The danger of spent-fuel rods and the Yucca Mountain project
At the malfunctioning Japanese atomic reactor, attention has shifted from the cores to the spent-fuel pools as the real radiation threat — the spent-fuel pools contain far more uranium than the reactor cores. Guess where most spent-fuel rods are stored in the United States? In pools at atomic power stations: exactly the situation at the Fukushima power plant in Japan.
There are much safer alternatives. One is “dry cask” storage of atomic waste, which does not require constant circulation of cooling water. Failure of cooling water circulation caused both the Three Mile Island and Fukushima accidents.
Hardly any of the spent fuel at Fukushima has been transferred to dry casks — only about five percent. That’s why the current emergency is extreme. Some atomic waste in the United States has been transferred to dry casks — your columnist once visited such an installation. Most has not, because dry casks are more expensive than wet pools and incredibly, U.S regulations do not mandate this safety step.
There is an even better idea than dry casks — the Yucca Mountain storage area in Nevada, designed specifically for spent fuel rods. Since 1992, the federal government has planned to move old fuel rods thousands of feet below the Nevada desert. Some $10 billion has been spent building the tunnels and elevators of the Yucca Mountain facility. The National Academy of Sciences has reviewed the design. A 2006 Senate report called Yucca Mountain “the most studied real estate on the planet.” Much of the spent fuel rods in the United States could already be far underground beneath Yucca Mountain, eliminating not just a Fukushima-style risk but all risks posed by this material.
Except that immediately after taking office in 2009, President Barack Obama cancelled the Yucca Mountain project. Environmentalists hate deep storage, because by solving the atomic-waste problem, this would eliminate an argument against nuclear power. With pollution-free electricity from the atom increasingly attractive because of climate change, environmental orthodoxy wants the spent-rods problem to continue indefinitely.
Obama also cancelled Yucca Mountain as a favor to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who had to stand for reelection in 2010. Many Nevada voters oppose Yucca Mountain — they want atomic wastes stored somewhere else. Voters in all states say “not in my backyard” to spent reactor fuel rods (and to practically everything else). But old reactor rods must go into someone’s backyard. The alternative is leaving them in everyone’s backyard, by leaving them at power plants.
Of course politics is always a factor in Washington decisions. But for President Obama to cancel a badly needed safety facility in order to appease an interest group, and to help reelect a senator who supports his agenda, was placing Obama’s personal interests ahead of the national interest. That was disgraceful.
Since not many people follow power-production issues, the president’s 2009 decision went unnoticed outside of Nevada. Now, with a nuclear emergency in Japan, the foolishness of cancelling Yucca Mountain should become a high-profile matter. Opening this facility would allow the systematic elimination of most risk posed by spent fuel rods at U.S. power plants. And there’s no serious argument (there are plenty of nutty arguments) that moving old fuel rods from leaky pools at reactor facilities, to deep underground in a stable geologic formation, won’t improve public safety without environmental risk.
Consider this quote: “If a relatively simple dry-cask fuel-rods storage system 200 feet from a parking lot can render nuclear wastes nearly harmless, how can it be that burying the same wastes deep below a remote desert is an astonish risk to the biosphere?” Your columnist wrote those words 16 years ago, in my book on environmental policy, A Moment on the Earth. I never would have guessed that 16 years later the country would still be avoiding the same problem.
The emergency at Fukushima is a warning to the United States — stop playing politics with old atomic materials, open the Yucca Mountain facility and eliminate public-health risk from spent fuel rods.
Note 1: For “dry cask” storage, spent fuel rods first are cooled in water for about a year, then surrounded by inert gases and encased in steel. Wrapping your arms around a dry cask would be a bad idea. At about 200 feet, Geiger counters show no radiation.
Note 2: Renee Schoff of McClatchy News Service reports that many utilities continue to use dangerous wet-pool storage of old fuel rods simply because federal regulations don’t require them to build safer dry casks.
Note 3: Here is one of the goofiest federal documents of all time, an Environmental Protection Agency forecast of what will happen to Yucca Mountain over the next million years. We can’t reliably predict what will happen next week.
Photos, top to bottom: Plutonium-uranium mixed oxide (MOX) fuel rods are placed in a storage pool at the No. 3 reactor of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Fukushima Prefecture, northern Japan, in this picture taken August 21, 2010. REUTERS/Kyodo; The U.S. Energy Department approved on January 10, 2001 the remote Nevada site of Yucca Mountain as the final resting place for the nation’s vast amounts of radioactive waste, a plan immediately opposed by the Senate’s top two Democrats. A repository would be built under the mountain, 90 miles from Las Vegas, and would store 70,000 tons of radioactive materials from the nation’s nuclear power plants for about 10,000 years. REUTERS/Dept Of Energy-Handout RC/HB