Gregg Easterbrook

The danger of spent-fuel rods and the Yucca Mountain project

March 18, 2011

JAPAN-QUAKE/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

19 comments so far | RSS Comments RSS

I suppose I could point out that dry storage cannot occur for up to 5 years after cooling in pools, but your real intent of this column became obvious when you stated that the President cancelled Yucca because, “Environmentalists hate deep storage, because by solving the atomic-waste problem, this would eliminate an argument against nuclear power.” Obvious bias is obvious.

Posted by moneywon | Report as abusive

Mr Easterbrook, by burying the radioactive waste it would be a mistake to think ‘great problem over, now lets go for a drink…’ The radioactive waste products remain harmful to human health for a very long period indeed, while some have half life times of days or weeks others have a half life in excess of 100,000years and 1 million years. Not only the casing material but also its environment has to remain stable, its structural and shielding integrity has to be assured during this time. We have no experience of testing and therefore verifying material behaviour over this period nor in respect of long term geological stability, and can therefore not be assured that we not condemning future generations to unknown further risks. It needs more carefully considered thought. In the UK they are considering deep storage beneath the Irish Sea. That might end up being very expensive to revisit if hydrogeological changes occur and you have a leak, not good if the country was bankrupt at the time- which of course it now is. Yes on site storage ponds pose their own problems and careful consideration should be given to separate facilities, but deep burial is not a simple solution in itself.

Posted by Patrick13 | Report as abusive

Yes, it’s true, I do not support the Yucca Mountain Repository because it will green-light further development of nuclear power in the US.
Until we take responsibility, at a local level, for our waste of all kinds, we will not make the necessary behavioral changes to live within our environmental budget.

I believe the utilities who say nuclear is such an inexpensive, low-impact energy option should pay ALL costs to store the waste next to or below their CEO’s home.
They should also have no limits to liability(aka. corporate welfare), and they should have no taxpayer loan guarantees(aka. corporate welfare).

The biosphere comes first!


Posted by antonionio | Report as abusive

the nuke industry would love a ‘bury&forget’ solution, right? so they can keep selling the myth of “clean and cheap” energy without having life-threatening waste products in their sight for the next few hundres of thousands of years.

And that preliminary document you cite: have you actually read the “goofiest document ever”? The EPA described why an assesment of post-10,000 years scenario is relevant, but they also stated in their proposal, that the NRC is NOT TO USE post-10,000 results for their assesment. However, “in its comments on our proposal, NRC stated that, if DOE uses post-10,000-year results to bolster its compliance case, ‘‘the Commission should not be constrained from considering such information’’”

and although the EPA presented justifications for departing from the million-year recommendation, another Appeals Court in 2004 ruled that this departure violated Congress’s instructions.

So you’re saying, the DOE, the NRC and the Congress are fools, because they want to protect the citizens from a waste product which will remain a threat to public health for hundreds of thousand of years. Wow. You, sir, must be loved by the nuke industry.

Posted by cyberleptic | Report as abusive

“In September 2007, it was discovered that the Bow Ridge fault line ran underneath the [Yucca Mountain] facility … The concern is that, in an earthquake, the unanchored casks of nuclear waste material awaiting burial at Yucca Mountain could be sent into a ‘chaotic melee of bouncing and rolling juggernauts’.”
From Wikipedia, not exactly a source of strong anti-nuclear activity. (Note that 2007 is *after* the Senate report you cite.)

The disposal of nuclear waste is a problem that has never been solved, despite your optimism. For the last 50+ years we’ve arrogantly assumed that a tech-fix is right around the corner. But it’s folly to assume the thing you are trying to prove. Do you believe that geology is perfectly understood, enough to predict what will happen in the next 10,000 years? Apparently not, since you say, “We can’t reliably predict what will happen next week”. You can’t have it both ways.

Really, it’s disgraceful, irresponsible journalism to assert that this is some kind of personal vendetta from the sitting President of the United States. (I’m guessing that you think he hates America, too.) Yucca Mtn has never been uncontroversial. You’re trying to sweep the controversy under the carpet.

And what about the risks that would be involved in moving all of that radwaste across the roads of America?

Posted by st3v3 | Report as abusive

The author writes: “Environmentalists hate deep storage, because by solving the atomic-waste problem, this would eliminate an argument against nuclear power.”

Isn’t it stretching the truth a bit to presume to know what’s in the minds of people who disagree with you, and to claim they all have such simple motives?

I consider myself an environmentalist, and I oppose Yucca Mtn *only* because the storage is planned to be unretrievable, in a site where leakage is likely to occur within centuries. We simply lack the technology now to store waste for the periods required, but Yucca Mtn locks us into today’s solution.

Redesign the facility so we can take the waste back out in half a century when we’ve figured out a viable way to store it for the long term, and I’ll stand at the tracks cheering as spent fuel rods go to a safe interim destination! It’s an excellent place to store waste, so long as it can be monitored and retrieved.

It’s anticipated that drums at Yucca Mtn will corrode away as residual heat draws moisture from the salt deposits; the storage facility depends on the vast, impermeable mass of salt to prevent waste from migrating far. That hasn’t turned out to be such a sure design, and there will eventually be a lot of waste to migrate if we’re wrong.

So can’t we compromise on it as a medium-term, retrievable facility, and refrain from impugning each other’s motives?

Posted by rerickson | Report as abusive

The nuclear industry would like to reduce the waste problem by using it as fuel in specially designed reactors. The whole issue with non-retrievable burial is that it discards a product that is still valuable. Reprocess and recycle and the amount of waste will be greatly reduced. The environmentalist insist on recycling of useful garbage to reduce the volume going to landfills. Nuclear waste can be treated this way also.

