Nuclear Waste Specialist
Nuclear Information and Resource Service
Washington, D.C., USA
November 28, 2003
A brief history of “deep geologic disposal” in the USA
In the late 1950’s, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences Board on Radioactive Waste Management determined that deep geologic disposal was the preferred method for high-level radioactive waste management. Of course, at that time, plate tectonics was still considered an unfounded concept by most geologists. Conventional wisdom held that long-lasting toxic wastes would stay put wherever they were buried. The dynamic nature of the Earth is somewhat better understood now, thus complicating the question of where — or even if – high-level nuclear waste should be permanently buried.
In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (the forerunner of the current Dept. of Energy, DOE) announced that a salt formation in Lyons, Kansas would serve as the national high-level radioactive waste dump. But the Kansas Geological Survey revealed that hundreds of bore holes for salt, potash, and other mineral extraction had created fast-flow pathways for water. Water infiltration would dissolve the salt, forming highly corrosive brine that could breach the waste burial containers and release catastrophic amounts of radioactivity. The Lyons site was quickly abandoned.
In 1982, a hastily rushed bill was passed by the U.S. Congress and signed by President Reagan that called for the establishment of geologic repositories in the eastern and western USA. By 1986, fierce opposition in the densely populated and politically powerful eastern states (such as Maine, New Hampshire, North Carolina, and Wisconsin) led to the indefinite suspension of the eastern site search. The search then focused upon three sites in the western USA – Hanford, Washington; Yucca Mountain, Nevada; and Deaf Smith County, Texas – all associated with DOE nuclear weapons activities (plutonium production, weapons testing, and warhead assembly, respectively). But Texas had 32 and Washington 12 Members in the U.S. House of Representatives, including the powerful Speaker and Majority Leader; sparsely populated Nevada had only 2. In 1987, a bill was passed (dubbed the “Screw Nevada” bill) determining that only Yucca would be further studied. Regional equity (90% of US reactors are in the eastern half of the country), scientific characterization and comparison of sites were thus sacrificed to political expediency. Little did anyone realize at that time just how horrible a site Yucca is geologically.
Yucca’s unsuitable geology (earthquakes, volcanoes, water leakage)
Yucca is in one of the most active earthquake zones in the USA. Well over 600 quakes, with epicenters within 50 miles of Yucca, measuring greater than 2.5 on the Richter scale occurred between 1975 and 2000. A 5.6 quake in 1992 did tens of thousands of dollars of damage to DOE’s Yucca field office. A quake in 1999 derailed a train nearby that could one day haul nuclear waste. A 4.3 quake in June 2002 happened just before the U.S. Senate vote on Yucca. DOE announced to the press that no damage had occurred; only later was it revealed that the announcement was made before they had actually checked! Dozens of fault lines traverse the vicinity of Yucca, and two actually intersect the proposed repository location.
Yucca is comprised of solidified volcanic ash from eruptions 12 million years ago. However, eruptions have occurred in the vicinity within the past 10,000 years. Standing atop Yucca, five volcanic cones can be seen to the west. Although the probability is low, the consequences of a volcanic eruption through a high-level waste dump at Yucca would be catastrophic: fatal 1,000 rem per year doses to persons living downwind would be likely. Some scientists still assert that geologic evidence shows that the interior of Yucca has experienced superheated water upwelling in recent times; such thermal floods would lead to catastrophic radiation releases as waste burial containers would corrode very quickly.
In 1996, DOE found radioactive chlorine-36 at surprisingly elevated levels at the same depth within Yucca at which the waste would be buried. How did it get there? Atomic weapons testing in the South Pacific, which radioactively activated chlorine in seawater. This entered the atmosphere, blew with the wind, then fell as rain onto Yucca. In less than 50 years, that rainwater was able to percolate down through fissures and fractures caused by earthquakes at Yucca to the proposed repository rock. Such water infiltration could quickly corrode waste burial containers, releasing radiation into the underground drinking water supply in just centuries. In 1998, over 200 environmental organizations petitioned DOE to abide by its own guidelines and disqualify Yucca from further consideration. DOE ignored the petition for three years, then simply did away with the regulation that formed the basis for the petition.
DOE has admitted to the presidentially-appointed Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board (NWTRB) that Yucca’s geology would contribute only 0.008% of the radiation isolation at the repository. 99.7% would come from artificially engineered barriers such as the burial containers. The proposal had become simply engineered waste packages that happen to be located 1,000 feet underground. The concept of deep geologic disposal has been abandoned at Yucca.
