Yucca Mountain

This will always be a controversial program. It always will be. Even after it's done.

Paul Golan, Acting Director, U.S. Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management [21]

Long ago, each city or village managed its own energy sources and its own waste stream, since all consumption and pollution was local. The modern era post-consumption waste stream has changed dramatically. In a pre-industrial society, trash degrades rapidly. Modern and ancient society equally share a propensity to move waste beyond sight and smell and tend to discount long term effects. This dynamic has changed as the world has grown more populous and our waste more dangerous, and the lasting negative consequences of the latter become more evident.

People understood taking our own waste [but we] couldn't accept becoming the trash can for the world.

Beaumont-Hague representative for Greenpeace Yannick Rousselet [22]

Eisenhower's "Atoms for Peace" speech at the United Nations in 1953 signaled the beginning of the industrialized world's efforts to harness for benign use the seemingly clean (e.g., no smokestack emissions) and unlimited power of atomic energy. Research, generation, and nuclear medicine require the sharing of some nuclear technology and the creation of waste. While much U.S. waste is stored in situ pending transfer to the national repository, 41 countries are shipping spent fuel back to the U.S. regardless of available permanent storage. The first shipment transported by train to Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory was received at the Concord Naval Weapons Station, California, in 1998. This transport occurred despite a legislative resolution calling on DOE to stop shipments pending due notice, safety and environmental reviews. City councils, boards of supervisors, and other elected officials opposed the shipments [23]. East Coast arrivals are received in Charleston, South Carolina and transported to Savannah River [24]. Of 20 metric tons to be returned, 19 will arrive on the East Coast; a portion of this waste will be transported cross country to the Idaho facility.

Countries using nuclear power share a problem beyond managing spent fuel and other waste; the generation facilities also deteriorate over time, and ultimately will be decommissioned (taken out of use.) Of 438 commercial reactors operating in 31 countries, 100 are at least 40 years old. The common strategy of managing waste onsite in spent fuel pools cannot be continued when the plant itself, also contaminated, becomes part of the waste stream. So every decommissioning strategy must include waste management of entire facilities [25]. A handful of U.S. commercial nuclear units have closed, among them San Onofre-I, Yankee, Trojan, Shoreham and Rancho Seco, principally because ongoing operations and maintenance expenses make the electricity uncompe-titive with fossil fuel generation. The NRC is responsible for decommissioning activities, and these cannot be complete until spent fuel is removed to Yucca Mountain.

A site, when decommissioned and delicensed, also disposes of all facilities at the location. In the case of Rancho Seco, management contracted for removal and long term storage of contaminated facilities with a private firm, Envirocare of Utah, which operates a storage site near a railroad siding named Clive, 80 miles west of Salt Lake City [26]. Envirocare is a privately-held firm originally established to store naturally occurring radioactive waste from a Superfund siteā€”the Vitro tailings alongside I-15 in Salt Lake City. It upgraded its license to accept several thousand railcars of radium-contaminated soil from a Denver Superfund site and obtained a Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) Part B permit to receive mixed waste. The firm was sold in 2005, at which point it gave up its RCRA Part B Permit and withdrew its application for class B and C waste. It retains a Class A low-level permit.

The government of France has developed an energy strategy to reduce dependence on imported fossil fuels. This has resulted in increasing dependence on nuclear power for electric generation. The nation meets more than three-quarters of its electric needs through nuclear generation, though this still comprises only about 20% of its total energy supply, due to dependence on oil for transportation. To limit the amount of long-term storage required for spent fuel, France reprocesses it, at substantial cost, at Beaumont-Hague for its own industry. The nation reduces its direct subsidy for this task by offering to reprocess spent fuel for other nations, particularly Germany and Japan [26].

The Yucca Mountain repository has yet to be constructed, though it will develop as an extension to the Exploratory Studies Facility (ESF) tunnel. More than two decades after Congress tasked DOE to provide a permanent geologic repository, the site consists of a 5 mile, U-shaped tunnel, 25 feet in diameter, adjacent to the repository block and associated surface structures. Basically level, the tunnel is bored into the side of the ridge whose top rises to approximately 1000 feet above the geologic layer of dense volcanic tuff where smaller tunnels will be drilled to contain the spent fuel. Experiments have been done in thirteen alcoves and niches (smaller, unventilated alcoves) of varying depth below the ridge, to investigate geologic and hydrologic properties of the rock. A second, smaller tunnel, called the Cross Drift, crosses the repository block. This tunnel allowed researchers to investigate faulting at the block's margins and to perform thermal simulations of spent fuel decay. Based on these studies, the DOE's Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management (OCRWM) is preparing an application with the NRC to license the block's operation. The application may be submitted by 2008, with an anticipated date for opening the repository for shipments of 2020 [21]. This would be 22 years later than the original target date, with all existing waste stored elsewhere in the meantime.

While the Yucca Mountain Project is being completed, interim storage must be arranged. Onsite storage at U.S. power plants is near or at capacity, and the managers of these facilities have sued the DOE to develop interim options. In September 2005, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission approved for temporary use a site in Utah at the Goshute Reservation/Skull Valley; it serves as a warehouse for as much as 44 thousand tons in mobile containers [27]. However, an enlargement of the Cedar Mountains Wilderness Area signed into law as part of a defense bill in January 2006 may block the development of this site.

