-ground containers scattered around the country than in a deep hole underground in a tightly guarded facility. It’s time to stop going round and round with the same old arguments and move on, store the waste at YM, build more reactors and thus reduce CO2 emissions.

That doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be efforts to build up wind power and biomass. Neither does it mean the U.S. shouldn’t look into commercial reprocessing, as do Japan and France. That reduces the volume of waste by a factor of 5 but it still needs a place where it can be buried.

Posted by Boris | Report as abusive

The problem with nuclear power in the U.S. (and many other countries) is more political and psychological than technical. There are still lingering fears from Three Mile Island in 1979 and Chernobyl in 1986. You have reflexive opposition from Greens who want to have their cake and eat it, too; i.e. reduce greenhouse house gases while not doing much to increase clean power generation; i.e. nuclear. As the columnist points out, there is Nimbyism on a large scale and perhaps worse, nuclear power has become an issue where the political line are drawn – liberals are against it, conservatives are for it and neither side pays much attention to the facts.

It is time to stop debating the same arguments over and over again and move on, bury the waste at Yucca and start building new reactors. One doesn’t need to be a nuclear scientists to appreciate that there is immensely more risk in storing high-level waste in above-ground containers near major population centers than in placing the waste deep inside a mountain in a tightly-guarded facility.

Increasing nuclear power generation does NOT mean de-emphasising wind, or biomass, or anything else that is clear than coal and the imported oil for which the U.S. pays $700 billion a year.

Posted by Boris | Report as abusive

Read a lot of good pro nuke posts that make a great deal of sense. Sadly the real solution comes down to, HOW do we fund the lobbyists with as much money as coal and oil pour into DC, RNC-DNC and state capitals? Once we solve that real issue, the money and corrupted powers in the middle of it all, we might be able to actually solve the problems.
Until either that happens or the USA citizens obtain a much higher comprehensive level on energy, to even try to discuss the basics and facts, nothing is going to change, The money does not want to hear anything like “Nuke”..when we have “oil, gas and coal”. same for most green power, it is not going to happen until USA commoners education on such things can seriously question, rationally consider and deflect the spin ministers.

Posted by chuck | Report as abusive

The nuclear waste disposal problem is literally millions of times smaller than the fossil fuel waste disposal problem. All of the high-level power reactor waste ever created would fit inside one large building. In contrast every year we’re creating more than one thousand cubic miles of CO2 gas in excess of that which can be absorbed by natural processes. Better fuel-use cycles can essentially eliminate the nuclear waste problem, making it no more dangerous than was the original ore after a few decades of storage.

We can no longer afford the luxury of antinuke dilettantism and hysteria. Humanity needs every non-fossil energy source ASAP.

Posted by richard schumacher | Report as abusive

I have a question about the Nuclear Non-Proliferation’s act and how it affects breeder reactors. I was under the impression that these reactors, which use depleted feul, where outlawed under that treaty which is why the US stopped all nuclear waste recycling projects. I also want to know what Las Vegas will be like in a million years. It seems to me, due to the geographical location of Las Vegas, it is at a much greater risk to failure than storing nuclear waste in a mountain. I mean, who’s idea was it to build a populated city in the middle of a desert?

On another note, hey David Hurst, way to have absolutely no technical knowledge in something and call it ‘witchcraft’. You may be a bioligist, but your no particle physicist. However, you do make some very optimistic, doom and gloom statements. You truely are a patriotic American.

Posted by disenchanted | Report as abusive

Fascinating read. I work for a company that does quantitative risk assessment for chemical weapons disposal. The risk-assessment piece is near and dear to my heart. Risk assessment is a tremendous tool that will get you the answers for multitude of scenarios determined by the stakeholders. The key is to identify those scenarios that are realistic and plausible. Much more important is setting up a measurable and achievable benchmark against with you can compare your results. The numbers quoted here are ludicrous. Planning horizon is 1 million years—that is in no way close to reality. You cannot possibly plan for anything that far out. Secondly, the radiation thresholds;–someone’s blowing smoke from somewhere! With that level of control, it is a non-starter. What’s going to happen is that the simulation tools will be “tweaked” to meet the numbers–it will not represent reality; will not provide any insight to mitigation measures that can/should be taken to reduce the plausible risk numbers (if simulations were run correctly) to a realistic threshold.