But these engineered barriers may not performed as hoped. The NWTRB, an agency of scientists and engineers established “ to provide independent scientific and technical oversight of the U.S. program for management and disposal of high-level radioactive waste and spent nuclear fuel from civilian nuclear power plants,” sent a letter on October 21, 2003 to DOE describing its findings that DOE’s proposed repository plan was likely to cause highly radioactive nuclear fuel canisters to corrode and leak.
NWTRB’s letter described two possible ways in which the canisters might leak. First, “data in hand” indicate that welded areas would be susceptible to “crevice corrosion” on the containers even “at temperatures well below the peak waste-package surface temperatures expected in the Department’s proposed repository design.” This means that the DOE will have to redesign the repository in order to drastically reduce internal temperatures, possible only if those containers are spaced further apart. This, in turn, may decrease the amount of waste able to be stored in the repository.
Second, the containers are susceptible to “general corrosion” over the entire surface of the container. General corrosion takes place due to high concentrations of salts in the rocks making up the Yucca Mountain repository which, when deposited as dust on the surface of the containers, draw moisture from the air to create “aggressive chemistries.” This is a process that is guaranteed to occur; the only question is at what rate. Because this question remains unresolved, it is therefore unclear exactly how thick the walls of the containers must be so as to resist perforation for the duration of the waste’s hazard, making it impossible for DOE to design canisters guaranteed not to leak radioactivity.
Also, the tunnels inside Yucca could collapse, with unknown effects. Researchers with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) recently informed NRC’s Advisory Committee on Nuclear Waste that tunnels leading inside Yucca to the repository location could degrade and fill with rubble within several hundred years of the repository’s construction. Should such an event occur, it would make it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to reach the inside of the repository in the case of a leak or other emergency requiring access. Several hundred years may sound like a long time, but the materials stored in the repository will be lethally radioactive for tens or hundreds of thousands of years, and one must expect that thousands of years down the road, access tunnels could be nearly non-existent.
Further examples of the currently shallow scientific understanding of issues surrounding geologic disposal include plutonium solubility and Yucca geologic stability. For decades, scientists thought that plutonium was highly insoluble in water, and thus would stay put wherever buried. In recent years, however, new chemical mechanisms have been discovered that reveal plutonium – hazardous for 240,000 years – can be highly soluble in water and migrate long distances through the environment. And in 1998, scientists using global positioning satellites discovered that “crustal expansion” at Yucca is occurring at ten times the previously predicted rate, raising serious questions about the site’s geologic stability (and confirming the accuracy of the Western Shoshone Indian’s ancient name for Yucca: “Serpent Swimming Westward”).
Yucca’s unsuitable geography
The fastest-growing city in the USA – tourist mecca Las Vegas, Nevada — is less than 100 miles away; Los Angeles, California is just over 200 miles away. Also, Yucca is immediately adjacent to the Nellis Air Force Base, one of the largest and busiest U.S. bombing ranges. The U.S. Air Force has written Congress that the dump at Yucca would “negatively impact our readiness activities.” Numerous jet fighter and bomber crashes at Nellis over the years raise the specter of accidents involving nuclear waste, especially considering DOE’s proposals for large surface waste storage and handling facilities that could be present for several decades. The proximity of such heavy weaponry, including the nearby nuclear weapons test site, as well as high explosives used in nearby mining operations, causes concern about intentional sabotage or terrorism making use of those nearby munitions.
Yucca is also located on Western Shoshone Indian lands, as affirmed by the Treaty of Ruby Valley, signed by the U.S. government in 1863. The traditional Western Shoshone National Council, which opposes radioactive waste dumping on its lands, is seeking redress from courts in the U.S. and internationally (such as at the Organization of American States and United Nations). Given that minority and low income communities have been repeatedly targeted for nuclear projects – such as Native American lands for high-level radioactive waste dumps – significant concerns about environmental injustice and racism are raised.
Changing the rules in the middle of the game: weakening environmental protection standards when Yucca fails to meet the original ones
In 1984, DOE established repository site suitability guidelines that would disqualify potential repository sites at which water could pass through the geology and back out into the living environment in less than 1,000 years. The Cl-36 data mentioned above revealed in mere decades or centuries, water flow through Yucca could re-enter the environment. In mid-December 2001, less than a month before DOE officially announced that Yucca was “suitable,” DOE simply removed the groundwater flow time disqualifying condition from its regulations.