The nuclear industry has paid for their waste disposal. The US government has taken the money but done nothing except study the problem. Let the government set the requirements and the standards then let the industry solve the problem. We know how, we are not allowed.

Posted by TheBWRexpert | Report as abusive

Another great article.

I thought it would be worth mentioning the Oklo Natural Nuclear Reactor- a site in Gabon where nuclear fission occurred spontaneously billions of years ago.

Due to geological conditions and the composition of isotopes during the time period, underground uranium deposits underwent a series of cycles of fission activity.

Despite the passing of billions of years and the geological changes during this time, and no containment structure whatsoever, the waste materials from the reactions have moved only a few metres from their origins.

Posted by KmacKenzie | Report as abusive

hmmm, the choices are to keep spent rods indefinatly in constant maintenance cooling pools , in and around populated areas where an accident can, and will happen given time.. or dry store them underground in a little to no maintenance enviroment distanced from any population….. allowing time and technology to solve the question of how to permenatly dispose of or render them inert through a process…
Ill go with the leaky bucket method on the back porch cuz i like my water to glow at night

Posted by steveorlando | Report as abusive

So you would rather we waste our valuable hydrocarbon reserves,remain dependent upon unstable regimes for our energy supplies, create CO2 and pollute the world today? And please don’t suggest windmills will cure all or that we should all cut back – it will never happen.

Posted by pavlaki | Report as abusive

We treat radioactivity as its some magic force. Natural radioactivity is all around us. If we added up all the natural radioactivity on the planet. It dwarfs by a factors of millions what we produce in fuel rods. If you look at the radioactive elements in space its zillions of times more. But thats why our planet special circumstance has allowed life to evolve. We have water, we have oxygen, and we have many 100′s of other perfect things – including a zone with a low amount of radioactivity. Why wouldn’t we put it deep in the earth? There have been giant natural nuclear reactors below ground and its never hurt us. Any event that would push those up is so gigantic that the radioactivity gets dispersed to a safe level. The other irony is by destroying our atmosphere by burning oil we risk damaging our protection from cosmic radiation which we much worse than any nuclear plant meltdown. We always talk about global warming but there are elements of climate change that could kill us all within 20 years; one of those is a drastic increase in stellar radiation.

Solution: Make nuclear plants, demystify radioactivity, accept we will have some deaths from accidents, minimize these accidents by getting rid of waste below ground, understand that fossil fuels risk killing more people but in a less dramatic fashion and invest in lowering the cost of tidal, wind, solar, geo energy which every intelligent scientist knows will provide 100% of our energy in 100 years anyway. All we have to do is make it a few more decades – during this time storing concentrated radioactive material in the very small habitable zone that we live in not very smart. Yucca is a good idea but we need a few dozen of these sites that would compete for the business around the world.

Posted by John2244 | Report as abusive

Thank you cyberleptic for saying what is truly honest. Furthermore, since we’re on the subject of earthquakes, do you know the real reason why they cancelled the Yucca Mountain project? I believe there were three small scale earthquakes less than 20 miles from the mountain. Are you telling me that humans will be able to safely store radioactive material in a fault-encrusted zone for 500,000 years?

Posted by thothy | Report as abusive

This may seem silly but why can’t we put this stuff in rockets and shoot it at the sun?

Posted by kyle7624 | Report as abusive

No source of energy is without a tradeoff. since 2010 people were killed when an oil platform exploded and the oil well spewed oil in the gulf for several months. miners were killed in a WVA mine. coal, oil and gas spew tons of carbon into our atmosphere by the second. i’m having a hard time understanding why we are not working harder at making a nuclear a better long term option. the technology is there to do this safely. we just need the will.

Posted by TownDrunk | Report as abusive

Store them underneath the white house, put it back in their own backyard.

Posted by halloween | Report as abusive

Firing nuclear waste products at the sun seems a little extreme. Firing heavily refined nuclear waste at Mercury using Delta IV heavy payload rockets ?

Posted by Stewinthefat | Report as abusive

To “kyle7624″: How many launch accidents are experienced every 100 attempts? Do you really want to risk spreading nuclear waste across the planet? Whoops, has already been done by the surface and atmospherice testing of nuclear weapons. It seems almost anything can be done for the cause of “national security”. Perhaps we see now that dealing with spent nuclear fuel should be such a cause.

What is wrong with placing nuclear wastes into casks and lowering those casks into the deep ocean subduction zones and letting plate tectonics carry them back deep into the molten core from which all radioactive minerals originated? The Russians have already done this in the Artic but they did not bother to seek out a deep subduction zone.

Posted by TheBWRexpert | Report as abusive

A much better solution does indeed exist. It’s called recycling. Recycling nuclear fuel would allow us to conserve precious resources and reduces the amount of waste we must send to a repository like Yucca Mountain. Every nation with a significant nuclear sector, with the exception of the U.S., recycles its nuclear fuel. Recycling makes nuclear energy more sustainable — We should take this opportunity to reconsider this option.

Posted by ulan2345 | Report as abusive

I agree with ulan2345….Recycle and reduce…Since Yucca Mountain is about ready, we can send a much smaller amount.Billions of dollars have already been spent on studies and building, and still no storage. Taxpayers cannot afford more. Recycling nuclear will cost, but better to start now than spend billions more looking for alternative and end up in the same place we are now.

Posted by patworth | Report as abusive

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