I will argue that blaming the simulations is not the answer. Challenging the “think-tanks” who came up with this, almost stupid, thresholds is a start-point.

Posted by Atri | Report as abusive

A workable solution for storing spent fuel rods is explained in detail on the American Energy Independence website. m/nuclearwaste.aspx

Posted by Ron Bengtson | Report as abusive

I don’t want to ask, “What’s wrong with solar and wind?” because I already know the answer. “Nothing”.

Posted by Regina Minniss | Report as abusive

To Regina Minniss: Use of wind and solar (or not) is not the issue. Even if we shutdown all 104 nuclear reactors tomorrow (and lose 1/5th of US electric generation) we need to do something with the >50,000 tons of spent fuel. Moreover, if there had never been a commercial nuclear power industry– and burned more fossil fuel– there would still be a need for a repository at Yucca or somewhere else to safely dispose of >10,000 tons of defense and other high-level radioactive waste.
We need nuclear AND wind AND solar And hydro AND…etc.

Posted by B Mused | Report as abusive

Anubis writes, “The new “Euro” reactor comes on line soon. It has been designed to burn waste plutonium along with depleted uranium. We as a nation would be wise to learn from the Europeans as to how this promising new technology develops.”

This technology is not new. It was invented here. I studied it 36 years ago as an nuclear engineering student at K-State. Plutonium recycle was also the topic of several professional conferences I attended after graduating.

The problem isn’t technical, it’s political. Storing spent fuel at Yucca Mountain makes it readily retrievable for the plutonium recycle program we should have started 30+ years ago. The same people who are opposed to Yucca Mountain killed that option off first. Maybe when we have rolling brownouts or blackouts nationwide, the politicians will get a clue.

Posted by KC Parrish | Report as abusive

Regina Minniss writes, “I don’t want to ask, “What’s wrong with solar and wind?” because I already know the answer. “Nothing”.”

Really? Solar and wind are very diffuse, weak energy sources. We have both at my utility, and they have their places, but they’re not enough for baseload generation, certainly not for a large population center (Phoenix, New York, Chicago – take your pick). We generate almost 4000 MWe of power on about 400 acres at the nuclear plant where I’ve worked for 25+ years. You’d need 1600 square miles of solar collectors to garner enough energy to match it – with devastating environmental impact – the land underneath can no longer support wildlife. No light, no plants, no food chain. And you only get your power when the sun is shining. The shortcomings of windpower are left as an exercise for the student.

Posted by KC Parrish | Report as abusive

Plutonium is of course raw material for an a bomb, also very toxic chemically and dangerous to work with. Things would have to be done exactly right to work with this material for energy generation. We can’t just trust industry but would need effective skeptical watchdogs to be fully involved to use it. But I agree that fully containing nuclear waste for a million years is an unrealistic goal. Tanks are leaking at the Hanford plant in eastern Washington from WW 2 A bomb waste from only 50 years ago. Lets clean that up to restore confidence in the competence of the nuclear industry.

Posted by Dave Moore | Report as abusive

After a few minutes rolling around the floor laughing at this absurd “one million year” time-frame, I did decide to post a thought.

To make any projection of the future, it is absolutely essential to also take account of the exponential increase in technology that occurs. Even if we chose “1000 years”, a cursory guess would suggest that, by that time, we would be able to dig up the problem and reprocess it accordingly.

Posted by John Hunter | Report as abusive

The computer simulation done for Yucca Mountain is like the computer simulations done for the financial industry for their kooky financial tools. The morons who are doing this simulation for million or a 10,000-year period should be marked for brain transplant.