In the mid-1980’s, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) established generic regulations for repositories. Just several years later, DOE’s studies clearly showed that Yucca could not live up to EPA’s limits for the releases of harmful radioactive gases such as carbon-14. Under pressure from the nuclear power industry and its allies in government, in 1992 Congress yet again amended the 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act. This time, EPA was ordered to write “site-specific regulations” that would apply only at Yucca but not other proposed repositories. Thus was the problem of gaseous releases taken care of!
Due to intense political pressure from all sides, EPA took nearly ten more years before publishing its Yucca-specific regulations. Its rules were so weak that the State of Nevada and a coalition of environmental groups immediately filed lawsuits against EPA. The regulations would apply for only 10,000 years, despite the fact that high-level radioactive waste remains hazardous for hundreds of thousands of years. EPA would allow for an 11 mile (18 km) buffer zone for radiation dilution in which the Safe Drinking Water Act would not have to be enforced. Just 20 miles downstream from Yucca is one of Nevada’s most productive farming areas, including its second largest dairy which exports milk to tens of millions in several western states. Those farmers are referred to as “[radiation] dose receptors” by DOE, but anyone consuming radioactively contaminated farm products would be a “dose receptor” too. Even if such contamination did not occur, those farm products would be stigmatized.
Politics trump science: corruption of the decision-making process
In 2001, it was revealed that the law firm – Winston and Strawn — hired by DOE to help prepare its Yucca license application was simultaneously lobbying Congress on behalf of the pro-dump industry advocate Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI). A recent federal court decision reinforces the allegation of this conflict of interest, a finding that could delay Yucca licensing by at least several months as previous legal work must be reviewed and perhaps redone.
Just before the congressional votes in early 2002, GAO reported that 293 technical issues remained unresolved, so that a determination of Yucca site suitability would be premature and should be indefinitely postponed. The NWTRB reported to Congress that DOE’s scientific and technical performance at Yucca was “weak to moderate”.
Despite this, both the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate in mid-2002 approved the override of the State of Nevada’s earlier veto of the Yucca proposal. George W. Bush sealed the Yucca approval with his rubberstamp in July 2002. Similar to the 1987 Screw Nevada bill, many members of Congress were happy to approve the transfer of waste from their own state to Nevada, even though Nevada has no reactors itself.
An evaluation by NEI and Exelon (the largest nuclear utility in the USA) entitled “Yucca Mountain: A multi-level campaign to win support,” revealed that a $15 million lobbying fund helped win congressional approval. Given such “Obstacles to Success” as a “Big Fat Ugly Issue, Very Bad Timing, and Serious Opposition,” how did the nuclear power industry and its allies in the Bush Administration win Yucca’s approval? Under “Why We Were Successful,” NEI and Exelon simply placed a huge dollar sign: “$”. U.S. Senator Harry Reid, a Democrat from Nevada who led the Congressional fight against Yucca’s approval, has said that when Nevada went looking for lobbyists to argue its cause in D.C., all firms had already been hired by the nuclear power industry. In addition to this army of lobbyists, campaign contributions in the tens of millions of dollars to U.S. Representatives, Senators, and even the Bush Administration help explain how such a flawed proposal as the Yucca Mountain dump has won congressional and presidential approval. Industry PR ad campaigns across the country added to the pro-dump fervor.
More recently, revelations that whistleblowers at the Yucca Mountain Project have suffered severe harassment increase concerns about short cuts on safety. Whistleblower protections are under attack by the Bush Administration, meaning that Yucca Mountain workers concerned about public safety are even less likely to speak out than before, for fear of reprisals by DOE.
Dangers of transportation: “mobile Chernobyls”
The U.S. nuclear establishment brags that its 2,500 past shipments of high-level waste over nearly 1.5 million shipment miles has involved no significant releases of radioactivity. But each and every year of a full-blown Yucca program would involve at least 2,500 shipments, adding up to over 80 million shipment miles altogether. DOE predicts dozens of transport accidents, a number of which will be severe. Whether or not the shipping containers can withstand severe accidents without releasing their deadly cargo is a very important question.
Nevada’s far western location means that many tens of thousands of truck, train, and barge shipments of high-level radioactive waste would have to pass through 45 states and the District of Columbia before reaching Yucca. Over 100 cities with populations greater than 100,000 are along the highways, rail lines, and waterways that would be used. 50 million Americans live within several miles of the proposed routes.
