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More Political Than Scientific

reid We’re not going to say the cat’s out of the bag or anything like that, but we were surprised to read this in the Wall Street Journal, with the paper’s Robert Thompson listening to Energy Secretary Steven Chu:

Well, it's fair to say that the whole history of Yucca Mountain was more political than scientific. But also very truthfully I can say that given what we know today, the repository looks less and less good. So now we're in a situation where it can't go forward.

When Yucca Mountain was being established in the early '80s, the idea then was the nuclear industry was going to tail off. Now, because of climate change, we do want to restart the nuclear industry. Because of that, the statutory limit of Yucca Mountain would have been used up in the next couple of decades. So we need to take a fresh look at everything.

That’s the first time we’ve heard Chu note the political dimension of Yucca Mountain quite so bluntly. He’s right, of course: Nevada used everything it could think of to slow down the repository – we’ll let history sort out the validity of the state’s tactics – and its Congressional delegation was universally opposed to it. During a Democratic primary debate in Nevada, the candidates, including President Barack Obama, promised to close it.

And of course, Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nevada) is Senate majority leader and an exceptionally powerful figure. During a hearing a few weeks ago, he relayed a question through Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) asking the three NRC Commissioner nominees whether they would second-guess DOE on withdrawing the application for Yucca Mountain. They all said No. (Our guess is that Reid wanted to make sure the nominees would not deny the request.)

Some of our commenters opined that Reid is in a particularly tough race this year to keep his seat and that Yucca Mountain might spring back to life if he loses in November. Anything’s possible, of course, but we’d keep the focus on the President’s promise to close it and Chu’s bases for doing so. Obama is exceptionally consistent on his campaign pledges.

The interview has a lot of interesting exchanges. Be sure to read the whole thing.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. The picture doesn’t seem foreshortened, so that is one very big hand he has there.


Sterling Archer said…
More Political Than Scientific

Doesn't that sum up ALL the debates about nuclear policy?
Anonymous said…
Any yet, even that statement about "more political than scientific" is completely inaccurate.

I remember when former OCRWM director Ward Sproat stepped in it a little bit when he said, in a similar vein, that Yucca Mountain represented a "scientifically informed political decision."

Of course, you could just as easily switch the terms and call it a "politically informed scientific decision."

The point is, both politics and science played a role, but what really rankles me is the extent to which the suggestion is made, in such formulations, that the science was somehow "tailored" to fit the political impulses of the time.

That is demonstrably untrue, and there is a record to prove it. Stuckless and Levitch, in the GSA's Memoir 199, give a great summary of the scientific screening process that went into the selection of Yucca Mountain. In fact, the picture one gets is that the USGS itself was the prime mover in the decision; their enthusiasm for the site at the time was obvious, both because of its geologic characteristics and its general situation (already on government land, the Nevada Test Site; a water table that dead ends in Death Valley; a thick unsaturated zone; and on and on and on).

In short, it was always going to be a "scientifically informed political decision." That is the nature of things, and even if they had sited the repository in one of the other proposed locations, we'd be having a very similar discussion right now about "Deaf Smith" or "Hanford" or even "Lyons, Kansas."

And can Chu really be naive enough to suggest that "this time, the process is going to include steps to secure public acceptance"? They can't even get solar and wind projects going without an uproar from some local group. They can't even put up power poles for the "Smart Grid" without opposition.

Frankly, the fate of Yucca Mountain is like that of health care reform. We may get as close as we'll ever get, all for nothing. The difference is, there is already a law that mandates the construction of a national repository at Yucca Mountain, which hopefully the district court lawsuits filed by Washington and South Carolina will foreground.
Anonymous said…
The difference is, there is already a law that mandates the construction of a national repository at Yucca Mountain, which hopefully the district court lawsuits filed by Washington and South Carolina will foreground.

IMO, this is the crux of the matter. The law is the law, and the NWPA is it. As far as I know, Congress has not amended or repealed it. Anyone who willfully obstructs federal law (the Obama Administration, members of Congress, and those who undertake actions to end the Yucca Mountain effort) is complicit in a federal crime and should be subject to criminal indictment, prosecution, and if convicted, penalties. That this is not happening is more evidence of the erosion of the principle of the rule of law.
Anonymous said…

"....Obama is exceptionally consistent on his campaign pledges..."

There are a few he's blowing badly....
Anonymous said…
Amazing that Dr. Chu excuses the administration's political decisions by suggesting that previous decisions were likewise political ... ignoring the fact that the final and necessary political decisions of the past were informed by years of science.

And amazing that he's comfortable telling the WSJ that "very truthfully I can say that given what we know today, the repository looks less and less good" but has refused to respond to Congress's repeated questions about what new scientific information has come to light or whose input has led to this conclusion.

