Suitable nuclear waste storage has been found, and it’s not in Nevada


Jeri Clausing / AP

This Feb. 24, 2014, photo shows the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad, N.M.

Nevadans, here’s an easy way to help protect our health and safety, our environment and our economy: Urge the policymakers in your area to read James Conca’s recent column in Forbes.

Conca is a scientist and an expert on the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository — in fact, he was among the original authors of the site’s license application to operate as a storage facility.

But based on three decades of scientific study of the site, Conca says, it’s now abundantly clear that Yucca Mountain is a terrible idea.

“Our understanding of corrosion, transportation, permeability, engineered barriers, shielding, packaging, waste form development (and) material science, among others, have been increased enormously by studying Yucca Mt,” writes Conca, using an abbreviation for the site. “In fact, that understanding is what makes choosing Yucca Mt an obvious mistake.”

In reaching that conclusion, Conca weaves together history and science to argue that the appropriate site for nuclear waste storage has already been found. It’s the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico, which the federal government established based on a recommendation by the National Academy of Sciences in 1957.

There, Conca explains, a type of nuclear weapons waste is stored in massive underground salt formations 2,000 feet thick and covering 10,000 square miles. And salt, he says, is “the best rock for isolating anything — forever.”

Simply put, that’s because salt rock compacts under stress from overlying rocks and quickly recompacts if it happens to fracture, making it essentially impermeable.

“Water just won’t move in this rock,” Conca says.

That’s a key part of what makes New Mexico better than Yucca Mountain as a storage site. Yucca’s geology is highly fractured rock that is permeable to water, meaning essentially that water is likely to enter the storage site, where it could corrode storage containers and then carry waste in the groundwater supplies below the facility. Geologic activity in the area increases the risk.

By contrast, Conca says, the salt formations in New Mexico have been stable for 270 million years and water “hasn’t migrated an inch” there during that time.

Conca frames his argument as a choice between “a rock with only little uncertainty” and a “rock with lots of uncertainty.” The latter is Yucca Mountain, where the water issue would have to be addressed through complex and exotic-sounding engineered barriers.

“These include reducing inverts, shotcrete, robust waste containers with copper and ceramic coatings, titanium drip shields, vitrification of (high-level waste), waste package supports and reducing gravel backfill,” he writes. “Unfortunately, these have only added uncertainty to the repository, since their rates of degradation and time period for optimal performance are uncertain themselves.”

In other words, it’s unclear how long they’ll hold up. Considering that the waste would have to be stored for tens of thousands of years, that’s a major question.

“Unfortunately, the Earth is a large, active and open system that resists control by human engineering schemes, and our understanding and control of these processes has always been limited,” he writes. “Yes, the Pyramids are fantastic but that’s about all humans have made that has lasted anywhere near what we think of as geologic time, and what we need for long-term safe disposal of nuclear waste.”

It’s an argument that should bury Yucca Mountain as a viable solution. Not only does the site pose a risk in terms of release of radioactive material, but the transportation of material to the facility is fraught with danger as well. Given that proposed routes would take waste through the heart of Las Vegas, an accident or terrorist attack involving a shipment could be devastating for the community.

Most policymakers in Nevada are well aware of the risk and are battling to keep the project from moving forward.

But some misguided elected officials would open the door to this catastrophe-to-be. Nye County commissioners leap to mind.

For all policymakers, though, Conca’s commentary is worthwhile reading. For Yucca opponents, it offers ammunition. For proponents, it offers enlightenment.

To share the column, contact information can be found here. Nye County commissioners' contact information can be found on this page.