Now, coming to a real solution to the spent fuel waste problem and Yucca Mountain—
Spent nuclear fuels contain valuable resources, such as 97% of the original Uranium and varying percentages of plutonium and other actinides. These resources will be recovered and reused by a future generation. This being the future, why not makes it easy for them to recover and use these resources in exchange for the trillions of dollars of debt being passed on to them.

Store 70, 000 tons of spent fuel in the holes already dug. Make sure the hole is designed in such a way that after about 100 to 300 years, they can be recovered – oldest one first. By that time, radioactivity levels of the spent fuel will have decreased to less than 1% of the original activity at the time of placement.
These spent fuels can be easily reprocessed and the resources reused. Wastes resulting from these reprocessing can be easily managed for the long term.

It is not necessary to have a hole like Yucca Mountain for the above scenario. Since we already have one why not use it. The above scenario can be easily simulated and modeled. Hope some sensible National Leader will lead us to this!

Posted by Sameson Jr. | Report as abusive

I completely agree with what Atri said regarding setting guidelines that are possible to meet. There is just no way anybody expect any reasonable level of prediction to happen in a million-year timeframe.
Moreover, I think that the Yucca mountain solution is neccessary because without it, all that waste is piling up (as we speak) in locations that are MUCH less safe and secure. Doesn’t it make sense to put the waste in a location that is definetely safe (albeit HOW safe is left up to argument at this point) then at sites that we KNOW are not nearly as safe.

Posted by Tom S. | Report as abusive


Regardless of the emotional debate, when you examine the uncertainty of the waste management issue is it a logical outcome to conclude that near-surface storage of this material is an unsatisfactory outcome. The value of the 1,000,000 year expectation is not the number itself but a reflection of the uncertainty. Regardless of the study and the experts involved, it is not possible to achieve this outcome and it is unrealistic to think so. What is required is to move the debate to transforming the waste into something else and/or completely removing it from the biosphere.

Posted by David | Report as abusive

Everything we do has a price and a negative attribute. Nothing we do as humans is good for the environment. What we all must do is decide what is worth doing and then stop using irrational arguments to undo those decisions. We want to live in cities and use electricity and therefore some areas of the country are going to be spoiled so that other areas are more inhabitable. Kissing Yucca Mt. goodbye sounds like a good idea and a good area to sacrifice…especially compared to the asphalt that we pour around our malls so that we can by house loads of cheap Chinese goods. Does anyone care about the impact their materialistic gluttony has on the Chinese people and soil? No of course not we are all racists when the products are cheap. Let the Chinese people ingest horrible chemicals. I jsut wish everyone would learn to make compromises and stop wanting a perfect world. This is sheer hipocracy and counterproductive. Let’s do nuclear right and be reasonable…and lets kiss the Yucca Mountain area good bye, jsuta s we have the lovelier urban areas on the beautiful coasts. It is what it is stop wasting our precious money…and stop killing the Chinese citizens…and move forward with Yucca Mountain. Grow up America. I am a former petroleum geologist selling software now.

Posted by Bill | Report as abusive

As long as we have to bury the nuclear waste, we should be using it to power a nuclear battery. Radioactive materials can generate electricity directly in nuclear batteries as used in space satellites for decades. If we could use the waste to create a useful byproduct, then it generates the income to support its own maintenance. Otherwise there is the risk that it gets forgotten in a few hundred years.

