Obama, politics and nuclear waste

By Bernd Debusmann
March 5, 2010


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

The project involved more than 2,500 scientists. It cost $ 10.5 billion between 1983 and 2009 and it included one of the most bizarre scientific tasks of all time: evaluate whether nuclear waste stored deep inside a Nevada desert mountain would be safe a million years into the future.

That was the safety standard set in September, 2008, by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as a condition for allowing nuclear waste to be stored deep in the belly of the Yucca Mountain, 95 miles (155 km) from Las Vegas, long the subject of political debate and a fine example of nimbyism (not in my backyard).

The vastly complex computer models and simulations experts launched to figure out whether Yucca Mountain would be a safe environment in the year 1,000,000 and beyond ended before there was a scientific conclusion.

President Barack Obama has pulled the plug on the entire Yucca Mountain enterprise, million-year safety study and all, by writing it out of his financial year 2011 budget, which begins in October.

Yucca Mountain’s death by budgetary axe defies logic. It coincides with Obama’s stated support for expanding nuclear power. More reactors mean more waste, now piling up above-ground at sites scattered around the country.

In February, Obama announced $8.3 billion in government loan guarantees for two nuclear reactors in Georgia. They would be the first new plants since the 1979 nuclear meltdown at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania, an accident that caused no casualties but became a rallying symbol for the anti-nuclear movement.

Citizens Against Government Waste, a Washington watchdog group, described abandoning Yucca Mountain without figuring out what to do, long-term, with the toxic nuclear waste produced by new (and existing) reactors as “patently illogical,” a “politicized and short-sighted decision.”

The group is right.

This is a matter of politics trumping science and it involves a president who pledged, in his inaugural address, to “restore science to its rightful place” from where, in the eyes of many Obama partisans, it had been dislodged by the administration of George W. Bush, routinely accused (and often with good reason) of “politicizing science.”

Yucca Mountain, which rises 4,950 feet (1,510 metres) from the Mojave desert, on the edge of a nuclear test site, was meant to be the central burying ground for radioactive waste now stored at 121 sites in 39 states, some 150 million pounds (68 million kg) of toxic stuff and more piling up. The material is initially submerged in pools of water and then sealed in steel and concrete casks.

The idea of shipping them all to a remote site in the desert has had wide appeal – except for most people in Nevada, where Senator Harry Reid, now the leader of the Democratic majority in the Senate, has been waging a relentless campaign against using Yucca.

“I am proud that after two decades of fighting the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste dump, the project is finally being terminated,” Reid writes on his website. “(It) is simply not a safe or secure site to store nuclear waste.”

That’s his opinion. There’s no shortage of scientists who disagree.


During Nevada stops in his campaign for the presidency, Obama came out strongly against Yucca Mountain, a position that helped him beat his Republican rival John McCain and win the hotly-contested state’s five electoral votes.

McCain has called closing the mountain while encouraging new plants “an insult to intelligence.”

Reid is running for re-election in November and he will no doubt hold up the decision on Yucca Mountain as a triumph of his persistence. His poll numbers have not been good recently and it remains to be seen whether Yucca will lift them. Some Republicans are convinced that Obama’s nuclear waste decision was taken purely for the benefit of Reid.

In an op-ed in the Washington Times late in February, Mark Sanford, the Republican governor of South Carolina, home to a nuclear complex holding 36 million gallons of liquid radioactive waste, said that the Obama administration was “walking away from a $10 billion investment and starting all over because of one man’s race for office in Nevada.”
Starting all over?

That process is meant to be initiated by a 15-member Blue Ribbon Commission, a device not infrequently used in Washington to give the appearance of action while actually delaying it. As Citizens Against Government Waste put it: “The administration is kicking the nuclear can down the road, into the next administration and onto the shoulders of future taxpayers.”

The commission, heavy on Washington insiders and relatively light on scientists, has two years “to provide recommendations for developing a safe, long-term solution to managing the nation’s used nuclear fuel and nuclear waste.” Looking for an alternative site to Yucca Mountain, another deep-underground storage facility, apparently is not part of the commission’s brief.

So then what? Start from scratch? Perhaps a return to the dawn of the nuclear age? The options under discussion then included burying radioactive material in the ocean floor, placing it in polar ice sheets — and even blasting it into space.

Reuters file photo shows the remote Nevada site of Yucca Mountain in 2002. REUTERS/STR New

(You can contact the author at Debusmann@Reuters)


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Nuclear waste has to travel to get to Yucca. I totally understand the “Not in my backyard” concern. I do also find it hilarious that public support for nuclear energy is rising, yet I wonder if asked if they could store it buried under their houses what their answer would be. Hey let’s just shoot it into space, that seems like the responsible way to deal with it, ya?