If and when the Yucca Mountain repository is licensed to receive shipments, the process will be slow. It will take 108,000 truck shipments or 3000 train trips to deliver all the waste to Yucca Mountain, and these shipments are expected to take over 20 years [27,28].

The logistics of moving well over 100,000 tons of material to Yucca Mountain opens the question of whether the longstanding U.S. policy against reprocessing of nuclear fuel might be revisited. The only approved permanent storage facility in the U.S. has a designed capacity of 70,000 metric tons. In 2002, The NRC estimated that 45,000 metric tons of high-level waste was in temporary storage, mainly onsite at power plants and national research laboratories. This has grown to some 55,000 metric tons, with an annual growth rate of 2000 metric tons per year. Existing nuclear facilities will completely fill Yucca Mountain with the current and future spent fuel, based on the estimated life of the plants.

What is the point of creating a storage site that will be filled to capacity before it even opens?

Senator Dianne Feinstein [28]

Three solutions have been suggested to resolve the Yucca Mountain capacity problem: increasing its storage capacity, reprocessing spent fuel to reduce the volume of material that must be permanently placed in secure storage, or storing material at one or many secondary sites yet to be determined. On April 4, 2006, in an administrative sleight of hand, the U.S. Department of Energy announced it would support restating Yucca Mountain's ability to manage spent fuel to its "true technical [unstated] capacity," estimated at more than twice the statutory quantity. This action appears directly linked to the nuclear industry's expressed "wish list" for legislative action, made public weeks earlier [29]. The industry is unhappy that decades of payments to the Federal government to establish the repository have yet to result in any available storage, requiring individual firms to construct expensive and sophisticated temporary storage facilities. Additionally, if there is to be any augmentation in nuclear energy, there must be a collateral increase in available permanent storage.

They [DOE] have our money, we have their fuel; it's time to close the deal.

Nuclear Energy Institute Director of Used Fuel Management Steve Kraft [29]

The issue of confirmed storage space for the nuclear industry is called waste confidence, because it represents confidence in the Department of Energy to create and manage a permanent waste repository. Over $750 million is collected each year through rate surcharges to fund the permanent repository (tentatively Yucca Mountain) and DOE is contractually obligated to receive commercial nuclear waste. The original 1998 target date and subsequent dates have not been achieved.

In addition to spent nuclear fuel, some defense waste is also tentatively scheduled for Yucca Mountain. In 2002, the Department of Energy changed its plans for the management of a quantity of surplus weapons-grade plutonium. Rather than "immobilize" half of it in casks for long term storage, DOE decided to reprocess all 34 tons into mixed-oxide fuel, at a plant to be constructed specifically for this purpose at Savannah River. The reprocessed material will be fuel for Duke Power's nuclear generators from 2008 to 2021 [30]. InHanford, 55 million gallons of mixed radioactive waste water will be processed into vitrified pellets, stable enough for transport from Washington to Yucca Mountain. The project to build the vitrification plant, however, has tripled in estimated cost and its completion date has been extended an estimated 6 years, to 2017 [31]. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) April, 2006 report attributes some portion of the problem to a "design/build" project orientation that allows for construction prior to full specification.

The Yucca Mountain Project continues to experience management problems that seem resistant to correction. A March 2006 GAO report highlights the inability of DOE to establish essential credibility with the NRC. Persistent quality assurance problems must appear resolved prior to submitting a credible license application as required to construct and open the Yucca Mountain facility. Project leadership has been unstable, with 9 of 17 key management positions turning over between 2001 and 2006, under three different directors. Over 14 million e-mails are being reviewed, following the disclosure in some e-mails from the period from 1998 to 2000 that suggest possible falsification of records [32].

Science by peer pressure is dangerous but sometime [SIC] it is necessary.

You don't really need to do an analysis just say this is the data I used.

Maybe that would work.

P.S. please destroy this memo.

Excerpts from U.S. Geological Survey e-mails on the Yucca Mountain Project [33]

The e-mail messages under Congressional review call into question the reliability of computer models confirming that the Yucca Mountain area is geologically suitable. These models were created after an earthquake of magnitude 5.6 damaged a nearby DOE field office in 1992, undermining earlier assertions that the site is adequately distant from seismic zones. Nevada, the nation's third most seismically active state, displays a "basin and range" geology consisting of many small, roughly north/south fault lines pushing up rocky ridges with flat, dry basins between. At Yucca Mountain, two fault lines are involved in the repository layer. For long term nuclear waste storage, site suitability derives from the presumption that the storage can be deep and dry. Near the repository site, the water table is several hundred feet lower than in surrounding areas, as it is geologically linked to Death Valley, the lowest place in the U.S. The depth of the repository, hundreds of feet underground by virtue of the ridge directly above, is also several hundred feet above this water table; however it is lower in places than the neighboring water table. Hypothetically, if an earthquake were to fracture the rock separating these two areas, the repository could be flooded, potentially resulting in wide dispersion of radioactivity [34]. Computer modeling and testing onsite suggest this will not happen.

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