Shipping casks are not required to undergo full-scale physical safety testing. Design criteria for withstanding 30 foots drops, 30 mile per hour impacts, fires of 1,475 degrees Fahrenheit that last 30 minutes, and underwater submersions for limited periods at certain depths are all that is required. But what about transport accidents that could involve higher drops, collisions at faster speeds, fires that burn longer and hotter, or underwater submersions at deeper depths for longer periods? Historic transport accidents show that such questions are very significant.
Each truck cask would hold the radiological equivalent of 40 Hiroshima bomb’s worth of long-lasting radioactivity. Each train/barge cask would hold over 200 times the long-lasting radioactivity released at Hiroshima. Because of this large amount of radioactivity and transport routes through major population centers, these shipments would be potentially catastrophic terrorist targets. Anti-tank weapons and high explosives could breach these shipping containers, releasing large amounts of radioactivity. NRC tests in the early 1980’s revealed that portable missile launchers and shaped charges could pierce shipping containers and damage the nuclear fuel inside. A 1998 test at the U.S. Army’s Aberdeen Proving Ground showed that even a rugged German CASTOR (the “Cadillac of casks” could be breached by a TOW anti-tank missile. Security regulations for high-level waste shipments have not been strengthened, despite a 1999 petition by the State of Nevada and the 9/11/2001 terrorist attacks.
DOE is so afraid of revealing to the public – for fear of a groundswell of opposition — the actual routes that would be used that is has tried to keep them secretive and obscure to the present day. In fact, a DOE cross country high-level waste shipment conducted in July 2003 was carried out in complete secrecy, enraging elected officials, emergency responders, public interest groups, and residents along the route.
Recently, whistleblower Oscar Shirani, fired by nuclear utility Exelon, has made public his findings of major quality assurance violations in the manufacture of Holtech dual purpose storage/transport waste containers used throughout the nuclear utility industry. Shirani alleges the casks are of questionable structural integrity, raising concerns about their ability to withstand shipping accidents without releasing radiation.
High Costs of Yucca Mountain
Since 1982, about $7 billion has been spent on repository related activities, about $5 billion on Yucca specifically. Some have argued that having spent so much already, Yucca must be completed. But isn’t it much wiser to cut our losses, to stop throwing good money after bad? Currently, DOE admits that Yucca would cost $60 billion to complete. DOE is infamous for underestimating true costs. In fact, the GAO reported in 2002 that Yucca’s opening date and ultimate price tag are unknowable because DOE has lost control of the budget and management of the project. The State of Nevada estimates the price tag will be over $100 billion. Just this month, Congress approved $580 million for the Yucca Mountain Project just for the 2004 fiscal year. That means that $1.6 million per day is currently being spent at Yucca.
Yucca as “secure centralized storage” to prevent terrorism is a myth
The Bush Administration used the fear of terrorist attacks against high-level radioactive waste at sites across the USA as one of its main arguments in favor of Yucca. Waste must be moved to one central, secure location as soon as possible, Energy Secretary Spence Abraham urged Congress. But in addition to 5 potential radioactive dirty bombs on wheels traveling American roads, rails, and waterways each and every day over the course of 30 years, Yucca itself would not centralize nor secure high-level radioactive waste. Right now, there is about 45,000 metric tons of waste at reactors across the USA. If Yucca opens and fills to its capacity by 2036, there would still be nearly 45,000 tons of waste stored at reactors across the USA. Why? Because operating reactors would immediately generate more waste to replace any shipped off to Yucca. In 2036, Yucca would be full, and we’d be right back where we started from in terms of insecure, scattered “temporary” waste storage across the country.
While $1.6 million per day is spent on the Yucca Mountain Project, little to no money is spent securing the waste against accidents or attacks at the reactor sites where it is currently located in vulnerable indoor storage pools and outdoor dry cask storage silos, all of which are deteriorating with age.
Lawsuits, annual budget battles, and licensing present formidable hurdles for Yucca dump
Yucca is far from a done deal. The State of Nevada has filed a half dozen lawsuits against DOE, EPA, and NRC in regards to Yucca. A coalition of U.S. environmental, public interest, and consumer protection groups have also sued EPA on its woefully weak Yucca regulations (in fact, over 50 national and 500 grassroots groups have gone on record as opposing the Yucca dump). The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia has already consolidated all the cases together, so that one three-judge panel will see the whole big picture, a victory for Yucca dump opponents. In recent months, the Court ruled the cases “complex,” allowing substantially more time for oral arguments, another victory for dump opponents. The oral arguments will begin January 14, 2004. As the State of Nevada has stated, a victory on just one of its lawsuits would signal a major delay or even defeat for the dump proposal.
