Yucca Mountain’s Future

Posted on Sunday, March 3rd, 02002 by Peter Schwartz
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This article was written by Peter Schwartz for Red Herring’s 02002 Scenarios issue. This is the original un-edited piece.

Yucca Mountain

Yucca Mountain in southern Nevada is more a ridge than a mountain. It slowly rises from a height of four thousand feet to six thousand feet along its’ length of six miles. On February 28 seven colleagues of mine from the Board and staff of The Long Now Foundation rode in an open train into one of the biggest holes in the world bored into the face of Yucca Mountain. Beginning at the north portal of a five-mile long C shaped tunnel the train carried us about a mile and half into Yucca Mt. In 1997 the 25-foot diameter borer machine emerged from the face of the mountain to open the other end of the tunnel three miles south of the north portal. For most of its length the tunnel is about a thousand feet beneath the summit of the mountain and even more important a thousand feet above the water table. That’s important because, of course, this tunnel in Yucca Mountain is where the United States government is intending to store the nation’s high level nuclear waste for the next ten thousand years and beyond.


The question of the future of Yucca Mountain has become very current because on February 14, 2002 Secretary of Energy Spencer Abrams recommended the approval of Yucca Mt to the President who acted the next day to notify the Congress of his intention to go ahead. By the time you read this it is virtually certain that the Governor of Nevada will have acted to veto the project as the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 allows him to do. Congress then has 90 session days to override the governor. The issue in the Congress will undoubtedly be highly contentious in both the Republican controlled House and the Democrat controlled Senate with the outcome not predetermined. In the end it is likely that the Congress will go along with the President because no other state want’s nuclear waste in their backyards either.

The more than five miles of tunnels, cross drifts and alcoves that have been drilled so far are really part of what is called the Exploratory Studies Facility. It is a research program, costing $8 billion so far, intended to prove the safety of the repository for ten thousand years. If it morphs into the actual nuclear waste site then they will bore another sixty miles of tunnels branching off the main one where they will actually store the hot waste. Deep in the tunnel we saw one of the current research projects designed to test the consequences of the heating that the sealed in nuclear waste will produce. In a tunnel branching several hundred feet off the main tunnel we found the last half sealed off. Peering through a very hot pane of glass we could see along row of huge heaters lined up back into the end of the tunnel. The heaters had raised the temperature in the tunnel to several hundred degrees over four and had just been turned off a few weeks ago for their four year cool down.

What’s the urgency to get Yucca Mt on line? Today the country’s 104 nuclear plants and the nuclear weapons program have produced 40, 000 metric tons of spend fuel. By 2035 it will be two and a half times that. Most of that waste is currently stored in 33 states at a few Dept. of Energy sites and at the sites of 72 nuclear power plants in what are euphemistically called “swimming pools.” These were designed as temporary storage sites where the risks of dangerous failures are increasing over time. So something must be soon with the existing waste let alone what is to come. And even if we get started now it will be 2010 before any waste goes underground. It will take that long to build out the necessary infrastructure for handling this very nasty stuff.

This is very big science and truly great engineering at the service of bad politics. At Yucca Mt we met remarkably creative people who have spent much of their working lives in very harsh conditions trying to solve one of the toughest problems we have in this country. That the problem as posed is insoluble is not their doing. Politicians on both sides of the issue, proponents and opponents of nuclear power have engaged in the politics of illusion at great cost to the American people. The opponents that cannot be realistically achieved have set a target of perfect isolation for 10,000 years. This is their way of blocking nuclear power. So the proponents in turn design a deceptive process to validate the achievement of an unattainable goal.

So what are the options? We can leave them where scattered around the country in temporary facilities. This has very high risks of something wrong and no one finds it acceptable. We could recycle the fuel for reuse. So far, however, cost, its own environmental problems and most of all, the dangers of nuclear weapons proliferation, have stopped nuclear fuel reprocessing. Most current process for recycling nuclear waste yields plutonium that can be used for weapons.

Or as currently planned we can store somewhere for along time. That means Yucca Mt or somewhere else. No one wants nuclear fuel around but Yucca Mt has a few advantages. It sits at the edge of the Nevada Nuclear weapons testing site. Shortly after clearing the gate of the site if instead of turning left toward Yucca Mt we had turned right we would have encountered dozens of sites of nuclear weapons test both above ground and underground. As it was we crossed Jackass Flats where we tested a nuclear powered rocket motor in the late fifties and early sixties. This isn’t prime development real estate. Indeed some hint of the local attitude is the fact that there are two prisons on the 100-mile drive out from Las Vegas.