Posted by Jonathan Cole | Report as abusive

I headed the design of the first US Independent Spent Fuel Facility, which was the prelude to Yucca Mountain. Commonly called a dry cask facility, it received spent fuel from almost filled storage pools, and stored it in a remote location in massive gas filled (dry) metallic casks, which had solid metallic walls and “lids”, in the order of 1 ft thick. Each cask weighed well over 100 tons, and required massive costume designed movers. People who compare a cask to a 55 gal oil drum are ignorant.
Depending on the time in pool, perhaps 5-10 years, the loaded casks’ surface was perhaps a constant 120 deg F., warm to the touch. The dosage was modest, when needed you could climb on them all week, a rare occurrence. The facility was an above ground grave yard. I can not write about the security features. When stored in Yucca Mountain, a dry tunnel system, the safe storage age was indeterminately long, centuries or millennia, even if buried in an earthquake. These time duration exceed engineering experience but are brief to geologists. They sited Yucca Mountain. In the scale of risk assessment, the dangers to people, even workers, are far smaller than smoking, or driving. A main reason that the casks are not buried, is that if the US, like most advanced nations, pursues reprocessing, the spent fuel will be far more valuable than the stored material at Fort Knox.
The science and engineering far exceed the competency of our political leaders; who have not advanced an day since the repository law was pasted in 1981, defining the process that lead to Yucca Mountain. By law, it was to open in 1998, and all electric user has paid tens of billions for its construction. The key issue is states rights overriding a federal law. Nevada has no more right to stop the storage of spent fuel inside Yucca Mountain than to segregate her schools. Also in play is a hatred of institutions, a fear of corrupt US corporations killing our children for profit. A logical rebuttal is the levee system and governance in New Orleans which killed 1,300 citizens, and destroyed a major city, due to unfathomable incompetency and epic venial behavior by the failure of government, at every level. The caliber of these political hacks must never control nuclear processes.
Yucca Mountain will be a grave; caring people have been successfully making graves for 10,000 years. But during that time frame, no nation has rejected advances in technology and survived. Any nation which does not utilize nuclear energy will not long survive. The question, posed by Eisenhower is this: either we will learn to use atomic power for peace, or it will annihilate us in war. Yucca Mountain and atomic bombs will define our future.

Posted by R. L. Hails Sr. P. E. | Report as abusive

Ron Bengtson’s website turned me off immediately. To use a well-known hoax to open the support of their thesis speaks very poorly for their at least their research skills. See the Urban Legends Reference Pages’ “Does Not Compute” article at puter.asp

In theory, fission is a fine source of energy. Unfortunately, in reality, reliable-enough planning, construction, operation and oversight of the previous is simply not possible, because we humans are error-fraught beings.

Posted by Apollo | Report as abusive

Fast breeders and 5th generation reactors could be up and running within the decade. Idaho National Lab isn’t standing still. However, with clowns like H.Reid of Nevada at the con (refuses even oil shale research) and, yes, Milleninium Synfuels can work the stuff and deliver at ~$30.00 per barrel, nothing much beyond megawatts from wind/solar will get the nod in the new administration. Nuclear is the greenest option there is that can produce terrawatts. Nearly all the roadblocks to exploiting this power are in the realm of regulation that the new president could sweep away by signing his name.
If you are not familiar with the Green Freedom project at Los Alamos check it out. The Greens talk a good line but they are luddites at heart. I’m afraid there’ll be more shamanism than science coming down the pike. A recent `green’ documentary on power pooh-poohed nuclear as being too expensive (regulations) and would only last 50 years as the world would run out of uranium??? Guess those `experts’ never heard of the thorium fuel cycle, etc.

This nation is replete with energy sources. National Security alone would dictate our removing ourselves from the global fuel game where we continue to be sucked dry. The Greens had better get a grip and realize that it is either increase our nuclear power capacity and burn the waste, or be prepared to have the Green River Formation hashed and trashed.

Posted by ivan | Report as abusive

IN RESPONSE ‘disenchanted’ from November 20th, 2008,
12:35 pm GMT
In response to comment by ” but your no particle physicist”. In my above and outragous comment, I was speaking not only as a biologist in terms of the naiveté of so called experts to not see the broader time perspective of man’s sudden involvement in the environment in these last thousands of years, but also as a chemist with at least some presumed knowledge in contemporary particle physics and contact (as well as lead shields etc.) with peer review analysis of nuclear energy, fusion research, apparently a few years old – and thus the provocatative comment.

