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.)

MEANINGLESS COMPUTER SIMULATIONS

“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

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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.

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 http://www.yuccamountain.org/archive/leg 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.

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
http://www.coal2nuclear.com/

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