There are several possible scenarios for the future of Yucca Mt. The opponents could successfully block it indefinitely. It is not too hard to imagine opponents lying across the railroad tracks as the nuclear waste trains make their way to Nevada. It ends up like some other federal energy related projects, never being used. Something else would have to come along, like cheap safe recycling to make this an enduring scenario. Eventually you have to clean up the local mess one way or the other.

Of course, we could put the waste into Yucca Mt and remains their uneventfully for tens of thousands of years stretching on indefinitely into the future. However it is not impossible that something goes wrong relatively soon, say in the next thousand years. Perhaps the heat and the radioactivity lead to the breakdown of the storage vessels soon along with more rapid intrusion of water into the repository could lead to the poisoning of the aquifer. This would lead to big regrets.

Or as I think most likely we will put it in and take it out. There is likely no better answer in the short run. But I think we will be come so concerned about the consequences of burning hydrocarbons, especially the impact on climate change that we will want to revive nuclear power. We may come to want the usable fuel buried in the waste. The technology for fuel reprocessing and for nuclear plants themselves are both likely to improve dramatically in the future. We just don’t when. There are no risk free answers. But it appears that the balance of risks and the least regrets scenario is to store the waste at Yucca Mt and invest in better re-cycling technology to create future options for our children.

-Peter Schwartz 3/3/02002

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  • i think they shouldnt store it there because people live near, and it might affect.

  • Remington Hutchison

    Nuclear waste is hazardous to our health yes, but the technology has improved the fundimentals of the use, opperation, and disposal of nuclear waste so that we dont have to worry about getting sick due to radiation poisioning. To put it into prospective, dariation is all around us, the things we use give off radiation like your computer moniter and your television set, the sell phone that for mose people is glued to their head is giving off radiation, and the bananna is the most radioactive fruit we eat. We all know radioactive products are dangerous, but its alot better than using coal. If you compair the amount of time a pound of coal to a pound of uranium would be able to run a hundred watt light bulb, a pound of coal would run the light bulb for about 19 hours, but on the other hand, one pound of Uranium would run the same tight bulb for about 122 years! I dont know about you but this is something that is continuing to improve and become our standard for tighting our homes.

  • Still Citizen Sparrow

    ^ I hear that radiation exposure significantly degrades your spelling ability.

  • hey excellent post, really enjoyed it. I’ve added your blog to my netvibes account – will be keeping up with your posts!

  • Remington Hutchison

    I heard that a new car company is creating a car that will run off of a nuclear reactor, but im not shure what the company’s name is though. Anyway, since the last post ive made ive had a question of where would they put all of the waste out of yucca mtn. if they decide to get rid of the program? I still think that the project is not harming the lives of those who live there.

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  • Kiti

    I was talking about that with Dejan Micic counterintelligence advisor

  • Remington Hutchison

    Here I am once again to point out that the utilization of nuclear elements is a much safer alternative choice for producing energy. Recently BP (British Petroleum) had an off-shore oil drilling platform explode causing a huge oil leak on the ocean floor. Now as this leak continues to spill thousands of gallons of oil into the ocean, it’s contaminating the water; which is obvious, but it is also causing economic hardship to the locals who rely on those waters to provide for their community and families. On top of that, the health of the locals and the wild-life who live near the water is with out a doubt going to get sick and die. Coming back to my point, instead of funding and ultimately running the risk of destroying our environment even further with an energy source that is much more hazardous to us and the environment, we should focus our attention and resources on the future development of cleaner energy. Like I said in my last post, taking the same amount of coal and uranium and using it to run a household light bulb and the uranium will outlast the coal hands down. We as the human race have progressed so much. We have developed a society that not only adapts to just about any environment with the use of the technology but also thrives. so if your way of life is always changing and progressing, then why is the products used to produce energy stuck back in the 19th century. I am almost certain that we are more than capable of utilizing energy that is so much better for the environment.

  • I'm astounded by people who want to 'know' the universe when it's hard enough to find your way around Chinatown.

  • WhooseyWhatsIt

    I’ve also read that radiation exposure leads to proor grammar and the tendency to leave out random words.

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