A skeptics view is useful, when hearing above that half-lives of spent fuel have suddenly shrunk from 20k years to a few hundred? Wow. My initial above response was to “burn waste uranium/plutonium” etc., questioning where that original element and radioactivity goes, certainly not to the back of the room, like presumptuous physicists. Personally, I am pro-nuke, because it is going to happen anyway, but to have nitwits worldwide organize it – as a best friend that while in the military cleared Chernobyl asked me in an only eyes raised question: how long do I have to live. Nuclear is inevitable.

Just show me a post here that is not ‘let us better purify what is essentially our trash’.

Our time frame is a few hundred years. Who is speaking witchcraft. Organize this festival, because time is less than the decade suggested in a post above. Nuclear was left out of our US leader-elect’s energy speech! What is needed here is obvious to all but the “particle physicists”. Sounds like voodoo (nuclear) trash partial recycling, in light of one (sulfurous) Chinese coal plant per day competition.

A lot of unorganized talk, very, very old with no solution, this storage issue, the direction of nuclear power. Because it is not organized, I suspect that nuclear power is going to be pressed into uncertain direction with energy resource depletion, decimation of economies etc.

How is Admiral Richtover the father of nuclear reactors. I thought, until this last incident recently with the US Navy, he was only the father of safe Navy reactors. Hmmmmm, so much to get wrong here.

Posted by david hurst | Report as abusive

It is rare to find an article on the web with 40 comments that all seem composed by reasonable people with decent educations. (Well, almost all). Many have pointed out the political nature of the challenge, some have pointed to some technical challenges, and some have demonstrated a good understanding of economics by pointing out the relationship between anti-nuclear activity and a continued love of the money that pours in to the coffers of the pushers for our fossil fuel addiction.

I cannot add much more to that part of the conversation that would not be repetitive, but I do have an interesting sidelight to share with regards to Atri’s following comment:

“I will argue that blaming the simulations is not the answer. Challenging the “think-tanks” who came up with this, almost stupid, thresholds is a start-point.”

I have a good friend who is a career health physicist who once introduced me to one of the tiny group of career government employees – now number two in active service – who have been primarily responsible for the EPA’s insistence on a ridiculous radiation dose standard that is well below the “noise” of natural variation from one location to another around the world.

These few bureaucrats decided long ago that their career path lay in ensuring that the Linear No Threshold ASSUMPTION of radiation dose risk remained the rule of the land. They have been in position to fund scientists, to select members of the BEIR (the review committees) and to organize conferences and other events that establish a “consensus” in the field. Because of America’s clout in the scientific world – mainly because we used to be the world’s richest country – that ASSUMPTION has been spread around the globe and become the officially accepted rule.

The LNT is what drives the really silly expenditures of time, money and human resources to try to solve a non problem like where do we put used nuclear fuel. (My answer to that question is almost anyplace where you can put a well designed container and provide adequate security and monitoring.)

Of course, there is not really a consensus; people like Sohei Kondo, Dr. Lauriston Taylor, Jim Muckerheide, Ted Rockwell, Philip Abelson, Myron Pollycove, Zbigniew Jaworowski, Rosalyn Yalow and organizations like Radiation, Science and Health, the Health Physics Society, and the French Academy of Sciences have all produced sound, scientific evidence that radiation below a certain level is not a human health hazard and may even be good for us.

As Dr. MacFarlane has pointed out, there is NO WAY to prove that Yucca Mountain can meet the standard established by the EPA. Any models or simulations can always be questioned and can provide the grounds for controversy. There will always be people willing to argue and delay – there are tremendous quantities of money associated with the endeavor.

The only real answer to the problem is to recognize radiation is a natural part of our earthly environment and that humans have evolved the ability to handle small amounts without health risk. The level at which no risk can be found is roughly 10 REM over a short period of time. That is 1/666 times the EPA standard of 15 MREM. Even at significantly higher lifetime exposures – as demonstrated by many population studies in areas of high natural background – the health risk is very low compared to that from other environmental influences.

Even the people who work directly with used fuel have been adequately protected from exposure during the past 50 years. We know how to handle radioactive materials safely, we will teach our children how to handle them safely and they will teach their children how to handle them safely. Why bother to spent tens of billions moving valuable material from conveniently distributed locations to a remote, isolated desert location that would be a terrible place to build a recycling plant? Would you want to live there and work at that plant?

