John Locher / AP
Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2020 | 2 a.m.
In 2010, the Department of Energy announced that the proposed Yucca Mountain repository project was unworkable. Federal authorities filed notice with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to rescind the license application, and Nevadans cheered.
Some of us even held a wake for the seemingly dead project, and celebrated at a major Las Vegas resort. But we were premature.
Now, 10 years later, President Donald Trump has tweeted that he has heard Nevadans and his administration is committed to exploring innovative approaches to nuclear waste disposal. All of the major contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination are also opposed to Yucca Mountain, and we are receiving congratulatory messages.
But 30 years of battle has taught us not to celebrate too soon.
The United States does not know how to safely, permanently dispose of high-level nuclear waste or irradiated fuel from nuclear power plants. There have been commissions and generic studies, but Yucca Mountain doesn’t die. It always looms as the fallback position.
At the same time, there are those who, through some sort of misplaced “we can do anything” attitude, have adopted the notion that nuclear waste is a resource. It isn’t. Trying to process it into new fuel is costly and just makes more waste. The obsession to do something, anything with the waste is like a terrible addiction that prevents us from looking for needed new directions to safely dispose of nuclear waste.
Many years ago, the U.S. did reprocess spent nuclear fuel to extract plutonium for producing nuclear weapons. The sites where reprocessing was done are now the equivalent of Superfund sites, with a case in point being Hanford, Wash., where full cleanup is unachievable. Reprocessing activities in other countries have also led to horrible pollution and contamination problems such as radiation releases into the Irish Sea.
The battle against nuclear waste in Nevada will not stop until Congress kicks its own Yucca Mountain habit. Like reprocessing, a repository inside the mountain will fail, requiring a cleanup that is impossible and wasting the money that ratepayers have paid for a successful disposal program.
A repository at Yucca Mountain is also wildly expensive, simply because the site is not capable of isolating the waste. Yucca Mountain is a ridge of material produced by the eruptions of nearby ancient volcanoes. The rock is full of fractures in a heavily faulted region. The Department of Energy managers used to refer to it as a “block of rock” until studies clearly showed that it was not.
Every aspect of the Yucca Mountain project is far more expensive than other sites would be. For starters, there is no way to reach the site by rail until more than 300 miles of new tracks are laid. And unlike other places in the country, those tracks would have to go over, under, through or around seven mountain ranges. That’s after the waste had made it across the country, on old infrastructure seriously in need of repair or replacement.
The original concept for geologic disposal was that the waste would be buried deep underground. At Yucca Mountain, the waste would be under the top of the mountain, but the altitude of the buried waste would be about a thousand feet above the ground level of the farms that are located south of it, where the groundwater runs. All aspects of Yucca Mountain are subject to the law of gravity. Rain and snow fall down on it; water runs down faults and fractures through the mountain and reaches the waste, continuing down to the water table, where it flows to the farming area, taking whatever soluble materials it encountered along the way. Eventually, that would include radioactive particles within the waste.
Fortunately for Nevada, there have been several encouraging developments on the site in recent years.
We are pleased to know that all candidates for the presidency this year oppose a Yucca Mountain repository. The president is tasking an interagency committee to explore innovative solutions. In 2012, a Blue Ribbon Commission completed a study with recommendations for a path forward on nuclear waste disposal, and an academic study also provided guidance in 2018. The No. 1 recommendation from each group was that any site selected for study must have the consent of the people. No national repository could be successful if it was forced on a state or tribal community.
Yet Nevadans are understandably skeptical of encouraging news. Yucca Mountain has existed as the living dead for the past decade. Two generations of our family have been born during the course of this fight. It will not be until the federal law is changed, eliminating Yucca Mountain from consideration for a national repository, that we can end the battle and begin to help the country find a safe solution.
The money spent to study Yucca Mountain was not wasted. It gave us an important conclusion — Yucca Mountain cannot isolate waste. We have to stop doing the same thing and hoping for a different result. Let’s stop fooling ourselves with illusions and change the law so as to end the addiction to Yucca Mountain.
Judy Treichel is executive director of the Nevada Nuclear Waste Task Force.