Thursday, May 21, 2009

Once More at Yucca Mountain

nytlogo379x64 We’ve ramped down discussing Yucca Mountain – it gets to seem whiny after awhile – but that doesn’t mean the discussion is over. The New York Times demonstrates the mountain’s continued relevance in an editorial today that only begins by excoriating the administration for letting politics trump science:

It is no secret that the president and the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, who hails from Nevada, want to close down the Yucca Mountain project, which excites intense opposition in the state. The administration has proposed a budget for fiscal year 2010 that would eliminate all money for further development of the site, and Mr. Reid has pronounced the project dead.

But eliminating or scaling back the licensing process, now in progress, is where the Times really has an issue:

These ramp-downs are occurring at the worst time. The regulatory commission is just beginning its licensing process, which is scheduled to take three to four years, and its relevant boards have ruled that at least eight intervenors can raise some 300 issues for technical challenges, an unusually high number. The cutbacks increase the odds that the agency will stumble in trying to justify a license — or that the hearings and evaluations won’t be completed within statutory deadlines.

Meanwhile, the administration, Congressional leaders and the nuclear industry are calling for a blue-ribbon panel to study alternative ways to dispose of nuclear waste. Surely it would be useful for any such panel to know whether the Yucca Mountain project was sound or flawed.

Yes, surely it would be useful.

Before approving this truncated budget, Congress needs to ensure that it contains enough money to sustain a genuine licensing effort. We have no idea whether Yucca Mountain would be a suitable burial ground for nuclear wastes. But after the government has labored for more than two decades and spent almost $10 billion to get the site ready for licensing hearings, it would be foolish not to complete the process with a good-faith evaluation. Are Mr. Obama and Mr. Reid afraid of what the science might tell them?

We can jump to an answer with a very strong likelihood of being right. Let’s see if the heft of the Times moves the needle on this topic in a sensible direction.


Marcel F. Williams said...

Spent fuel should not be treated as waste, but as a resource.

Simply throwing away spent fuel at Yucca sends out the wrong message,IMO.

Gwyneth Cravens said...

Bravo, NY Times!

There have been around 55 internal and external peer reviews and analyses of the science at Yucca Mountain. NAS weighed in too. It will be interesting to see whether Obama's blue ribbon panel can find any realistic, science-based objections to the repository.

Even if we can recycle spent nuclear fuel there are other types of nuclear waste that need to be sequestered. There are vitrified residues from storage tanks associated with bomb production, for example.

There is no reason why Yucca Mountain could not also serve as an interim storage and reprocessing site.

Rod Adams said...

The NRC has plenty of more important work to do. Getting bogged down in a licensing action with active intervenor groups for a project with little hope of going forward would be a waste of time - an irreplaceable commodity.

I would expect that a business oriented publication like NEI Nuclear Notes would recognize that a fundamental rule of business decision making is that "sunk costs" do not matter in determining the best path forward. You have to be willing to walk away from large investments if they form the basis for a path that is less viable than one that has not cost much money in the past.

Joffan said...

The obvious next step for Yucca Mountain is the shelf, or perhaps the slowest pace consistent with retention of expertise. Since DoE is the applicant, I really see no reason that any core expertise on this site need be lost.

Once the review panel or panels report, either the licensing pace will pick up again or the Yucca project can be archived and stopped, and the new option(s) pursued instead.

Marcel F. Williams said...

States still have a problem with storing radioactive material from the medical industry.

That's why I argue that Federal Nuplexes used to store and secure nuclear material located in every state that produces spent nuclear material from commercial nuclear reactors and from medical facilities would be a good idea. Central Nuplexes should be designed to store and secure all types of spent nuclear material

My rule is simple. Radioactive material created within a state should be stored at a central facility or facilities within that state.

Gwyneth Cravens said...

Actually there is no reason why all SNF could not be put in the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant. The original plan was to put commercial SNF and other high-level waste in the salt-bed and all the appropriate tests were done before bureacracy and politics intervened.

Radwaste Solutions has an issue out today celebrating the 10-year anniversary of the US's first successful deep geologic nuclear waste repository--a place that most people have never heard of.

The politicians in the SE corner of NM, and the voters, would like to make their area the site not only of an enrichment plant but also of an interim SNF facility and a recycling plant. Since the NV Gaming Commission does not run NM that might happen, if the the state is given enough money.

Rod Adams said...

Gwyneth - Using WIPP is a solution I can support. A straight economic agreement with NM should be a relatively low cost option for those components of used nuclear fuel that cannot be recycled.

I expect, however, that the portion of used nuclear fuel that has no future uses will be much smaller than is currently considered to be the case. We should look at this material through the lens of people who have always worked to "use everything but the moo" and see value where others see waste.

For Marcel - your proposal is in direct violation of the interstate commerce clause of the US Constitution. There is no reason at all to treat state borders as boundaries for trade of either nuclear materials or the service of storing used nuclear materials or radioactive waste. We are all one United States of America.

In many cases, the volumes of waste are so small that setting up an individual facility and providing the required oversight would be outrageously expensive and would discourage very effective medical treatments. History shows that we only need a couple of functioning facilities for the entire country.