Fossil fuel interests, contractors desiring a piece of the Yucca construction pie, geologists that like someone to pay for their rock habit, radiation protection careerists, nuclear specialists who like to think their profession is dangerous, and professional anti-nuclear activists have built a strong coalition to support our present state of affairs.

What we energy consumers need to do is to rise up and demand reasonable rules and a more level competitive playing field so that nuclear power – a Gulliver in the land of the Lilliputians – is not tied down by thousands of worthless threads of rules that do not save any lives or even prevent any illnesses.

Posted by Rod Adams | Report as abusive

[…] Nuclear planning to the year 1,002,008 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. […]

Posted by DrumBeat: November 21, 2008 | Report as abusive

Many years ago I was responsible for writing our regulations for using a radium based x-ray room. It had been submitted many many times to the government for approval, and every year it came back with requirements for further changes that some government employee insisted were essential. My boss finally set me straight that there was nothing wrong with my submission, just that no one in the government had the balls to give us anything other than temporary approval – it was just a game.
Likewise this is just a game of delay, and avoidance. I had the chance to discuss this with a Dept of Energy official once in an airport. I am a Metallurgical engineer and he asked me what kind of metal container I would suggest. I told him to look at the history of science, and go for something with a life span of a few hundred years. By that time, our science will have advanced so much that this dump will be worth reprocessing. Right now our best bet is that some other country with balls will offer to process and store it. I believe France is the leader in Nuclear power, and probability has the best handle on it. If we decide to build nuclear power plants we will need to go to France for the technical expertise that we have lost in the last 20 years due to these head-in-the-sand EPA people.

Posted by David Sparkman | Report as abusive

Unfortunately, the author of this article carps on just one detail. There is so much more to consider in specifying any such project.

For instance, roads. The author described the one road to the site as:
“The narrow road from there winds through a desolate landscape of sparse vegetation…”

So they are going to build a new road, of course, aren’t they?
Or are they?

They should build a modern, safe, 4-lane freeway to carry 70,000 TONS of very dangerous radioactive waste. But will they?
Those huge trucks with the gigantic cylinders on the back require far more space than half of one 2-lane country road. And how do they get by each other on a narrow road?

So where will they build the new road from, and how long will this new freeway be? How will they get the waste to the start of the new freeway?

The government powers that be aren’t building any new road in New Mexico. WIPP — the “Waste Isolation Pilot Project” in New Mexcio will truck its radioactive waste right through downtown Santa Fe, because that’s where the only highway goes.

I would like to hear much more about this, and we need to hear a lot more details than just one specification for radioactive releases 10,000 years into the future.

Posted by Terrance Hodgins | Report as abusive

I always chuckle when the nuke proponents consistently quote the radioactive emissions of nuclear waste and compare it with the natural background sources completely ignoring the very different radiobiological properties of nuclides unique to the nuclear industry. They ignore the tendency of nuclear industry nuclides to bioaccumulate in a different manner than any natural radioactive source, like srontium 90 for example being treated like calcium in the body, radio caesium like iron etc. etc. These then accumulate near critical organs giving localized doses that are up to two orders of magnitude greater than generalized radio accumulation per unit whole body exposure from natural sources. Until these doses are properly accounted for, any statement from the nuke industry should be treated with a grain of salt.

Posted by Sheldon | Report as abusive

[…] The Great Debate» Nuclear planning to the year 1,002,008 | The Great Debate | 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. […]

Posted by The Energy Net » Top Nuclear Stories Nov. (17th – 20th) | Report as abusive

This is a curious debate. Reprocessing of nuclear “waste” reduces its volume by 97%. In the end you have weapons grade material that decays very quickly -it is safe to handle in about 300 years. France reprocesses its nuclear waste. There is no need to forecast a million years into the future or even 10,000 years. Deep shaft mines in the Canadian (pre-cambrian) shield have been studied for years by Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL) which has a major research facility on the shield. The shield is incredibly stable. It is solid granite. Read up on it. It has been stable for millions of years. The formation is over 3 billion years old and was the first part of North America to emerge from the seas. AECL has demonstrated that storing spent nuclear waste there is perfectly safe. The region does not suffer from earthquakes or volcanos and is guarded by clouds of voracious mosquitos when it is not -35 degrees. It is the answer. Meanwhile the US government is rapidly developing reprocessing technology -at Lawrence Livermore labs I think.

