Friday, January 25, 2008

Yucca Mountain

A long time ago, one of America's least-successful presidents made a bad decision; he decided that the US would not recycle spent fuel from its nuclear power plants.

The reasoning he offered was like this: if the US recycled its spent fuel, North Korea would make atomic bombs. And if the US didn't recycle its spent fuel, North Korea would not make bombs.

You can quickly see that this argument overlooks a basic fact, that North Korea's bomb-making decisions did not depend in any way on whether or not the US recycled its spent fuel. And it led ineluctably to a solid blockage at the back end of the nuclear fuel cycle.

The plan all along had been to reprocess spent fuel. Reprocessing the wastes separated out the valuable uranium and transuranic actinides to use as fuel. The remaining wastes were only 3% of what was there before and would lose their toxicity in some centuries; five would be sufficient. [chart] Many geologic places, such as caves or abandoned mines, could store those wastes safely.

But the decision by that president changed everything. Suddenly there was no way to deal with the spent fuel. It had to be stored at the reactor plants where it had been generated. Not only did the volume of waste go up by a factor of thirty, it would stay dangerous for many thousands of years, even hundreds of thousands. There was, and is, a federal law that utilities are not allowed to process or even permanently store the spent fuel. That meant that the Department of Energy had to find a geologic location where the waste could be isolated for thousands of years.

It happened that this change transpired at a time of fervent opposition to nuclear energy, and nuclear opponents fomented public protest in all the candidate locations for the permanent repository. Finally, the US Congress decreed in 1987 that the location would be Yucca Mountain, Nevada.[Timeline] Nevadans were not favorable to this decision; Nevada had more vacant jobs than workers in need of them and saw no gain for themselves in such a facility. Nuclear opponents focussed on the area and in no time most state residents believed that Yucca Mountain was the worst possible location for a spent-fuel repository anywhere in North America and knew at least a dozen reasons why.

As the site evaluation proceeded, features were discovered that would raise the cost many times above the initial estimate and also would lengthen the time to do the work by years. But the biggest blow came in 2004, when the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C. ruled that the repository would have to ensure safe storage for at least 300,000 years, as far into the future as Homo rhodesiensis lived in the past.[Timeline]

Almost anti-climactically, word leaked out in 2005 about some casual e-mails between analysts five to seven years earlier. They were chatting about pressure from managers to slant their conclusions, and about filling in software documentation after-the-fact; the sort of private ruminations in which officeworkers engage. Opponents of the project seized on these stories as proof of falsifications in the analysis. Later investigations resulted in no actions being taken against the participants.[source]

Presently, the Energy Department plans to submit its application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission this year and the review process will take at least three years. It's possible that the repository could go into service as early as 2017.[Timeline] But leading elected national officials have declared their intentions to stop the project.

So that's the story of Yucca Mountain. It all happened because of a bad presidential decision made decades ago. Fortunately, that decision has been reversed and we're going back to the first plan. Not only does it solve the waste problem, but it stretches the supply of uranium.[source]

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