Posted by pyradius | Report as abusive

obama really blew it this time!!! the modeling effort was big time applied math. and, if we’re really going nuclear again, it was completely necessary. obama and his crew clearly no nothing about how to apply science. too bad, given that there’s an indication that the methane nodules in the arctic ocean are beginning to boil.

Posted by jborrow | Report as abusive

It is too bad that we do not plan to use Yucca Mountain as a temporary, monitored and retrievable nuclear reactor waste storage location. It will create jobs in Nevada, it is remote, secure and actually ideal for temporally storing waste. The past fallacy was to consider Yucca Mountain for permanent waste storage rather than a monitored and retrievable temporary waste storage location. It is not a very good geological site for permanent waste storage. But, if we keep waste in Yucca Mountain for about 200 years the waste decays to be just like the radioactive nuclear weapon waste we are currently storing in salt beds in southern NM. The Yucca Mountain waste could be moved to salt beds at that time or possibly in only 100 years. Also in less than 100 years we should be smart enough to reprocess the waste for its reusable fuel material; so permanent storage requirements will be for a greatly reduce volume of waste.

Posted by jtholmesus | Report as abusive

The problem with Yucca Mountain is not the site so much as the function it was intended to serve. The principles of reduce, reuse, and recycle still apply to nuclear power generation. Yucca Mountain was nothing more than a massive landfill.

Not to say that politics didn’t play a role here. I’m quite sure they did. However they were not the only factor. However to say the action is illogical is not true.

Perhaps Obama considered that storing the waste of a once through fuel “cycle” is in fact a poor long term plan. It is much more desirable to process the spent fuel, separating the small quantity (~5%) of “poison” isotopes from the still usable bulk of the fuel. It would reduce the quantity of waste generated per GWh by an order of magnitude as well as reducing the need for a massive facility such as this.

There is also the possibility that a smaller quantity “poison” material can be “burned” off in a fast neutron reactor. These have the potent to convert undesirable radioactive isotopes to either stable or more manageable isotopes (for instance, something with a half-life of a few years or decades, not millions of years.)

Posted by PacingBear | Report as abusive

wait…why isn’t yucca ‘a very good geological site for permanent waste storage’? are you seriously suggesting moving 100 years of nuclear waste out of yucca to some salt beds in nm?????? in a 100 years, there’ll be no one smart enough in this country to even unlock yucca (assuming it get’s locked in the first place).

Posted by jborrow | Report as abusive

Yucca Mountain is toast. Obama kept his promise, which promise got him voted into office. End of discussion.

Next discussion: where to dispose of nuclear waste that isn’t in anybody’s backyard?

Posted by DisgustedReader | Report as abusive

The sun is a big fusion reactor that reduces everything (even nuclear waste) to its basic elements. Why not rocket our waste into the sun and be done.

Posted by DisgustedReader | Report as abusive

Obama will say/do anything to keep Harry Reid from being defeated.

Posted by GRJensen | Report as abusive

I can just here the 2012 campaign slogans now, I was against nuclear waste storage at Yucca Mountain before I was for building new nuclear reactors! I stand in awe of his mule-headed reasoning.

Posted by redmule | Report as abusive

100000 million years? You kidding me? We will have mastered the cosmos within the next few thousand years. I am usually more about looking long term but as long as its contained we really only need to be looking short term do the rapid pace we are approaching the technological singularity.

Posted by Natheya | Report as abusive

In 2 million years, if people exist, they would find an intact and forgotten Yucca mountain still safe with it’s nuclear waste stores.
They would then thank their version of God for the free fuel to power whatever machines they build to use it in.
But, Obama screwed ‘em.

Posted by sammy4231 | Report as abusive

Here is the news. There are over 300 atomic bomb test sites in Nevada left over from the 1950′s. They are on the surface and they are radioactive glass (caused by the extreme heat and radiation from bombs placed in towers 150 feet above the desert sand) that will be dangerous to human life for the next 30,000 years. To not put radioactive waste there where it is all ready contaminated is just plain crazy.

Posted by arcoknuti | Report as abusive

It is extremely expensive to launch anything, especially heavy nuclear waste.

Currently there are no fast neutron reactors.

So, we are stuck with using swimming pools, like the Europeans, or putting it under a mountain.

And if we can keep it safe for 100 years mankind will have worked out a way to use or permanently destroy the stored waste. Come on, Harry, get with the program. Someday Yucca will be called ‘Gold Mountain’ and the citizens of Nevada will thank you for safely storing this valuable resource in their state.