The fact is that will Congress's involvement has always (obviously and inevitably) been politicized, no Secretary of Energy has been as directly involved in making science subservient to politics in the issue of waste management as this Nobel laurate.
DocForesight said…
"Obama is exceptionally consistent on his campaign pledges." Are you saying this with a straight face?
What is consistent is that the pledges carry an expiration date.

Too many were made with naive good intentions or to satisfy some voting block. No surprise there, but he campaigned as a "transformative" post-partisan politician. You be the judge.

He gets kudos for expanding loan guarantees - but the heavy lifting was done beforehand with the Energy Act of 2005. Pandering to the wind, solar, geothermal energy boutique crowd only generates fuzzy good feelings. And I do solar installs.
Bill Hannahan said…
Frankly, Yucca Mountain has never been a good idea. I’m glad it was killed, but it is too bad we wasted so much money on it.

My first choice would be to continue with dry cask storage while developing advanced reactors that can extract the vast energy remaining in the spent fuel, converting it into short lived fission products that become less toxic than uranium ore in 300 years.

If we really want to get off fossil fuel and have abundant clean affordable energy we should be mass producing molten salt reactors.

I particularly recommend David LeBlanc’s two talks at the bottom of the page.

My second choice is deep seabed disposal which is fast, cheap and safe.
Luke said…
Chu says that the entire capacity of Yucca Mountain will be used up within a couple of decades.

But as he said - the site has a certain "statutory capacity", an arbitrary politically decided limit which has got absolutely nothing to do with how much material you could store within Yucca Mountain or any technical or scientific factor which could limit the safe, practical capacity.

That's still putting aside the fact, however, that it's utterly ridiculous to put unprocessed LWR fuel, which is a huge resource of valuable materials, into a deep geological repository.
Anonymous said…
Spent Nuclear Fuel will eventually be considered as asset. Not at current Uranium prices, but at some price in the future.
Storage is an ideal option that makes the fuel available to the energy market in the future.
As the inventory climbs, the development of reprocessing technologies and new reactor designs such as the Traveling Wave Reactor become economic necessities.

Don't sell technology short. Don't bury fuel. The best business minds in the nuclear industry will solve this problem.
Anonymous said…
A few points:

I found it difficult to share enthusiasm for sub-seabed disposal schemes based on an article in The Atlantic. There are some interesting points made in the article, but when it tried to characterize Yucca Mountain as fatally flawed based in part on Szymanski's widely discredited (e.g., by NAS) rising groundwater theory, I knew right then and there that I was in the land of boosterism rather than in the land of credible scientific research.

There may still be a case to be made for this type of disposal, but honestly, the article makes it sound more like some kind of conspiracy or yet another instance of bureaucratic ineptitude keeping it from happening.

Next we'll have to revisit the other proposed methods: island disposal, ice sheet disposal, deep-hole disposal, rock-melt disposal, deep well injection, and yes, even space disposal.

What about shooting it into the sun? Or what about the proposal to put it in orbit midway between Earth and Venus? They even looked into disposal on the Moon.

On the subject of reprocessing, why do people continue to argue as if it would necessarily obviate the need for deep geologic repositories? What about the vitrified or otherwise un-reprocessable waste in Hanford, South Carolina, and Idaho?

Moreover, the proposed repository at Yucca Mountain is designed, by legislative and regulatory mandate, to allow retrieval of the waste, up to the time of permanent closure (what is it, 100 to 350 years?).

Finally, the so-called "status quo" solution of using temporary on-site storage may sound appealing to the optimists in the room, but there are also the various scenarios and studies to consider that involve a loss of institutional controls in the next 100 years.

Those studies suggest an environmental apocalypse as the temporary storage begins to degrade and release radionuclides in the worst possible places (where are nuke plants? near virtually every major water source in the nation).

Why do you think NRC is struggling so mightily with its Waste Confidence efforts?

So, yes: reprocessing by all means, but every credible source seems to say that we will still require deep geologic disposal (in fact, Chu's own enthusiasm for a repository in salt seems to be premised on a reprocessing scheme with a "final resting place" as the salt oozes around and permanently seals the unusable remnants of the fuel cycle).

I love the fact that now my Word Verification word to post on this blog is...

Why throw away a valuable resource for more nuclear energy? The US government has already been payed over $30 billion by the commercial utilities to take-- free carbon neutral fuel-- off their hands and nearly a billion dollars a year to continue to do so.

The US government should simply temporarily store the spent fuel in fuel cask at Federally protected facilities in every state that produces spent fuel.

The Federal government could then start a program to gradually transport spent fuel from these facilities for reprocessing. The recovered U235 rich uranium could be enriched and sold back to commercial nuclear power facilities for fuel while the plutonium in the form of MOX could be used in Federally owned nuclear reactors such as those at the TVA to produce power.

Any residual nuclear waste could be temporarily stored at the reprocessing facilities until permanent deposition.

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