Posted by Philip De Groot | Report as abusive

After reading several of these comments it seems as though many of the authors are in the scientific community or related industries.I am not a scientist. The amount of disagreement amongst you, demonstrates to me exactly why we should not continue with nuclear energy. As a species I don’t believe we have the discipline and humility to manage such a volatile resource. It is the very arrogance of man , and indeed much of the scientific community, that has brought our poor planet to the brink of catastrophic change, and threatens to destroy our species and most others along with it.

Most “ordinary” citizens have an innate distrust of the scientific community for very good reasons. Scientists have outright lied, twisted research to prove false hypothesis to benefit their employers, ( Tobacco Companies…. anyone?) or sponsors.

I certainly don’t condemn all scientists, and the tremendous discoveries we all benefit from are obvious, but so long as the scientific and research communities are are so segmented and constantly in competition with each other, rather than working together for a goal that benefits all mankind, then they must remain suspect.

All the current technologies that have served to help deface and pollute our planet and ourselves, have at one time been touted by scientists as viable and safe.

Why should we trust them now?

Other energy sources may not be able to immediately provide for all of our needs, but I believe that in combination they will in the future. New advances in all of these alternative areas will provide all the energy we need, if given the chance to develop. They will never develop if we give in to the economic, political, and arrogant assertions of people who think that Nuclear energy is a viable alternative despite it’s obvious pitfalls.

And NO, I’m not a tree hugger or activist of any kind.I’m a concerned human, praying that the right decisions are made for our mutual survival at this critical crossroads.

Posted by Richard Baker | Report as abusive

Hello Rod, fancy meeting you here.

“The level at which no risk can be found is roughly 10 REM over a short period of time. That is 1/666 times the EPA standard of 15 MREM.”

Actually “federal occupational limit of exposure per year for an adult not to exceed 5,000 millirems” 5REM PER YEAR, not “a short period of time”. The natural background radiation is generally 300 millirems. Increasing a sites average level by 15 millirems is equivalent to 5 percent. That is more than enough considering that an increase of 28% of the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere is causing global climate change. (Better safe than sorry.)

“We know how to handle radioactive materials safely, we will teach our children how to handle them safely and they will teach their children how to handle them safely.”

You know this cannot go on forever. We can’t even get a story straight that happened 2000 years ago in the Middle East. We cannot expect our successors to relay not only the story correctly, but also the process of handling (or not handling rather) the radioactive material. Not to mention the simple act of inhabiting the land directly above the disposal site.

“thousands of worthless threads of rules that do not save any lives or even prevent any illnesses.”

Any thought about genetic mutilation? Undesired mutations within the generations and generations of a sustained population.


Posted by Devin Serpa | Report as abusive

Wow, it would be great to get a quick reference to even the rough process of transformation of the various long half-life gamma radiating isotopes produced as waste by the nuclear industry (and apparently weapons grade Plutonium and enriched Uranium) to: it is relatively safe in 300 years.

Cool stuff. Background and common sources of radiation, and its relative ‘bioavailability’ are age-old industry talk, like natural cycles of climate change, blah, yah, certain levels of Strontium-90 are acceptable in milk.

The ‘300 year’ research should advertised and be on TV as often as very recent natural gas ads by mega-millionaires, or even cancer or ED research. From 20k year, whatever, half-lives down to 300 years! “Burning” the waste. Is this top secret research? The French won’t let us have it? Why drill on the North Shore?