Each and every year, Yucca dump proponents must win approval for the project’s budget. Sen. Reid is ranking Democrat on the subcommittee overseeing Yucca’s annual appropriations, and he has managed to trim Yucca’s budget year after year, slowing the project. After the congressional floor votes of 2002 overriding Nevada’s veto, these annual budget battles have become a focus of opposition to the Yucca dump.
DOE still claims it will submit an application for an operating license to the NRC by Dec., 2004. However, recent major blows to the project outlined above may significantly delay that submission. The NRC licensing process would then take 3 to 5 years. Nevada, transport corridor communities across the country, and national and local citizens groups are determined to fight approval at every turn.
Yucca is merely an illusion of a solution used to excuse a Nuclear Power Relapse
DOE very optimistically still predicts that it can open Yucca and begin accepting waste shipments in 2010 (the U.S. General Accounting Office, GAO, puts the date at 2015 at the earliest). But Yucca is legally limited to 63,000 metric tons of commercial high-level waste. Right now, about 45,000 tons exist at reactors across the USA; by 2011, there will already be 63,000 tons. So, as soon as Yucca would open, it would already be full (although it would still take decades to move the waste there). If reactors operated to the end of their original 40 year licenses, about 85,000 tons of high-level waste would have been generated in the USA.
But the nuclear power industry plans to continue operating 103 commercial reactors not only to the end of their original 40 year licenses: many are receiving 20 year license extensions. This means potentially an increase in waste generation at each reactor by up to one-third. In addition, the nuclear power industry and its friends in the Bush Administration are promoting the construction of new reactors in the U.S. for the first time in decades (from 6,000 megawatts to 50,000 megawatts are being advocated, meaning about 6 to 50 new reactors, and thus many tens of thousands of tons of additional waste; by the way, the last order for a new reactor that actually ended up being built was placed in Oct., 1973).
So, all waste generated after 2011 would be in excess of Yucca’s legal limit. Where would the second repository be targeted? Maine? New Hampshire? Wisconsin? North Carolina? Or would they simply try to cram it all in Yucca, despite the impact this would have on Yucca’s already unsuitable geology and unreliable casks?
When George W. Bush unveiled his National Energy Policy (shaped by Dick Cheney in secret meetings with the likes of Ken Lay of Enron as well as nuclear power executives and lobbyists, to the complete exclusion of environmentalists, the media, and the opposition party) on May 16, 2001 at the Xcel Energy Center (a leading nuclear utility), he pointed to the opening of a repository as the key step in the building of new reactors. Just two weeks after his pro-nuclear speech, the EPA published its long-awaited, woefully weak Yucca regulations.
So what is the solution to the U.S. high-level radioactive waste problem?
Stop making it. About 45,000 tons already exist with nowhere to go. But nuclear industry and Bush Administration plans would lead to the doubling or even tripling of that quantity. It’s time for our species to live up to its name, Homo sapiens, and exercise some wisdom and intelligence. How much sense does it make to produce electricity by splitting atoms when forever deadly high-level radioactive waste is the inevitable result? Energy conservation, energy efficiency, and renewable sources of electricity such as wind and solar power offer ready alternatives, if only we would muster the political will as a society.
For that waste that already exists, a scientifically-defensible, socially-acceptable decision-making process must be used. It is an open question whether geological sites can be found that will not release harmful radiation into the biosphere for the hundreds of thousands of years the wastes will remain hazardous. What is clear is that Yucca would likely release radioactivity into the environment, and massively. The goal must be zero release to protect public health and the environment.
But neither can high-level radioactive wastes be stored where they are at – reactor sites on rivers, lakes, and seacoasts – forever. These sites are vulnerable to degradation by the elements as well as to terrorist attack, and sit upon sources of drinking water and food supply. Climate change and rising sea levels due to global warming exacerbate the situation.
But transporting high-level waste is itself dangerous, and should only be undertaken when it will improve radiation isolation from the environment, not make it worse as Yucca would.
Because of the dilemmas that high-level radioactive waste creates, its generation should be ceased as quickly as possible and a just, equitable decision-making process based on sound science and democratic principles should be entered into to search for elusive solutions.
References are available upon request.
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