Posted by worldcitizen | Report as abusive

They should just take the nuclear waste and put them into conventional airburst bombs.

Not only will it create a ‘dirty bomb’ arsenal capable of stabbing fear into the hearts of men, but it ensures that the nation’s nuclear waste will be guarded by military personnel.

Posted by Anon86 | Report as abusive

Why don’t we shoot the stuff into the sun? Maybe because it’s super dangerous and we could never afford it….

100k tons X $20m/ton = $2 Trillion to launch it all, every 20 years or so. Much cheaper to bury it. Or reprocess it.

Posted by mamaway | Report as abusive

The problem is that after $10.5 billion the project can be stopped without a final conclusion from the scientists who work at it. It is a problem because of two important and simple issues:
o First, the money has been spent to reach no conclusion at all. It might be worth keep on spending more in order to find an answer, but Obama’s administration dose not seem to go in such direction.
o Second, the nuclear waste has to be put in the safest possible place, as it requires millions of years to become non-contaminant. But the project to determine the safeness of this place can be terminated without a conclusion.
However, both points can be watched from a different perspective when trying to answer one question: Is the project really necessary? There is no real problem if we consider that there are many places spread through the country with safe nuclear waste’s warehouses.
• The evidence given to support the points set ahead in this essay is not conclusive. If the 2011 budget does not mention the Yucca Mountain’s project it does not mean that there will not be any expenses on nuclear safety or alternatives. And there are many places who accomplish the requirements of long term security.
• The essay mentions the Republican Party’s view. However, more evidence is required to consider this issue as a political strategy. An election’s date is not enough to infer such conclusion. In the end, most people in Nevada do not want to be the country’s nuclear waste and so, the decision seems to be logical. If we have a look at the basic general rules about risk, we find that one of them is diversification. Is it really safer to move the whole wastes to a unique place? Where are the rest of the nuclear wastes? Are themin Republican or Democratic states? Maybe the answer to the questions would help us to decide if there are just political interests behind this issue.
• As a conclusion, although the Yucca Mountain’s project has cost a lot of money, it does not mean that it is the best and unique solution. Cost of opportunity is always an important fact. Maybe it is a better idea to tackle the situation from a broader point of view, by considering other alternatives or even continuing with old policies.

Posted by altecword | Report as abusive

The politicos say we need nuclear, but any study, work or actions that will not bear fruit during their tenure are dropped.
Rather than storage of this stuff for 1 million years. Really quite a ridiculous idea. Surely a better idea would be to concentrate efforts in to making it safe now, ie using the radioactivity to generate heat to make electricity until it is spent to the point of no longer dangerous. Not only does this mean not having a large potential bomb lying around for a million years but creates a new transferable and income generating industry in reprocessing.
Considering the amount of waste generated in the world and the age of most nuclear reactors this is something which must be undertaken now. The Russian and American fleets have nuclear reactors, so do the other nuclear powered navies of the world. This is without the weapons to be decommissioned. Add this to the sources put out by hospitals etc there must be millions of tonnes each year. This is going to need a lot of big holes to fill!
Science makes the stuff dangerous; surely science should be able to make it safe!

Posted by Confusus | Report as abusive

Its impossible to model all future scenarios for the next one million years – the number of variables that would needed to be taken into account are astronomical and some are probably unknown. But its obvious that Yucca Mountain is a better site for nuclear waste storage than locations that are next plants that are located near populated areas. Yucca Mountain is located far away from human habitation: Why aren’t we doing this already?`

Posted by piwarsk1 | Report as abusive

Its impossible to model all future scenarios for the next one million years – the number of variables that would needed to be taken into account are astronomical and some are probably unknown. But its obvious that Yucca Mountain is a better site for nuclear waste storage than locations that are next plants that are located near populated areas. Yucca Mountain is located far away from human habitation: Why aren’t we doing this already?

Posted by piwarsk1 | Report as abusive

Brilliant article , its great to bring these facts to light, might be politics or otherwise, but nevertheless important .

Posted by Ismailtaimur | Report as abusive

Something has to be done with this Nuclear waste. I firmly believe that The Yucca Mountain project has to be commissioned. Not a lot of people out there. Plus, I’m pretty sure we have the technology to ensure nuclear waste’s safety.

Fossil fuels are going to run out soon. The time, wherein nuclear energy becomes our major source of energy, will surely come. Nuclear energy will expand, and we need Yucca Mountain to accommodate its waste.

Posted by NucleoMatt | Report as abusive