A centralized storage site is ancient news (tough for the locals, but get the science right or the ‘waste unions’ on your side and it will be as welcome as prisons in rural California, big money).

Minimization of the waste has progressed. What role has the economics of not only waste, but plant shutdown and decontamination played in the long stoppage of US nuclear power plant production. Green psychological paranoia would seem to be an excuse, if the science were good enough. My impression was from decades back, was that the overall cost, including decommissioning, was the reason for this temporary stoppage of plant production, and it seems that waste, TMI, etc. were a sideshow to the basic economics.

Hurrah, that the costs are under control, and waste storage is becoming a universally accepted non-issue, now that toxicity and realistic (100 year) time frames for control of the waste are now commonly accepted by the scientific community.

Gotta say though, that if this is true, the nuclear industry better get on the horn. Perhaps we will get our technology from France, via Iran.

Anyway, references would be cool, and even a source of discussion on this topic. These issues seem so old. The ice will melt before fusion, will it melt before this waste issue is resolved?

Posted by david hurst | Report as abusive

The EPA’s rule is, to say the least, malicious! Have a question for them: How long they think that the human race will exist in order to be exposed to “unhealthy” levels of nuclear radiation and contamination, given the unavoidable socio-economic and political-military (nuclear?) upheavals that, as the history teaches us, will ensue within a much shorter time than even the three hundred years. To mention natural disasters such as, very probable, asteroid impact, a few Krakatau-size volcanic eruptions and/or melting of the polar ice sheets due to green gases effect, at this juncture, is supefluous.

Posted by desegnac | Report as abusive

I spent 10 years in the US Navy and was qualifed to operate submarine nuclear propulsion plants. I also earned a master’s degree in Nuclear Engineering from MIT and spent several years working on nuclear waste storage and transportation engineering projects. So, I have some knowledge on this subject.

Here’s some additional context to help guide the discussion:
– Nuclear waste volume and radioactivity can be significantly reduced by re-processing spent fuel, extracting useful Plutonium isotopes which can be re-used in power reactors, and separating out the smaller volume of unstable fission products which give off high levels of radioactivity.
– During the Carter administration in the late 1970’s, all federal programs on re-processing were ended as the administration did not want to commit the nation to a “Plutonium economy” with attendant proliferation risks, etc. At the time, the USA had the most advanced programs and knowledge experts in the world.
– At the time this momentous decision was made to abondon the nuclear fuel re-processing cycle, no one had ever heard of “Global Warming” or understood the effects of fossil fuels and greenhouse gases on the environment. At that time, scientists were more worried about the advent of a new Ice Age.
– France has continued its nuclear program–much of it based on technology invented in the USA–and generates about 87% of its electricity from 58 nuclear power plants.
– Nuclear fuel re-processing is a key part of the French program, and it’s fleet of Pressurized Water Reactors (PWR) operate on the so-called mixed oxide fuel cycle (MOX) using re-processed fisionable material (Plutonium) and slightly enriched Uranium.
– Final disposal of high-level nuclear waste in France is planned for a deep geological disposal site.
– Public approval of nuclear power in France is very high, in the 60-70% range.

So, this begs the question, since recent economic events have caused ourthe US federal government to take actions that make the USA seem a lot more like France (i.e. national stake in banking and insurance industries), why not adopt the French approach to energy production as well and re-start the nuclear fuel re-processing cycle once again?

We have new information on the environment that Jimmy Carter never knew about, and there is no other technology out there that can generate the amount of energy nuclear power can in the near term future. I love solar, even have photo-voltaic panels on the roof of my home, but it’s expensive and not for everybody. We need nuclear for the foreseeable future. Let’s start up re-processing and the amount of waste going into Yucca Mountain will be MUCH smaller and more manageable.

Posted by M. Waltrip | Report as abusive

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 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.



Posted by James Harris, Jr | Report as abusive

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.

Posted by M Meurer | Report as abusive

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.

Posted by siburp | Report as abusive

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.

Posted by Paul Rosa | Report as abusive

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!!

Posted by James | Report as abusive

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