That question reverberated through a couple of hearings about the Department of Energy’s 2011 budget request and, up to now, has not received a very adequate answer. Energy Secretary Steven Chu has took a stab at it this week. At the House Science and Natural Resources committee yesterday and at the Senate Appropriate Committee’s Energy and Water subcommittee today, Chu faced some pretty insistent questions on this issue. We admit that we’re as curious as anyone on this.
We found that this exchange between Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Chu got to the heart of the argument and gave Chu enough room for a full answer (our transcript):
Sen. Patty Murray: Who was consulted in making the decision that Yucca Mountain is no longer a viable option?
Steven Chu: One has to go back and look at the entire history of the choice of Yucca Mountain, the Nuclear Waste Act, all those things. What one finds is that there are other things, other knowledge, other conditions that as they evolved made it look increasingly as not like an ideal choice.
PM: Was there scientific evidence that was used in determining this?
SC: It’s an unfolding of issues that continued, and I would be happy to talk to you about some of the issues, but the President has made it very clear that it is not an option.
PM: Was there any scientific evidence that was used?
SC: Well, let me give you one example. The conditions at Yucca Mountain changed. The Supreme Court ruling says that it is not 10,000 years, it could be up to a million years [that the repository must be certified as stable]. Then all of a sudden, that puts a new dimension on Yucca Mountain. Climate is hard to predict over a million years.
PM: For any site.
SC: Right. For any site.
PM: So why was Yucca Mountain different?
SC: There are other geological sites where we can do radioactive dating, and we know they are inherently stable. Let me give you one example. There is a salt dome site. These things have been around for tens of millions of year. The difference with the salt domes is, you stick radioactive waste in there and salt diffuses around it. Even though the continents have been drifting all around the globe, those things have been stable for tens of millions of years, up to hundreds of millions of years. That’s a very different type of site than Yucca Mountain, which has fissures and rock can be saturated with water if the climate changes.
So there you go. Even if the Blue Ribbon Commission on Used Nuclear Fuel suggests that a geologic repository is the way to go, Yucca Mountain will not suffice. Salt domes didn’t just spring to Chu’s mind. He talked about them in this interview in MIT’s Technology Review last year:
[O]ne could well imagine that for a certain classification for a certain type of waste, you don't want to have access to it anymore, so that means you could use different sites than Yucca Mountain, [such as] salt domes. Once you put it in there, the [salt] oozes around it. These are geologically stable for a 50 to 100 million year time scale. The trouble with those type of places for repositories is you don't have access to it anymore. But say for certain types of waste you don't want to have access to it anymore--that's good. It's a very natural containment.
Rep. Paul Broun (R-Ga.) said at the hearing that the decision on Yucca Mountain “appears to be politically motivated, not based on science.” You can find the hearing archived here; it really should be heard rather than read – Broun’s a real firebrand and quite entertaining when the flame isn’t pointed your way.
But Broun cannot do more than surmise and we should always try to work with the data we have – Congress can always do hearings if it thinks something is fishy enough to warrant them.
Now, we should make clear that these hearings were still mostly pretty polite – Congress people looking after the interests of their districts and states and Chu defending the budget’s requests for more money for this or less money for that.
Those legislators who chose to comment on the recent conditional loan guarantee commitment to Southern Co. or on increasing the loan guarantee authority to $54 billion were supportive of both. These seem non-controversial.
And a couple of legislators even agreed that Yucca Mountain should be closed – though they said their bit fast and moved on. The ones who were annoyed at this were really annoyed.
Steven Chu at the House hearing yesterday.